The legend of Bill Barilko

Bill Barilko is carried after scoring the winning overtime goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final...

Bill Barilko is carried after scoring the winning overtime goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final in 1951.

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:32 PM ET

When Anne Klisanich was given a new phone number after moving to the Toronto area years ago, she shivered to see that it ended in 05.

“I never asked for that,” said Bill Barilko’s sister of the famous five, the most hallowed of retired Maple Leaf numbers.

“But the coincidences never stop popping up with Bill, do they?”

The Leafs no doubt wish they were still playing on Thursday’s 60th anniversary of Barilko’s cup-winner against the Montreal Canadiens — “the last goal he ever scored” as the Tragically Hip song reminds fans at most home games.

“Bashing Bill” had movie-star looks and actually played some post-war minor-league hockey in Hollywood where the stars often dropped by to watch.

He was one of many Leafs plucked from small-town Canada bent on playing their hearts out for the famous franchise.

He also had a mischievous streak on the ice, often carrying the puck deep at a time when defencemen were supposed to be conservative.

“(Owner) Conn Smythe and (coach) Joe Primeau were always warning him about that,” laughed Klisanich.

“They kept saying they were going to fine him $500. Then he scored that big goal. There’s a good picture of them celebrating afterwards and the caption was something like ‘So, Mr. Smythe, you still want to fine me?’.”

Barilko moved up and fired at goalie Gerry McNeil of the Habs, tumbling forward as he released in what became an iconic hockey photo.

Each one of the five games in that series had gone to overtime.

But as the summer of celebration wound down, the free-spirit Barilko and dentist friend Henry Hudson, took a fateful fishing trip on a Fairchild float plane that Hudson piloted. Barilko’s mother Fay had a bad premonition about their plan to fly from Timmins to James Bay, but the avid outdoorsman Barilko was determined.

On the way back, their plane ran into trouble, deviated off course and crashed nose first into the muskeg.

The largest search in Canadian history was launched, covering 26,000 square km, amid hope Barilko was playing some elaborate practical joke.

Rumours began that the two were bootlegging alcohol, or secretly mining gold.

The most audacious tall tale was that Barilko, who was of Ukrainian descent, had gone to Russia on some secret government initiative to thaw relations with the Communists and teach them hockey.

When the 1951 Leafs’ training camp began, Barilko’s equipment was waiting in his stall, but reality finally set in.

A distraught Faye refused to believe the worst. She consulted amateur tea leaf reader Lillian Hurst, who had been a boarder at her home at the time Barilko played.

“She had a lot of faith in me, but I was not psychic,” Hurst recalled in 2004. “I just tried to be understanding to her.”

The plane wreckage remained undiscovered for 11 years, until June 1962, when a bush pilot caught the sun reflecting off something silver, about 100 km north of Cochrane. He circled and dropped a roll of tissue paper to mark the spot.

His subsequent search found Barilko and Hudson still strapped in their seats.

“It was a hard time for my mother, who was put on sedatives at the time,” Klisanich recalled. “But I told her, ‘at least now we know and can rest in peace’.”

In the 11 years of uncertainty regarding Barilko’s fate, the Leafs suffered what was then their longest cup drought.

“I think it was Frank Mahovlich who first made the connection and said ‘holy cow, it’s because they found Bill’,” Klisanich said.

Gone at age 24, Barilko became an instant legend, but the Leafs lost a fun-loving teammate, while his family suffered the greatest loss of all.

“Bill was a modest, very humble, wonderful man, with a smile for anyone, on and off the ice,” Klisanich said.

“He was fearless, fast and could throw a nifty bodycheck. He could almost skate backwards as well as forward.

“When he was missing and I wasn’t sure what to do with a big scrapbook of his newspaper headlines my mother said ‘don’t ever let them go. Bill will be famous again one day’.”

Barilko biographer Kevin Shea recently uncovered a rare 78 rpm recording that Barilko and his brother, Alex, made in 1946 when Barolko was in Hollywood and Alex played for the rival Oakland Oaks.

It was a greeting for their mother and is the only known recording of his voice (it can be heard on barilko.ca).

Klisanich has been invited back to the ACC often by the Leafs, the last time before a game in March with his ‘51 Cup teammate Howie Meeker.

She says her heart still races every time she looks up at his banner.

His grave in Timmins remains a popular stop for hockey fans, many of whom leave a puck with a Leaf logo.


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