Canadians have struggled with finding a national identity since the day the country set out on its own. Stuck somewhere in between the United States and Great Britain, many of us Canucks have a hard time saying what makes us unlike everyone else. With Canada, the mind tends to go to clichés. Maple syrup. “I’m sorry.” Hockey. While these overused identifiers can cause many Canadians to bristle, they’re hard to deny. Maple syrup is made from our most obvious national symbol. It’s no secret that Canadians tend to value politeness more than most. And despite Canada’s small population, it’s still the world’s #1 producer of hockey players—at least for the time being.
There’s no denying it, hockey and Canada are entwined. Even Canadians who spurn the game remember Sidney Crosby’s 2010 golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics. They have the image of Bobby Orr soaring through the air burned into their memory.
They know about the disappearance of Bill Barilko, and the curse it laid on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Bill Barilko was born in the small town of Timmins, Ontario in 1927. His father died when he was just a young boy, and his mother had to raise three children by herself. Life was hard, and like so many Canadian kids from that time, Barilko found his escape on a frozen pond.
As a boy, Barilko didn’t exactly look like a future-NHLer—he could barely even skate. He was so bad at hockey that his friends relegated him to the goal, and anyone who’s sat shivering on the goal line for an hour during a frigid Canadian winter knows how miserable that can be.
Unsurprisingly, Bill hated playing goal—maybe that’s what inspired him to up his game. Eventually, his friends let him play defense, and that’s where he started to shine. He kept playing and improving until he made it to a minor league roster. He wasn’t exactly superstar material, but he was a solid, journeyman defenseman. Then, in 1947, his life changed forever.
Hitting the Big Time
In February 1947, Bill was playing for the Hollywood Wolves when he got traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ minor league team in Pittsburgh. Not the big leagues yet, but it was a step in the right direction. Who knows how long he would have been stuck in the minors, but while he was on a plane to Steel City, one of the Leafs’ defensemen went down with an injury.
Almost as soon as his plane landed, Bill hopped on a train north to Toronto. He put on the Leafs’ blue and white not long after, and he wouldn’t take them off for the rest of his career. Barilko was in the NHL, and he was there to stay.
Barilko didn’t wow fans with flashy moves, nor did he rack up the points, but Leafs fans loved him nonetheless. He was tall, blonde, and handsome, quickly becoming one of Toronto’s most eligible bachelors. Photographers loved snapping pictures of the young, dashing Barilko alongside any pretty girl they could find.
Hidden away in scrapbooks, you can find adoring fan mail and even smitten Valentine Cards, all sent in for “Bashin’ Bill.” It didn’t matter that Bill wasn’t lighting the lamp that often, fans loved him—which only made his tragic fate all the more heartbreaking.
Bill Barilko’s tenure with the Leafs was long before their now-infamous streak of futility. He was a part of four Stanley Cup-winning teams, hoisting the trophy in 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1951—but the last was definitely the most memorable.
In game five of the 1951 Finals, Barilko abandoned his blue line and drove towards the net in overtime. He sent a backhand past Montreal Canadiens goaltender Gerry McNeil and into the net, giving his team their fourth cup in five years.
Bashin’ Bill, the fan-favorite plug, was finally the hero. His teammates lifted him over their shoulders. Fans swarmed the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens. The goal was the pinnacle of Barilko’s career. It was also the last one he’d ever score.
After the celebrations ended, Barilko went back north to visit his family. As he was getting ready to head back to the Big Smoke, a family friend invited him on a fishing trip at the last minute. They’d fly up to the serene wilderness of Northern Quebec for a few days, and Bill would come back refreshed and ready for the hustle-bustle of the hockey season.
Bill’s mother begged him not to go, but he told her she was just being paranoid. The 24-year-old conquering hero of the NHL left Timmins on August 26, 1951—and was never seen again.
Without a Trace
Barilko’s disappearance caused a shockwave in the Canadian media, and quickly a massive search-and-rescue operation was underway. The Royal Canadian Air Force sent out planes to scour the forests in the hopes of finding Barilko and his friend.
But the wilderness of Northern Ontario and Quebec is vast. The RCAF spent two months “practically looking under every twig.” They flew low, covering 78,000 square km and spending the equivalent of $3.7 million today, but they came up with nothing.
As the years passed, rumors about Barilko’s fate began to spread like wildfire. Did he secretly defect from his country and flee to Russia, where he was teaching Commies how to play hockey? Had he turned to a life of crime, smuggling gold out of Northern Ontario by plane? Until anyone found a trace of him, who could say?
Maple Leafs fans mourned the loss of their hero—but they were in for even more heartache, as their beloved club began to falter. After winning four cups in five years, the buds entered a prolonged dry-spell. They didn’t win in 1952, nor in 1953. In fact, over a decade passed without the blue and white lifting the cup.
Finally, in 1962, the Leafs defeated the Chicago Blackhawks four games to two, winning hockey’s ultimate prize for the first time in 11 years. Fans paraded in the streets of Toronto. Eerily, the Leafs hadn’t won since the disappearance of Bill Barilko, but it seemed if there had been a curse, it was finally lifted.
As it turns out, that was truer than anyone realized.
In early June, less than two months after the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended, a helicopter pilot flying north of Cochrane, Ontario, spotted a strange gleam among the trees—the glint of metal.
Soon after, searchers trekked to that spot on foot and found a Fairchild 24 airplane lying in a swamp. The wings were torn clean off, the cabin was badly burned, and still strapped into seats, they found two skeletons. Bill Barilko had been found at last.
I Stole This From a Hockey Card
Maybe not every Canadian knew this sad tale, but in 1992, the Tragically Hip released their song “Fifty-Mission Cap.” With it, singer Gord Downie, one of the most iconic chroniclers of the Canadian experience, ensured that Barilko’s disappearance became a part of the Great White North’s history.
Was it a coincidence? Probably. But sports are about storytelling, and the way Barilko’s fate seemed tied to the Leafs is one heck of a story.
Today, Maple Leafs fans are wallowing in a drought that has lasted over half a decade; it’s the longest of any team in the NHL. But if they actually get to go see their beloved hockey team—which is difficult, seeing as tickets at the Scotia Bank Arena are some of the most expensive in the league—they’ll see Barilko’s banner hanging in the rafters. They’ll also likely hear this tune echoing across the ice.
“Each is a reminder of Bill’s triumph and tragedy.
Bill Barilko disappeared that summer
He was on a fishing trip
The last goal he ever scored
Won the Leafs the cup
They didn’t win another ’til nineteen-sixty-two
The year he was discovered.”
“Fifty-Mission Cap,” The Tragically Hip