When a revered hockey franchise is more than a century old, how do you decide which goal was the most important and historic one ever scored?
As with all things in sports: arbitrarily, of course. But I’m not sure there should be much debate, because, seven decades later, we’re still talking about the goal Bill Barilko scored, pinching in from the point and leaping to backhand the puck over helpless Canadiens goaltender Gerry McNeil in overtime to win the 1951 Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For a slightly younger generation, the most iconic Cup-winning goal ever is the one Bobby Orr, flying through the air, scored for the Boston Bruins against the St. Louis Blues in 1970. That was a beauty, to be sure. But Barilko did the same thing, almost two decades earlier. It just wasn’t on television.
Barilko scored the goal 70 years ago today in a unique final series. Every game went into overtime — something that had never happened before and hasn’t happened since. The Leafs prevailed in five games to win their fourth Cup in five years. Yes, for you younger readers, there was a time when the Leafs were the NHL’s greatest dynasty.
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Future Leafs general manager Gerry McNamara, then a 16-year-old St. Michael’s College student, attended the game at Maple Leaf Gardens that night. He got a standing-room-only pass from someone at St. Mike’s and watched the game “standing in the south blues,” he said. “The goal happened right before my eyes.”
McNamara, now 86, loved the fact that fellow St. Mike’s alum Tod Sloan scored both of Toronto’s regulation-time goals — including the tying goal with 32 seconds left in the third period — to send the game to overtime.
Coincidentally enough, McNamara went on to compete for a goaltending job in the late 1950s with the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans. His prime competition was the same Gerry McNeil who’d allowed Barilko’s goal.
“And, no, I never did talk about that goal with him!” McNamara laughed. “That wouldn’t have been nice.” (McNeil got the roster spot, incidentally.)
The goal has taken on mystical significance because, four months after he’d scored it, 24-year-old “Bashin’ Bill” Barilko went on a fishing trip with his dentist to northern Quebec — although his superstitious mother, Fay, had warned him not to. On the way back, their small plane went off course and crashed. It would not be discovered for more than a decade.
Incredibly, the dynastic Leafs didn’t win another Stanley Cup for 11 years — not until 1962, which, coincidentally, was the same year the wreckage of Barilko’s plane crash was finally and quite accidentally discovered.
The whole story is just so eerie.
Ever since the pandemic hit, a group of dedicated hockey fans has gathered online to discuss great, historic moments in the sport. They call it “Hockey Time Machine,” and, last week, many people associated with the Barilko story gathered to remember what was first a magic, then a tragic, moment in Leaf history.
One of them was Frank Klisanich, whose mother, Anne, was Barilko’s younger sister. Klisanich, who was born two months after Barilko’s overtime goal, remembered that, when he was growing up, the family never discussed his uncle’s disappearance.
“As long as he wasn’t found, my grandmother held out hope that he was still alive,” Klisanich said. “She just kept hoping.”
On June 6, 1962, a helicopter pilot accidentally discovered the wreckage of Barilko’s small plane 100 kilometres north of Cochrane. Klisanich’s family was living in London at the time.
“We got the call,” he said, “and that finally closed the chapter.”
Klisanich, who has lived in Minnesota for the past 25 years, has an enlarged photo in his rec room of the greatest goal his uncle ever scored. His mother was the unofficial family archivist, keeping myriad articles about her brother in scrapbooks and even volunteering at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Before her death in 2013, she told her son, “Frank, please take responsibility for Bill’s legacy.”
“I do the best I can,” Klisanich said. “I’m so proud of my uncle.”
David McNeil was always proud of his father as well. After all, 1951 represented the first of 10 consecutive seasons that the Habs went to the Stanley Cup final, and Gerry McNeil backstopped the team in many of them. David says his father once told him, “You don’t always win when you play your best,” and that was surely the case 70 years ago today. The Leafs dominated the game, but it was McNeil’s fine play that kept the Habs in it.
And, yet, David acknowledged it used to bug his father to be known as “the goalie in the Barilko picture,” particularly when Leaf fans would approach him and ask him to autograph that shot. But, happily, in the McNeil household, April 21, 1951, is better remembered as the day McNeil’s wife gave birth to Karen, David’s sister.
After Barilko scored the goal, his teammates immediately surrounded him and revelled in
his accomplishment. At the same moment, a 16-year-old high-school student from Hamilton jumped on to the ice and retrieved the puck from the net. He took it home, mounted it on a plaque, and through the years, kept it on an office shelf. This was decades before sports memorabilia had become an obsession for collectors.
“We had no inkling the puck was all that significant,” said Brian, Harry Donohue’s son, now a lab technologist at Brantford General Hospital. “In fact, we’d take it off the plaque and play hockey with it ourselves.”
The Donohue family has kept the puck and says it can prove it’s the real one. This is of some importance, because the Hockey Hall of Fame has a different puck on display and claims (at least publicly) that it’s got the real one. (Privately, hockey folks suspect the Hall knows it’s got the wrong one.)
Evidence would seem to support the Donohues’s claim. The logo on the puck in the Hall of Fame is one the NHL stopped using in the 1940s. The logo on the Donohues’s puck wasn’t used until 1950.
“My father always used say, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you we haven’t got the real puck,’” Brian said. Talks with the Hall of Fame to resolve the issue have so far proved fruitless.
Another reason the Barilko goal has proved so iconic over the years: well, you can thank one of Canada’s best musical groups for that. In 1993, the Tragically Hip released “Fifty Mission Cap,” whose opening lyrics retell the grim events of 1951:
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 till 1962
The year he was discovered
Twenty years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the goal, the Maple Leafs held a pre-game ceremony at centre ice at the (then-named ) Air Canada Centre. Members of the Tragically Hip presented Anne, Barilko’s sister, with the framed lyrics of Fifty Mission Cap, penned in Gord Downie's hand. The song blasted through the arena and brought the Leaf faithful to their feet. It was an unforgettable moment.
“I’d say that song brought the story of Bill Barilko to a whole new generation,” said Frank Klisanich.
Anne’s first encounter with the Hip was downright comical. She showed up to the Hershey Centre in Mississauga (where she lived at the time) because she’d heard that the band had written a song about her brother. She showed up several hours before the band was scheduled to play, hoping to meet the group and learn more. Eventually, she convinced security to usher her backstage, and she did, in fact, meet the band.
“When they invited her to stay for the concert,” Frank said, “she answered, ‘Oh, I can’t. I’ve gotta get home and make supper for my husband.’” Which she did.
The hockey world’s prime collector of Barilko memorabilia is Mark Fera, who lives in Brampton. Fera estimates he’s got 150 hockey-related pieces, including the only known ticket from Game 5 of the 1951 Stanley Cup final, Barilko’s own 1951 Stanley Cup championship ring, a pair of the defenceman’s skates, and the log book from the pilot who found the crash site — not to mention dozens of autographed photos.
Fera is such a Barilko aficionado, he actually made the trek to northern Ontario with some friends, went to the crash site, and retrieved a piece of the plane’s fuselage, which he now displays in his basement. “We played ‘Fifty Mission Cap’ and hoisted a beer for Bill on the site,” said Fera, who’s trying to organize an exhibition of his wares to raise money for charity.
The best account of Barilko’s life was penned by author Kevin Shea, who has at least 20 books about hockey to his name. Barilko: Without a Trace came out in 2010. I asked Kevin, given that he’s become an expert on Barilko’s life, how desperately he wishes he could have met him.
“More than you have any idea,” he said, brimming with emotion. “I felt like I knew him. I got to know so much about him. In many ways, I’ve felt part of his family.”
When the bodies of Barilko and his pilot were found in 1962, they were repatriated to Timmins, where a proper burial finally took place. Many of Barilko’s Maple Leaf teammates were there. The gravesite remains an important monument to the all-too-brief life of one of that city’s most historic figures.
Was Barilko’s goal really the most significant in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs? Well, I’m all ears. You tell me a bigger one, and I’ll listen. But I bet you can’t.
Rest in peace Bashin’ Bill. You became a legend 70 years ago today.
And you still are.