Home / News / Bill Barilko’s Untimely Demise And The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap”
Emma Bennett
by Emma Bennett

This song would prove to be one of the rock group’s most popular, and it was part of their album Fully Completely. To this day, it is part of the warm-up playlist for every Maple Leafs’ home game. Additionally, in the team’s private lounge is a handwritten copy of the lyrics from songwriter Gord Downie.

Let’s delve into the story that provoked such inspiration.

“The last goal he ever scored (in over time)”

Bill Barilko, also known as “Bashin’ Bill,” began his hockey career in 1947, joining the Toronto Maple Leafs when he was the young age of 20. That same year, Bill won the Stanley Cup for the first time – and not for the last time, with three more wins following in 1948, 1949, and 1951. He was one of the most celebrated players in the industry and seemed destined to make hockey history as one of the best-ever players. Even his last goal is unforgettable: the winning goal in his last Stanley Cup win on April 21st, 1951.

“He was on a fishing trip (in a plane)”

Four months after his winning goal, Bill decided to go fishing for the weekend. Along with his friend and dentist, Henry Hudson, Bill boarded a single-engine plane set on Rupert House in Quebec. The flight went as planned, and the two reportedly had a great time fishing. It was on the flight back to Porcupine Lake that things got mysterious. The plane disappeared completely! No wreckage to be found – nothing seemed to remain of Bill’s last flight.

As far as everyone was concerned in 1951, Bill had vanished into thin air. Without the technology available to thoroughly search the area where the plane disappeared, Bill seemed to be lost to time.

“Nineteen sixty-two, the year he was discovered”

On June 6th, 1962, Gary Fields discovered the wreckage of a single-engine plane. Within the twisted metal of the plane, he also found two skeletons – those of Bill Barilko and Henry Hudson. Whilst the exact cause of the crash is unknown, the plane was located more than 50 kilometers off course, and is assumed to be the result of poor weather, overloaded cargo, and pilot inexperience.

Regardless of the exact cause behind the crash, Bill’s fate was a shocking end to a promising career. In response to the discovery (and subsequent recovery) of his remains, the Toronto Maple Leafs retired Bill’s #5 jersey.

And so it goes, since Bill’s disappearance and their win in 1951, the first time the Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup was in 1962, the year in which he was discovered and his body returned to his hometown of Timmins.

The Tragically Hip memorializes Bill

Now you know all about how Bill disappeared, but you might not be aware of how his musical memorial “Fifty-Mission Cap” impacted future generations.

The titular “fifty-mission cap” makes reference to a trend where WW2 pilots would crush their caps to make makes themselves appear more experienced, as if they had done 50 missions. The song also references a “hockey card,” believed to be card No. 340 in the 1991 NHL Pro Set series that features Bill’s tale.

The link to the pilot’s hat? Although pilots crushed the sides of their hats, it was important to keep the front from drooping, so they often inserted a playing card to prop it up. The irony of Bill’s tale inside an amateur pilot’s hat seems to have been the inspiration for the songwriters in their retelling of Bill’s story.

This song was first performed live at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1991 and remains one of the group’s most popular songs. A chapter of a 2004 book about the Maple Leafs was dedicated to the tribute, and a 2017 documentary “The Mission” which was about recovering the wrecked plane took its title from the song.

Whenever The Tragically Hip performed at the Air Canada Centre, Bill Barillko’s retired-number banner would remain up for the concert. The ties between the tale of Bill and his tribute are forever enmeshed; The banner was even incorporated into Gord Downie’s own memorial celebrations.

Emma Bennett
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