He is a name, a number on a banner, a character in a song by a beloved band. But in photos and newspaper clippings saved in scrapbooks by his sister, Anne, the flesh-and-blood Bill Barilko comes to life.

Bill Barilko grew up in Timmins, Ont., a boom town during the Great Depression because it offered jobs in the mines. His father died young, leaving his widowed mother, Faye, to raise three children on her own in diminished circumstances.

As a boy, Barilko didn’t skate well, so they stuck him in goal, but he hated it–too much standing around out in the cold. So they moved him up to defence where he thrived, as was noted by the Timmins Daily Press.

It wasn’t just on skates that Barilko distinguished himself in his hometown.

His Leafs call-up was unexpected. Barilko wasn’t regarded as a blue-chip prospect when he was summoned from the Hollywood Wolves of the Pacific Coast Hockey League to Toronto’s top minor-league affiliate in Pittsburgh. While he was in the air from Los Angeles, an injury left the big club one defenceman short, so Barilko kept right on going to Toronto, a crazy day of planes, trains and automobiles. He was finally dropped him at the Leafs’ practice, where Globe and Mail sportswriter Jim Vipond chronicled his arrival.

“Don’t worry about ‘The Kid,'” he told a reporters, cocky enough to refer to himself in the third person. “They’re not chasing ‘The Kid’ back to Hollywood. I like this big time stuff.”

In carefully assembled scrapbooks, Bill Barilko's sister, Anne, has kept all manner of memorabilia, including autographed photos and fan letters

Barilko was a looker—blond hair, great big smile—and single. If a pretty girl was around, famous or otherwise (Vera-Ellen! Barbara Ann Scott!) the newspaper photographers made a point of posing them together. There are Valentine’s Day cards from secret admirers and mash notes tucked away in the scrapbooks.

As you read through the scrapbooks, it’s impossible not to think of what’s coming. The glorious victories in 1947, 1948 and 1949. The Cup-winning goal in 1951 which made him immortal. And then you get to book five and see a story headlined “Barilko Vanishes in North,” and a handwritten note below it: “expected back Sunday Aug 26th, 1951.”

The last sighting was at an outpost on James Bay.

In 1962, when the downed plane was discovered, Anne and her husband, Emil Klisanich, were living in London, Ont., with their two boys.

Many years later, Barilko’s sister and her family were living in Mississauga when they heard that someone had written a song about Bill. They’d never heard of the band, who were going to be playing a concert at the nearby Hershey Centre. Anne decided that maybe she should drop by and say hello.

She arrived at the rink late in the afternoon and got the attention of a security guard who didn’t believe her story until she produced a birth certificate. “Just a minute,” he said.

The guard returned and led her backstage to meet the nice young men from the Tragically Hip, who had just completed their sound check.

They invited her to come back for the show that night. No thank you, Anne said. She had to get home to make dinner for her husband.

Photo Credits

Jeff Carlson