It is a hockey story that helps defines the heritage of Northern Ontario and Canada. The Tragically Hip and Gord Downey captured the essence within the lyrics in the song Fifty Mission Cap.
The Bill Barilko legend is now featured in this month’s prestigious magazine Hockey News and will be in an upcoming heritage book. Ronne Shuker is the author of both. He recently interviewed Back Roads Bill and the Barilko segment will be part of his 2024 book The Country and the Game.
He is an editor for the periodical, it was founded in Montreal in 1947 by Ken McKenzie and Will Cote. It is the second-oldest publication in North America devoted to one sport, following only Ring Magazine (a boxing-based publication), which was founded in 1922. It is the most recognized hockey publication in North America. The magazine's website counts two million total readers.
If you are not familiar with Barilko, here is the storyline in brief. It was the mysterious disappearance of an up-and-coming hockey star who scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for the Leafs over the Montreal Canadiens in the 1951 cup finals.
Four months and five days later, Barilko departed on a fishing trip in a small, single-engine airplane with friend and dentist, Henry Hudson. The plane disappeared between Rupert House and Timmins, leaving no trace of ‘Bashin Bill’ Barilko or Hudson.
It was a headline story for weeks and the beginning of a legend with much conjecture.
Eleven years later, on June 7, 1962, helicopter pilot Ron Boyd discovered the plane wreckage roughly 100 kilometres (62 mi) north of Cochrane, far beyond the original search area. Barilko was finally buried in his hometown the same year that the Maple Leafs won their next Stanley Cup.
In 2017, TSN aired the short documentary film The Mission, profiling a project to recover the remaining wreckage of Barilko's plane. The film took its title from Fifty Mission Cap. There’s more from a lecture by the author of the book, Without a Trace, Kevin Shea.
The Timmins community has taken a great interest in the legend and there’s now a welcoming Bill Barilko highway billboard sign and leaf fans continue to visit his headstone and leave hockey memorabilia.
It is an honour to be part of the Hockey News article and the upcoming book so, in the interest of different perspectives, a counter-interview is in order. Why are others interested in Bill Barilko?
Shuker reached the crash site this past Nov. 15, by helicopter, while bushwhacking through the remaining short distance; the dense boreal forest was a formidable opponent for about two hours.
Ronnie started with, “I read your Village Media column on your polar bear encounter shortly after we chatted on the phone and made a note to include it in my feature, most definitely. And your journey to the northern boundary. Wow. What an adventure! I've always been fascinated with tales from the North. I think that's one reason why the Barilko story has taken such hold of me.”
Shuker is driving through all 13 provinces and territories (well, flying to Nunavut), telling stories related to hockey. “I finished up the Eastern Canada portion of the road trip before Christmas, and am now on the Western Canada part of the trip. In all, it's about 30,000 miles of driving.”
While I am not a hockey fan per se, I asked him about the purpose of doing this story.
“Shortly before the pandemic, I’d written an article for the Hockey News about a cross-country hockey road trip. It included a stop in Timmins. There I spoke with one of the people who went in to retrieve the wreckage in October 2011. That’s when the Barilko story really took hold of me. I read, watched and listened to anything I could get a hold of.
“The deeper I dove into the story, the more I wanted to see the crash site for myself. In November, I was finally able to arrange a flight with Chad Calaiezzi at Expedition Helicopters, who had hauled the wreckage out back in 2011.
"There was also some nice symmetry, as 2022 marks 60 years since the wreckage was found and January 2023 will be 30 years since the Tragically Hip released Fifty Mission Cap as a single. The reason why the Barilko story pulled me in so strongly is that it’s not just a hockey story. It’s a Canadian story, specifically a Northern Ontario story, and I’ve long held a secret crush for that part of the country. I’ve driven through the region about a dozen times on various road trips out west and back over the past 20 years or so, and I could do the drive another 20 times and never tire of it.
“I know many people complain about the drive, calling it a 'slog,' which it is, and 'monotonous,' which it can be. But that’s only if you look at Northern Ontario as transit territory, as far too many Canadians do. Living as I do in Southern Ontario, it can trick you into taking the sheer size of Canada for granted. Going to Northern Ontario cures you of that almost instantly. And flying in and trekking to the crash site helped me understand the Northern Ontario spirit that pervades the Barilko story, both the man himself, the man who died with him and the people that have worked so hard to keep the story alive.
"Being from Toronto, I will never have that spirit. But hiking into the site and honouring two men who had that spirit in their bones, I felt like I finally understood it and could appreciate it fully."
He explained his day trip and what we know about the boreal forest.
“The expedition itself was more like a day trip, truth be told. Chad flew me in on a late November morning and set us down about a mile from the crash site. The snow was knee-deep, so it took us two hours to hike over muskeg and through the bush using a GPS and a compass.
"We stayed for about an hour or so and then hiked back. In all, the whole trip took six hours, but I could’ve stayed the whole day. I don’t dare wish to romanticize the bush. It is hard country out there. But I was completely captivated by it."
I asked him about his feeling about visiting the crash site.
He said, “I felt conflicted at first. Even though it’s the same province, I’m a suburbanite from Southern Ontario, not a Northern Ontarian. Initially, I felt like an interloper, perhaps even a trespasser, and I wondered if I was being motivated by imposter syndrome.
"I’m a hardy hiker, but I’m no bushman, and I have none of the outdoor survival skills that many Northern Ontarians would have. And the only real connection I have to the Barilko story is that, against my better judgment and because of the brainwashing of my youth, I’m a Maple Leaf fan.
"All I can say is that I just couldn’t resist the pull north. It wasn’t dark tourism, because the wreckage had been pulled out 11 years earlier, so there was nothing left to see.
"I just felt like I had unfinished business. I’d been to Maple Leaf Gardens, where Barilko played and scored that Stanley Cup overtime winner in 1951. I’d lived in Greektown in Toronto, just a short walk away from where Barilko lived and worked in the off-season.
"I’d been to Chisasibi and Waskaganish, where Barilko and Hudson stopped on their way home. And I’d been to Barilko’s grave site. But I’d never been to the crash site. I don’t how to describe it, other than I just felt compelled to go.
“Perhaps because there was no wreckage at the crash site, I didn’t feel a sense of sadness or melancholy. I felt honoured to be there, to be at the site of one of the most significant events in all of Canadian history. The story that I’ve read so much about finally became more than just words on a page.”
Experientially, when you reach a destination there is time to reflect upon the significance of that sense of place.
“Being in the bush, where it happened, I finally felt like I understood the story properly.
"But being in the helicopter, too, was a blessing on its own. At first glance, it looks like the easy way in. But in reality, it’s the only way, at least until someone is able to find a way overland.
"Because I went in by helicopter, I was able to finally understand why the wreckage went unfound for so long. Not being from Northern Ontario, in reading about the plane’s disappearance, I couldn’t really comprehend why it was so hard to find. But after flying over the area, I get it. I totally get it. It has to be some of the densest forests in the country. It’s a miracle the plane was ever found at all.
“I also felt a bit of poignancy from the fact that I was Hudson’s age when he died. It’s easy to forget that Barilko wasn’t the only one who died in that crash. I’ve been guilty of that myself.
“As a writer, part of me was worried that I was interjecting myself into the story. But another part felt grateful for being the conduit for others to tell their part in the story: those who pulled the wreckage out of the bush, the ones who are trying to give the wreckage a permanent display, authors who have written about Barilko and people who have tried to get to the crash site by land. I marvel at their attachment to the story, after all these years, and I’m thankful for having talked with them about it.”
You are welcome.
Back Roads version
In review, here is my Dec. 15, 2021, Village Media piece where Shuker received some of his motivation and background. It's a story about the failed attempt to reach the crash site. Brian Emblin, one of the four trekkers Shuker identifies in our 2021 adventure said upon reading this month’s magazine piece, “Well that’s about as close as I will get to being in the famed Hockey News! (pages 66/67).”
The lead was: “There is a saying about having good or best intentions. But, even when the journey doesn't lead to the intended destination, it can be a good trek.
“It is 5 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 9 and the car’s dash display says it is -30° C. We leave Timmins but when passing the Bill Barilko billboard on Highway 101 East in South Porcupine the headlights only slightly illuminate this city’s hockey legend’s young man’s vibrant smile: the face along with the clenched fist, the gesture of a winner…”
The story’s ending: “We realize after making little headway too much energy is being expended getting the surfboard hung up and the smaller snowshoes are not working well enough, and it remains cold. In the back of my instructional mind, and I teach this stuff to students for a living, 'Stay safe,' says the risk management, left side of the brain.
“Thwarted, stymied…for now, we turn back, disappointed, defeated by the landscape.
“It is the traditional novel theme of Man versus Nature. Bill Barilko and Dr. Henry Hudson, their spirits are still 4.2 km away; ours will have to return. The Maple Leafs most likely will not win the Stanley Cup this year…again. When things go wrong or don’t turn out the way you pictured them in one’s head, you just have to go with the best intentions-defence.
(Still hope to get there?)
New stories for 2023 are forthcoming, I have been off for a bit with a knee injury, but it is time to get back to the back roads.