It was summer 1951 in Ontario, Canada, and one of the nation’s most celebrated ice hockey stars was heading home after a fishing adventure in the province’s northern wilderness. But somewhere en route, his plane simply disappeared. For more than ten years, the missing Bill Barilko’s fate remained a mystery. And then a helicopter pilot, flying over the area where the star was last seen, spots something strange on the ground below.
William Barilko – known as Bill – was born on March 25, 1927, to a family of Ukrainian extraction in Timmins, a small town in Ontario, Canada. At the time, the province was a prosperous area, with gold mines and attendant industries offering employment despite the Great Depression. However, life was not always easy for Barilko and his two siblings, brother Alex and sister Anne.
This was due to the fact that Barilko’s father had sadly died when the children were young, and his mother Faye struggled to raise them alone. And even though Barilko began playing ice hockey as a boy, nothing in his early efforts suggested that he would excel at the sport. In fact, he was initially assigned the role of goaltender as his skating skills left a lot to be desired.
However, standing around in goal did not appeal to the handsome young Barilko. Instead, he was changed to defense, and it was in that position that he began to shine. Turning out for his home Timmins Air Cadets team, he was soon earning praise from the local press. Later, as a teenager, Barilko found his way south to Los Angeles, California, where he played for the Hollywood Wolves side.
Then, in February 1947, something happened that would change Barilko’s life for good. At just 19 years old, he was summoned to join a minor-league club in Pittsburgh which had strong affiliations to National Hockey League team the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while Barilko was en route to join the Pennsylvania side, one of the Maple Leafs’ players suffered a debilitating injury. They say that one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain, and so it proved to be…
Suddenly finding themselves a player down, the Maple Leafs called on Barilko, and the young Canadian skipped Pittsburgh and traveled on up to Toronto. Once there and in the side, the defense player soon made himself at home in the big leagues. And for the next five seasons, Barilko helped his NHL team to glory on many occasions. He earned the nickname Bashin’ Bill because of his forthright playing style, and this attitude would prove to pay dividends.
In fact, the Maple Leafs won the coveted Stanley Cup NHL play-off trophy four times with Barilko in defense. And the last time the side triumphed in the tournament, in 1951, was a particularly dramatic occasion. On April 21, the championship final had reached its fifth game, and the Maple Leafs were battling the Montreal Canadiens for the prestigious prize.
That day, the game was in overtime when Barilko spectacularly scored a backhanded goal and won the Maple Leafs the Stanley Cup. To many, it would go down in history as one of the sport’s greatest ever goals and make its scorer an ice hockey legend. And, as both Maple Leafs fans and players celebrated defeating their arch rivals on the ice, Barilko was lauded as the hero of the hour. But, unfortunately, the celebrated sportsman’s euphoria would not last.
Sadly, Barilko’s career was about to be cut tragically short. In August 1951, the 24-year-old was visiting his family back in Timmins when a friend, dentist Henry Hudson, 47, invited him on a weekend fishing trip. However, this would not be a case of poles at the local waterhole. In fact, the pair planned to fly out to James Bay, a wild and remote location in north-east Ontario.
However, the ice hockey star’s mom, Faye, was dead against the idea right from the start. The fly-and-fish expedition was scheduled to depart for James Bay on Friday, August 24, and return on the Sunday. Apparently, Barilko’s father had passed away on a Friday, and his widow had developed a superstition about that day of the week. And Faye made no secret of her objections to the idea.
And she would later say as much to the Canadian Toronto Star newspaper. Faye said, “I had a premonition something would happen. I was very angry with him when he said he was going fishing by air to that wild bush country.” In fact, she was so angry that on the day the two-man fishing party left, Faye refused to make Barilko’s lunch like she usually did. And when her son tried to wish his mom goodbye, Faye told him that she would “rather die than see him take this trip.” Bashin’ Bill just laughed it off, but soon it would not be so funny.
But, at first, it seemed as if the worried mom’s fears were unfounded. Evidently, Barilko and Hudson had survived the flight north and their weekend of fishing the wild waters of James Bay unscathed. In fact, the pair were spotted on the Sunday, refueling Hudson’s Fairchild 24 at the trading outpost of Fort Rupert in preparation for the return journey. However, the pair never made it home.
When the single-engine aircraft did not return, and it became clear that Barilko and his pilot had disappeared, the Royal Canadian Air Force swung into action. An extensive search of the Ontario and Quebec wilderness was launched. And at first, the airmen looking for the missing duo were confident of a happy ending. Reportedly, Hudson had spent a number of years visiting James Bay and was said to know the area well.
But as time passed, no trace of Barilko, Hudson or the Fairchild 24 could be found. Eventually, after four days, the Toronto Star paid for Faye to fly to the remote region where her son had last been seen. According to the newspaper, the mom hoped that her presence might bring Barilko luck – just as it had when she had attended his ice hockey fixtures to watch him play.
But this was no game. By the time Faye touched down, a vast 78,000 square feet of the James Bay wilderness had been searched but, alas, to no avail. Unwilling to give up, Canada’s air force continued its efforts for another two months, finally racking up a bill of some $385,000 – the equivalent of $3.7 million today. But despite all the hard work, there was still no sign of the missing men.
And, in the absence of any solid answers to the hockey star’s disappearance, wild rumors soon began to spread. According to some, Bashin’ Bill had abandoned his career in favor of a life of crime. To others, the part-Ukrainian Barilko had turned traitor, teaching ice hockey secrets to Russian teams on the far side of the Iron Curtain.
Nonetheless, for the next decade, the mystery refused to be solved. But while Barilko’s fate remained unknown, the fortunes of the Maple Leafs suffered some severe blows. In fact, the Toronto NHL team failed to win the Stanley Cup for 11 years following their star player’s disappearance. Had the side fallen victim to some kind of strange curse?
In April 1962 the Maple Leafs’ run of bad luck was finally broken. That month, they defeated the Chicago Black Hawks and took home the Stanley Cup once more. Then, just weeks later, there was another breakthrough. A helicopter pilot named Ron Boyd had been flying over northeastern Ontario when he spotted something glinting in the trees below.
On June 6, a recovery team hiked to the spot that Boyd had identified, some 45 miles from the Ontario town of Cochrane, between James Bay and Toronto. There, they discovered Hudson’s Fairchild 24 – battered, broken and partially buried in a swamp. Inside the downed aircraft, the search party found the grisly remains of two bodies. The skeletons of Barilko and Hudson were still strapped into their seats. Apparently, they had died in the instant the plane hit the ground.
Indeed, it appeared that the reports of Hudson’s abilities had been exaggerated. Eventually, experts were able to determine that the dentist’s flying inexperience, combined with an excessive cargo and poor weather, had caused the fatal crash. And with the truth finally out, the Maple Leafs’ curse seemed to be broken. In fact, their 1962 Stanley Cup victory signaled the start of a five-year winning run that would see the side return proudly to the top of its game. And even though the team’s fortunes went swiftly downhill after 1967, Barilko’s legendary legacy is still treasured by the fans, with literature, film and song celebrating Bashin’ Bill’s story.