The Toronto Maple Leafs were arguably the class of the hockey world in the late 1940s and early 1950s and a blueliner named Bill Barilko enjoyed tremendous success on a roster filled with Hall of Fame talent. While his story is one filled with both triumph and tragedy, the bruising defender has an important legacy among card collectors in addition to being a part of Canada’s cultural fabric.
Hailing from Timmins, Ontario, Barilko came into this world on March 25, 1927 and honed his skills with local clubs before catching the eye of Toronto Maple Leafs scouts, who signed him to an agreement known as a C Form. Turning pro at the age of 18, he did not take a more conventional route with a minor pro league like the AHL and instead headed west to skate for the Hollywood Wolves of the Pacific Coast Hockey League. Already regarded as a physical force on the ice, he racked up 103 penalty minutes in the 1945-46 campaign and spent much of the following season there before getting called up by the Maple Leafs.
On Feb. 6, 1947, he debuted in a loss to the Montreal Canadiens and followed it up two days later with his first career goal that sealed a 5-2 victory over the Boston Bruins. Over 18 games that year, he only needed to drop the gloves once in regular season play and squared off with Grant Warwick of the New York Rangers on Feb. 22 and enjoyed a three-point night (one goal and two assists) on March 8 as the Leafs destroyed the Chicago Black Hawks (then the spelling) by a 12-4 margin.
Barilko’s first foray into playoff action was a memorable one. In the opening round, Toronto was matched up with the Detroit Red Wings, who had a rookie named Gordie Howe on their roster. The Leafs needed just five games to move on to the Stanley Cup Final, and it was an all-Canadian affair against Montreal. After dropping the series opener, Barilko was one of the heroes of Game 2 as he set up Ted Kennedy’s winning goal and earned an assist on another by Gaye Stewart. Toronto captured the Cup in six and it marked the beginning of a dynasty.
In 1947-48, the Maple Leafs dominated the competition during regular season play and Barilko was the muscle as he paced all NHL players with 147 penalty minutes. Over 57 games, he also chipped in 14 points. Additionally, he appeared in the NHL All-Star Game for the first time as the tradition in this era was for the defending champions to face the biggest names from the rest of the league. The playoffs were once again a relative cakewalk for the Maple Leafs as they needed five games to take out Boston before sweeping Detroit for a second straight title. Barilko scored the winner and created a 3-0 lead in the Bruins series and dropped the gloves against Fern Gauthier in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Early Barilko Collectibles
Kids across Canada were also able to get their hands on a couple of cool collectibles featuring Bashin’ Bill in the form of photos from Beehive Corn Syrup and Quaker Oats. While there was only one standard shot of Barilko available through the Beehive promotion over the course of his career, there were some variants with the larger Quaker Oats pictures. These can be found with either the blue home jersey or the white road sweater, with the blue version seeing the printed signature found in two different spots. During this era, Exhibit photos could also be purchased and come with or without borders.
Barilko continued to be a checking specialist in 1948-49 and was able to rein in his time spent in the sin bin. While his production dipped to nine points, he ranked second in the league with two shorthanded goals. A third straight championship was in the books as well, with Toronto repeating their path from the previous year by eliminating Boston and Detroit.
The 1949-50 season was Barilko’s offensive peak as he put up seven goals and 10 assists along with skating in his third, and final, NHL All-Star Game. During regular season play, he potted winning goals against the Rangers and Bruins. When it came to the playoffs, though, the rising Red Wings needed seven games to knock out the Maple Leafs, but Barilko looked great in Game 1 as he set up Joe Klukay’s winner just 10 seconds into the second period before scoring one of his own a few minutes later.
Looking to avenge their untimely elimination from the playoffs, the Maple Leafs managed a second place finish behind Detroit in 1950-51. Defensively, they were the NHL’s best club and surrendered less than two goals per game and Barilko’s efforts were an important part of that success. On the attack, he delivered six goals and six assists, including a two-goal night against Boston on Feb. 24, 1951.
Facing the Bruins again in the first round of playoff action, Barilko was tough to contain. In Game 2, he scored the only goal for Toronto and was assessed with 21 penalty minutes before the contest went into overtime. Strangely, the game was called a tie due to curfew. Barilko scored again in Game 4 and in the deciding Game 6, he set up a goal by Klukay as part of a decisive 6-0 shutout by Turk Broda.
The Stanley Cup Final saw Toronto clash with Montreal, who had defeated Detroit. Evenly matched throughout the series, each game needed overtime to declare a winner. After splitting the first two outings, the Maple Leafs refused to be denied another shot at Lord Stanley’s Mug. Game 3 in Montreal saw local fans go home disappointed as Kennedy sealed the deal at the 4:47 mark of extra time and Harry Watson played hero on the road in Game 4. Returning to Toronto on April 21 with a chance to end the series, the legendary Maurice Richard opened the scoring for the Habs before Tod Sloan tied it up at 12:00 of the first period. Montreal regained the lead early in the third thanks for Paul Meger, but Sloan engineered some late heroics and forced a tie with 32 seconds left in regulation. What followed has become part of hockey’s historical fabric as the Leafs came out hard and pressed in the Canadiens’ zone. With the puck being sent back his way, Barilko capitalized and got it past Gerry McNeil to give Toronto its fourth Stanley Cup in five years.
In the post-game dressing room celebration covered at the time by Ken McKenzie of The Hockey News, Barilko remarked: “That goal was a long time coming for me but It sure was worth waiting for.”
Disappearance Creates a Famous Hockey Card
Riding high after so much success, Barilko headed back home for some rest and relaxation before getting ready for the next season. No one could have expected that he would never be back in a Maple Leafs uniform, though, after he went on a fateful fishing trip. Along with a dentist named Henry Hudson, they flew to northern Quebec on August 26, taking a floatplane for the weekend excursion. They would not return and were soon declared missing. A young prospect named Tim Horton would step in on Toronto’s blue line, and he remained with the team until 1970.
While only a handful of facts are available regarding the creation of the 1951-52 Parkhurst set, it is easy to think that the company had a dilemma to face while building the checklist. Since Barilko’s fate was not determined and he was considered missing, George Kennedy and his staff didn’t give the bruising defender a stand-alone card like the other Maple Leafs.
Since the photos they were using were almost exclusively from Toronto-based Akexandra Studios and taken by the sibling duo of Lou and Nat Turofsky, there was luckily a famous shot of Barilko in mid-air and flipping the puck past McNeil.
Regarded as one of the most significant hockey photos of all-time, it has taken on a mythic status over the past few decades.
The end result was one of the most important hockey cards ever made, simply called The Winning Goal. Slipped in as card number 52, the photo was zoomed in and given a primitive color treatment along with some basic text. Measuring half the size of a contemporary trading card, The Winning Goal can be incredibly tough to find in high grades for a variety of reasons outside of age and normal wear and tear that is expected for cards of that vintage. You can at least find a few on eBay. After the cards were printed, the collation process was something that would make modern collectors cringe as they were thrown into a cement mixer and packed out by hand! In later years, the card would have standard-sized reprints in Parkhurst releases.
The Maple Leafs went into a slow decline following Barilko’s disappearance and it would take years to return to contention. By the 1958-59 season, the were in the mix once again for the Stanley Cup, but could not get past Montreal’s impressive dynasty that won five straight. In 1961-62, the Leafs were able to once again hoist the silver mug, and on June 6 of that year, Barilko’s body would be discovered about 100 kilometres north of Cochrane, Ontario.
Around the same time that Barilko’s body was discovered, another card was issued featuring the winning goal as part of the 1962 Wheaties Great Moments in Canadian Sport set, but it would be another 30 years before collectors had anything of note to add to their hoards.
Song Gives New Life to Barilko Story
With the NHL celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1991, licensees of all types were getting in on the nostalgia and opportunities to profit from the game’s lush history. One of the first items of this type to hit the market was the first series of 1991-92 Pro Set as it included a large subset featuring figures from the game’s past with cooperation from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s photo archive.
The result was seemingly innocuous at first as the full Turofsky photo appeared on the front of a card with no title at all. Flipping it over, it simply had the title of Bill Barilko with the subhead of The End of the Innocence. While it seems unlikely that it was a slight nod to a Don Henley song, it instead made an unexpected cultural impact a year later thanks to a Canadian rock band called The Tragically Hip.
While hockey and music fans north of the border and intimately familiar with the lyrics of Fifty Mission Cap, only in Canada could a hit song revolve around the death and disappearance of a hockey player – let alone make reference to a hockey card!
Found on the album Fully Completely, which released in early October, 1992, Fifty Mission Cap is the ninth track and was written by the Kingston, Ontario-based band’s frontman, Gord Downie. It was the second single released behind Locked in the Trunk of a Car and started to get strong radio play in January, 1993. With the opening line of “Bill Barilko disappeared last summer…”, Downie adapted the text of the back of the Pro Set card slightly during his writing process and put in the line of “I stole this from a hockey card I keep tucked under my fifty-mission cap.”
Reaching number 40 on Canada’s RPM Magazine charts, it received constant play in the years that followed and still is a fixture on classic rock radio and other formats in Canada. The Maple Leafs also embraced the tune, putting up a framed piece featuring Downie’s hand-written lyrics and a photo of the winning goal in their dressing room. As a weird personal aside, I was standing in front of it while covering the World Cup of Hockey back in 2004 as the Canadian squad used the home dressing room for games played in Toronto. Turning to my left, I saw Downie walking by and got a brief interview with him while also realizing the odd serendipity that was going on around me.
Fifty Mission Cap certainly helped the Barilko story remain part of Canada’s cultural fiber (or in the King’s English, fibre) and The Tragically Hip made it a concert staple. As Downie battled brain cancer (glioblastoma) and the band wrapped up their final tour with a nationally-broadcast event at the K-Rock Centre in Kingston on Aug. 20, 2016, they opened with this emotional show with this song.
Sadly, Downie passed away a little over a year later at the age of 53, but his legacy lives on beyond the world of music thanks to a charitable foundation he established, The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Foundation. With the aim of supporting reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, it was inspired by Wenjack’s tragic story as he was a 12-year-old that died from hunger and exposure in 1966 while running away from a residential school in Northern Ontario. Downie’s solo album, Secret Path, and its related projects such as a graphic novel illustrated by Jeff Lemire and an animated film continue to help raise awareness and funds.
The Rookie Card Debate
In the early 2000s, the 50th anniversary of Barilko’s goal and the 40th anniversary of his body’s discovery ramped up public interested once again. A second biography by Kevin Shea (the first having been written by John Melady in the 1980s) unraveled some of the mystery for readers and hockey card maker In The Game saw a chance to capitalize on the nostalgia.
In 2002-03 Be A Player Ultimate Memorabilia, we saw the first Barilko game-used memorabilia cards as pieces of his skate were put into the Blades of Steel set. A Paper Cuts card bearing a cut signature was a one-of-one treasure and was regarded as one of the best potential pulls out of packs. Production of Barilko cards ramped up the next year as he was featured in several of the company’s releases and given a standalone card in the Maple Leafs-themed version of 2003-04 Parkhurst Original Six.
Despite the fact that this card could be considered a rookie card, a hobby publication decided to give the tag to the earlier Pro Set version more than a decade after that’s card’s release since they felt the Parkhurst set was somehow not a conventional release. The rationale for the decision is up to interpretation from either side, but there was (and still is) some debate and discussion among hobbyists at the time as to what Barilko’s true rookie card is.
Pieces of a game-used Barilko stick began appearing among In The Game products in 2005-06, starting in that year’s Vintage Lumber set in Ultimate Memorabilia. All of the Vintage Lumber cards that year had a stick as part of the design, and the one used in the photo that was taken was the Barilko twig before it was chopped. Using this as part of the design was an idea from your humble author, who was working there at the time.
Over the years that followed, In The Game made many Barilko cards, but Upper Deck made their first in 2008-09 as part of that season’s widely-loved Masterpieces product. Panini did some one-of-one cards of Barilko in 2011-12 Dominion while Leaf has produced many since taking over the In The Game’s brands in 2014-15.
An Enduring Legacy
The world loves stories of talented people that tragically pass away at a young age and Barilko’s tale is one that continues to resonate with hockey fans. On cardboard, collectors have the opportunity to own part of his legacy and the mythic status of the winning goal and his death ensure that it will remain relevant for years to come. While the prices for his memorabilia can often be quite expensive, there are thankfully some cheaper items like the Pro Set card which are quite accessible.
Another big question remains over 70 years after Barilko’s untimely death is simply, “what if?” Considering the impact he had on the game in a short period, one has to wonder if a longer career would have put him into consideration for enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He certainly had plenty of top-level skill and that mixture of toughness and defensive acumen had not even peaked. Offensively, his numbers were typical for a blueliner of the era and it is possible that he could have panned out much like a Leo Boivin or Jack Stewart.