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Throwback Thursdays – “I Stole This From a Hockey Card”

“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer…”

The story of one of the Tragically Hip’s most iconic songs – and one of hockey’s most memorable moments and photographs – was “stolen” from a hockey card remembering a celebration-turned-tragedy and spun into a story by Gord Downie.

The tragedy was that of Bill Barilko, an up-and-coming star on the Toronto Maple Leafs who patrolled the blue line for the team in the post-WWII years.

Bill Barilko, a young a promising defenceman with the Leafs.

Bill Barilko was born on May 5, 1927 in Timmins, which is located in northern Ontario. His father died young and his mother was left to raise him and his two siblings, including his brother Alex. He was originally put in net when he played hockey, but he hated standing around in the cold and moved to defence, where the Timmins Daily Press (Note: all press clippings are from Barilko’s sister, Anne, and originally printed in an article by Stephen Brunt) noticed his early skills:

A press clipping from the Timmins Daily Press in Barilko’s younger years.

Not only was Barilko a solid person on the ice, but off of the ice he developed an air of leadership and respect as well. Another clipping form the Timmins Daily Press tells of the time he saved a friend who had fallen through the ice:

Barilko would go on to earn such a reputation that he was able to ply his trade in Hollywood as a young professional, joining the Hollywood Wolves of the PCHL’s circuit. He would record an impressive 103 penalty minutes in 38 games as a rookie and earn the nickname “Bashin’ Bill.”

He would go on to play another 47 games with the Wolves the following season before an injury in the Leafs’ lineup forced Conn Smythe to make the call to call-up Barilko. He would never play a game outside of the NHL ever again.

Barilko would go on to record 456 penalty minutes in 252 games for the Leafs over the following five seasons. This included four Stanley Cups in his five NHL seasons. The last Cup was in his final game.

After an unprecedented Stanley Cup Finals series in which each game went to overtime, the Leafs prevailed over the NHL’s first 500 gaol scorer, Maurice Richard, and the Montreal Canadiens. This was after the Leafs tied the game late in the third, setting the stage for Barilko to score the OT winner in game five, giving Toronto a 4-1 series win.

“…The last goal he ever scored
won the Leafs the Cup..”


Bill Barilko’s famous Cup-winning overtime goal against Gerry McNeil and the Montreal Canadiens.


One of the greatest NHLers of all-time and his opponent in the 1951 Cup Finals, Richard, remembered Barilko and the goal fondly:

“He was very tough and aggressive and his spirit and hard hitting made him a valuable player for the Leafs. He always managed to get a piece of you as you went by and he left many a bump on plenty of players. I suppose the two most clear memories I have of him are the overtime goal and his heavy checking.”

“…He was on a fishing trip…”

Barilko was celebrated in Toronto as a hero and champion but after a few days he returned home to Timmins to enjoy his summer. Barilko loved fishing and was offered a chance to travel north to James Bay via plane by his friend, dentist and pilot, Dr. Henry Hudson. Hudson’s friend Archie Chenier was originally supposed to be the one going on the trip, but had to back out at the last second leaving the seat open for Barilko.

Another press clipping from Anne Barilko’s scrapbook was an article that showed Barilko’s mom’s fears and warnings about the fateful trip up north.


Faye Barilko “would rather die” than have seen Bill go on the trip up north.

Barilko would never return home.

After a successful fishing trip (fish skeletons were found in the pontoon of the plane), Barilko and Dr. Hudson boarded their Fairchild 24 single-engine plane but disappeared somewhere between Rupert House and Timmins.

“They wouldn’t win another
until 1962
the year he was discovered”

When Barilko and Dr. Hudson didn’t return to Timmins on time, police launched the largest search and rescue operation in Canadian history that cost over $3 million in today’s money. However, with the limited equipment in the early 1950s, the plane and its passengers was not able to be spotted.

It wasn’t until June 9th, 1962 – a full 11 years after it went missing –  that bush pilot Gary Fields came across the wreckage of a Fairchild 24 and reported it to the authorities. Eventually, the cause of the crash was deemed to have been a combination of pilot inexperience, poor weather and overloaded cargo.

Newspaper photo of the wrecked plane, discovered 11 years after it went missing.

Barilko and Hudson’s bodies were recovered in 1962 (when the Leafs next Stanley Cup win happened), but the wreckage was only brought back to Timmins a full 60 years after the crash in 2011 – with Archie Chenier and a select group there to say a prayer and see its return home.

“I stole this from a hockey card”

The overtime goal would become Barilko’s defining moment. A moment that became one of the most celebrated moments in Leafs’ history, but also was the precursor to a tragedy that haunted the team for over a decade and inspired a hockey card that lead to Downie’s creation of the Canadian classic “50 Mission Cap” that I’ve quoted throughout this story.

The idea of the song was about a pilot’s 50 Mission Cap, a hat pilots and crew who had flown 50 missions received. Other crew and pilots who did not have their 50 Mission Caps would wear down the sides of their caps and tuck old pieces of cardboard or cards into the front of the hat to give it the distinctive appearance of the 50 Mission Cap.

As Cory Graff from the Seattle Museum of Flight explains:

“…Here’s the little detail that might be important to part of the song… It was cool to have the sides of your hat all smashed. But it was very uncool to have the front droop down or collapse. As a result, many of these guys put in a piece of cardboard or a playing card on the inside in the front to keep it all going upward. So this hockey card (doing a bit of time travel I guess) is worked into the front of the 50 mission cap as a stiffener.”

An US Army Air Corps 50 Mission Cap, with the trademark tall and firm front.

So the Hip and Downie’s lyrics make a heckuva lot more sense in that context:

“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 until 1962,
the year he was discovered.
I stole this from a hockey card,
I keep tucked up under

My 50 Mission Cap”

The pilots cap has also be

The card Downie is referring to is a specific card featuring Barilko’s story Pro Set’s 1991-92 commutative card featuring the moment the puck went in, with Barilko diving through his shot.

The front of the card that Downie based the song on.
The back of the card. You can see some similarities between the card’s words on Downie’s lyrics, specifically the las two sentences.

The card prompted Downie to do some research at Toronto’s archives on Barilko and he came up with “50 Mission Cap,” to tie in the story of a pilot wearing a 50 Mission Cap that this card is tucked into, while simultaneously telling the story of the card and Barilko at the same time. It has even been said Downie was referring to the pilot being one of the search and rescue pilots flying over Northern Ontario looking for the plane crash site.

Regardless of the 50 Mission Cap tie-in, the song about Barilko has inspired many hockey fans to remember and cherish Barilko long after his death. His memory may have faded otherwise, as Barilko biographer Kevin Shea says:

“Gord Downie’s lyrics and the song Fifty Mission Cap are the main reason Bill is still remembered in 2017.”

Barilko being carried around the ice after his Cup-winning goal in 1951. The last goal he ever scored.
Steve Auld

Steve Auld

My name is Steve and I am from the very noble Auld clan of Niagara, where we respect our elders and follow the golden rules: elbows up, and keep your stick on the ice. When not tearing up beer league or ball hockey, I enjoy the occasional downtime I have with my fiancée and son. Love me some music too, all kinds. If you feel I did a good job or you want to argue, feel free to leave a comment!
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