Monday, June 27, 2011

Making a case for Bill Barilko

Tomorrow, the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee will gather to elect the class of 2011. Last November, I wrote a piece calling for changes in the structure of  the selection process. In particular, reinstatement of the veterans committee - Full Story.

With the passing of time and a new perspective, it would be an error for the Hall to not be reflective come selection time.

One of the players who has slipped through the cracks is Bill Barilko. His case is unique in so many ways. Due to circumstances, Barilko's consideration requires a creative approach and an appreciation for the history of our great game.

Bill Barilko was born on March 25, 1927 in Timmins, Ontario. The 5'11" defenceman, played his entire National Hockey League career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 252 regular season games, Barilko registered 62 points (26 goals & 36 assists) and amassed 456 penalty-minutes. His playoff stats reveal he skated in 47 contest, scoring 5 goals and 7 assists. Barilko racked-up 104 penalty-minutes in post-season action.

In his autobiography, "Golly Gee - It's Me!", Howie Meeker provides some insight on Barilko's impact when he joined the Maple Leafs. "Holy jumpin' jehoshaphat, the guy could hit and hit like a ton," writes Meeker. Playing his first NHL game in the Montreal Forum on February 6, 1947, Barilko took on Maurice "Rocket" Richard. His huge hit on Richard was a peek at things to come. As Meeker phrased it, "the addition of Bill Barilko gave us four mentally and physically tough defenceman whom you didn't want to go into the corner with. If you got any of them mad or came out of the corner with the puck, you were dead. At that time I just did not realize the value of the four tough guys on defence. Barilko was something else, a hard rock from the north."

The physical aspect associated with Barilko, represented only one facet of his game. His ability to block shots added another dimension to his portfolio. Also, Barilko had a yearning to become involved in the offence. The classic and ultimate example of this came in game five of the 1951 Stanley Cup final. Leaf coach Joe Primeau voiced his concerns to Barilko about his wandering too far up ice. "Bill had been committing himself too much on offence," stated the former centre on Toronto's famed Kid Line. Primeau threatened to fine "Bashing Bill" if he didn't heed more attention to his defensive responsibilities.

Bill Barilko
In the overtime of game five, Barilko engaged all his hockey-smarts to engineer the most thrilling and dramatic goal in Leafs history. Prior to entering the Montreal Canadiens zone on the Stanley Cup winning goal, Barilko remained on the neutral side of the blueline. He didn't cross the line until he committed himself to going into full-flight for a loose puck. At 2:53 of O/T, Bill Barilko and his teammates would become World Champions.

Also patrolling the Leafs blueline for part of the 1950-51 campaign (including the playoffs) was Fernie Flaman. The book on Flaman is very similar to Barliko. Both were known for their bone-rattling checks and skill for blocking pucks. Over a 17 year NHL career, Flaman produced 208 regular season points. His aggressive physical play resulted in 1370 penalty-minutes. Flaman recorded 12 playoff points in 63 matches, while Barilko managed 12 in 47. As teammates, both shared in the '51 Cup victory. Prior to this, Barilko won Lord Stanley's silverware in 1947, 1948 and 1949.

Fernie Flaman became an honoured member in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990. Joining him in the players category were Bill Barber and Gilbert Perreault.

Now, observe the Big-Fat-Imposing-Wrinkled-White-Elephant sitting in the room, squeezing out every available inch of space. This creature is enough to send those sitting on their selection chairs, fleeing in every direction from the Hall of Fame. It is the perfect excuse to cease all discussion concerning Bill Barilko joining the club. The "time-served" element is indeed represented the the Big-Fat-Imposing-Wrinkled-White-Elephant. It is the foremost and often repeated argument connected to any talk relating to Barilko's eligibility for hockey Sainthood.

Bill Barilko passed away after being involved in a plane crash during the summer of 1951. The Maple Leafs failed to win a Cup from '51 until 1962. Following their championship in '62, the remains of Bill Barilko were discovered in June 1962.

The tragic events in August 1951 took Billy Barilko from loved-ones and deprived hockey fans of watching this skilled and entertaining athlete. His short lived career was like reading an exciting and gripping mystery manuscript, which is half-finished, when the author suddenly dies. The immediate question asked by all is, "How was this story to end?" Would the writer lose his knack for storytelling and come up with a lame final chapter? Or, would the main character take hold with the readers and result in an extended series of books?

Time after time, these same questions are presented when Barilko and the Hall of Fame are mentioned in the same breath. The Big-Fat-Imposing-Wrinkled-White-Elephant won't budge. In Barilko's case, it is an unfair and unnecessary argument. The time-served debate is an easy-way-out for those in opposition of Barilko's admittance into the Great Hall. Verbal explanations are empty thoughts with as much meaning as a head shake or shrug of the shoulders.

The end of Bill Barilko's short period with Toronto did not come in the usual hockey manner. Most NHL players leave the game due to injury or retirement, when their skills have diminished. He was taken from this world and hockey at the very young age of twenty-four.

On June 13, 1934, came news of the sudden passing of Chuck Gardiner, a goaltender with the Chicago Black Hawks. Three days prior to his death, Gardiner collapsed from a brain hemorrhage. He died at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnpeg at the age of twenty-nine.

The similarities between Barilko and Gardiner are eerie. Both died following their teams winning the Stanley Cup. Barilko scored the clincher in '51 for Toronto. In a newspaper headline it was noted relating to Gardiner, "DEATH IS SEQUEL TO SPECTACULAR SEASON IN WHICH HIS TEAM WON THE STANLEY CUP." The Hawks captured hockey's grand prize in the spring of 1934.

The Canadian Press dispatch described  Gardiner as "Happy-Go-Lucky." Another media report portrayed him as "ever smiling, affable, a keen but fair competitor." The same qualities attributed to Bill Barilko.

Gardiner played a total of seven NHL seasons, Barilko five. The Chicago goalie was "at the peak of a seven-year career," wrote the Canadian Press. After four cups in five campaigns, Barilko was in the same mountain-range.

A contemporary of Gardiner's was netminder Roy Worters. He played in the NHL from 1925-26 to 1936-37 (12 seasons). Worters won the Hart Trophy in 1929 as a member of the New York Americans. This was followed by a Vezina win in 1931. He entered the Hall in  1969.

Chuck Gardiner was enshrined in 1945 along with ten other individuals. Was the time-served question raised when he was selected? Georges Vezina, who joined Gardiner in the class of '45, played a combined 16 seasons in the NHA and NHL. Did this have any bearing on consideration for Gardiner?

In the case of Bill Barilko, is a different standard being applied?  Gardiner's raw talent put him in the same standing as Worters and Vezina. The fact his life was cut short and his playing career wasn't as long, didn't appear to be a factor in relationship to his being worthy for the Hall of Fame. Fernie Flaman gets in, but Bill Barilko's nomination falls short?

As Howie Meeker wrote concerning those championship teams in Toronto during the late 1940s, "The defensive backbone of our team was Turk Broda in goal with Mortson (Gus), Thompson (Jimmy), Boesch (Garth) and Barilko on defence." Not one defenceman from the three-peat Cup squads of '47-'48-'49 is in the Hall.

The Big-Fat-Imposing-Wrinkled-White-Elephant is growing with each passing year. And the room is getting smaller and smaller.

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