Thursday, December 11, 2014

Barilko, Lewicki & Thomson

The final Sports Talk session for 2014 at Mike Wilson's Museum took place last week. And the first year of these talks ended with a spectacular finish.

Kevin Shea, a noted hockey author, began the evening with his presentation on the life and career of Bill Barilko. There is no one more qualified to speak about Barilko than Kevin Shea. His outstanding book in 2004, Barilko - Without A Trace, tells the wonderful and tragic story of the young hockey player, who scored one of the most famous goals in the history of the game, then shortly afterwards, vanished from sight.

On this night, Kevin provided what I like to call a condensed audio-book version of the printed edition of Barilko - Without A Trace. While Kevin supplied the commentary,  a PowerPoint display enabled us to view his collection of photographs and documents.

The following text is fully based on the content of Kevin's exposition unless indicated otherwise.

Bill Barilko was born on March 25, 1927, in Timmins, Ontario. He was the second son of Steve and Feodosia Barilko. His big brother, Alex, was born in 1926 and his sister, Anne, followed Bill in 1930. They were a close-knit family and very protective of each other.

As a young boy, Bill Barilko wasn't interested in school. He did, however, play goal for the public school team. If his eyeglasses happened to break during the action, Bill would squint his way through. If hand-me-downs, like ice skates, weren't available, he would wear his galoshes on the ice.

In addition to playing hockey, Bill loved the outdoors. In particular, the time he spent fishing. The strange thing about this is the fact Bill hated the taste of fish. He'd bring his catch home for mom to cook, but Bill wouldn't touch the stuff. Instead, his dinner would be some other food like macaroni.

On a large screen, Kevin showed a team photo of the 1942-43 Holman Pluggers, winners of the Ontario juvenile championship that season. Members of this club included Alex Barilko, Allan Stanley (Honoured Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame), Pete Babando (Stanley Cup winning goal in 1950), and Eric Prentice (brother of NHL player Dean Prentice). Bill held the position of stick-boy with the Pluggers. On the occasions when the second goalie couldn't attend practice, Bill would take his place.

Stuck in a stationary position like goal, Bill often complained to his brother about his feet getting cold. Alex's advise to Bill was that he should learn to skate properly. Taking this to heart, Bill would skip school and concentrate on developing his skating skills.

As Kevin pointed out, even when Bill reached the National Hockey League, "his game was anything but skating." What he lacked in ability with his blades on was off-set by determination. "He wasn't a great skater by any means, but he worked exceptionally hard and I think that was one of the reasons he made it to the National Hockey League."

In 1944-45, Barilko played for the Timmins Canadians.  His time with this team led Bill to the Porcupine Combines, a local club that often recruited players from other organizations. Allan Stanley, Larry Ziedel and Leo Curik, who was Bill's life-long best friend, also put in time with the Combines.

This opportunity was the first step in Bill Barilko's journey to pro hockey. A scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Johnny Mitchell, took notice of him and the AHL Pittsburgh Hornets gave Barilko a try-out. Although he didn't crack the Hornets roster, the organization found a spot for him in the PCHL. During the 1945-46 campaign, Barilko wore the colours of the Hollywood Wolves.

"He became a fan favourite for the Hollywood Wolves," Kevin told the gathering. "To get some press, their PR guy would put Bill together with the new starlets who were in town. It would be a fictitious date, which is something a lot of Hollywood PR people did and a wonderful looking lady would be in the arm of Bill Barilko. Stories of these dates would appear in the papers and gossip columns of that time and so he became known as Hollywood Bill Barilko."

Then, came Bill Barilko's rapid climb up the Maple Leafs depth chart. "Bill gets an opportunity to come to the Leafs. It's one of those things of being in the right place at the right time," is how Kevin described the circumstances of Barilko's promotion to the National Hockey League.

While in Hollywood, Barilko's coach in his second year was ex-Leaf Bob Gracie. Also on the team, was  Hart Trophy winner "Cowboy" Tommy Anderson. He won the National Hockey League MVP award in 1942 with the Brooklyn Americans, but after being so honoured, he never played another game in the NHL.

"Anderson really took Barilko under his wing and worked on his game," Kevin noted of their teacher-student  relationship. Anderson honed in on Barilko's "bodychecking and skating and that really helped."

When early February of 1947 rolled around, "the Leafs were having problems with injuries," Kevin stated. "Their natural inclination would be to go down to Pittsburgh and pull somebody up from there, but they were also shorthanded on the blueline. So Conn Smythe and Hap Day called Hollywood and asked, 'look is there anyone who can fill in for a handful of games as a fifth blueliner?' Gracie and Anderson suggest Barilko."

At the same tine Barilko was being summoned by the Leafs, Sid Smith, a left-winger with the Pittsburgh Hornets, also got a call to join the Maple Leafs. On February 6, 1947, both Barilko and Smith were on the ice for Toronto's contest in Montreal against the Habs.

Showing no signs of nervousness, Barilko remained true to his style of play, which was fine-tuned by Gracie and Anderson in Hollywood. At the Montreal Forum, he roughed-up Maurice Richard and in his home debut at Maple Leaf Gardens, Barilko manhandled Boston Bruin star Milt Schmidt.

"All of a sudden, the fans gravitate towards this guy," Kevin said of Barilko's growing popularity. "He's giving a great effort every single shift and he's bodychecking guys and sending them all over the place, especially the hated stars of the opposing teams."

Also, Barilko became a part of Toronto's business community. Along with brother Alex, they opened Barilko Bros. Appliances on the Danforth. "They sold stoves, fridges and televisions, which was a fledging appliance at the time. Also, they sold sporting goods of all-kind. Because Bill was a big music fan, they also sold recorded music. It was kind of a mini-department store."

On the hockey front, Barilko's physical presence left the Leafs with no other choice but to keep him in Toronto. And all he did while wearing the Blue & White was win Stanley Cups. In his rookie year, Toronto went on to win hockey's top prize against Montreal and became the first franchise to capture three consecutive Cups when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in 1948 and 1949. Their streak came to an end in 1950, when Detroit obtained some revenge by bouncing the defending champs in the first round.

This brings us to 1951 and the high point of Barilko's hockey career and the tragic loss of his life.

Always looking for adventure, both on and off the ice, Barilko often took chances by becoming involved in the action beyond centre ice. In game five of the 1951 Stanley Cup Final (April 21st), with Toronto and Montreal going into sudden-death overtime, Barilko was instructed to stay out of the offensive zone and pay attention to his own end of the rink. If he ignored this order, Barilko's bank account would shrink by $50 each time he broke rank.

Under coach Joe Primeau, who gained fame as a member of Toronto's dynamic Kid Line in the 1930s, the Leafs were up three games-to-one. They wanted to close out the Final in their barn and not let the Canadiens get their foot in the door.

Very early in the extra-frame, Barilko was  confronted with the sort of play that he was told to stay away from. His reaction would have to be made in a split-second. The Leafs had Montreal hemmed-in deep in their zone and were looking to keep the pressure on the visitors defence.

Leaf forward Howie Meeker was tied-up behind the Montreal net, but managed to keep the puck in play. Next, the puck seemed to go off Butch Bouchard's skate and slide out to the face off circle to goalie Gerry McNeil's right. Sizing up what was happening in front of him, Bill Barilko had to react quickly and accurately.

Kevin picks up the ensuing action.

"There's Bill having to make a decision. Do I gamble and defy the assistant GM (Hap Day, who told him to apply the brakes) and try and keep the puck in or get a shot on net? On the other hand, do I pull back because if Maurice Richard gets the puck he is away on a wild break."

After setting the scene, Kevin laid down the final strokes on the canvas.

"Well, he gambles and dives and backhands the puck over the shoulder of a prone Gerry McNeil. At 2:53 of overtime, Bill Barilko scores the Stanley Cup winning goal in 1951."

Bill Barilko received the following telegram at his Toronto home (the Eton Hotel on the Danforth) on the morning of April 22, 1951. It was sent by his brother Alex, who by this time was working as an official in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. It reads as follows:

                                                                                                  ALEX BARILKO.

There would be no more contracts for Bill Barilko or visits with his dear brother Alex.

Closing out his presentation, Kevin covered the awful plane crash in late August 1951 that ended Bill Barilko's life. In addition to the crash, Kevin delved into the massive search to recover the bodies (Bill and pilot Dr. Henry Hudson), which finally occurred 11 years later.

The room fell completely silent when Kevin played an audio track taken from a 78rpm record made by Bill and Alex. It was recorded while they were both living and playing hockey in California and it's a Christmas message to their mother.

"Well mom, we'd like to say goodbye now, this is Alex signing off," the eldest sibling imparts. "And this is Bill mom, bye for now," Bill states to end the recording.

The closeness between Alex and Bill was one of the main themes of Kevin's talk. For a portion of time both played in the city of Toronto. Bill for the Maple Leafs and Alex for the senior Marlboros. "Alex was basically entrenched with the roster of the Toronto Maple leafs," Kevin told us. "He went on a lot of the road trips when it was appropriate. He would eat with the guys when they were in town."

Blaine Smith, son of Leaf forward Sid Smith, was on hand for Kevin's presentation and the next morning he emailed this photograph.

Courtesy of Blaine Smith, who owns this photo.

Snapped in New York City, it shows Bill and Alex sitting side-by-side at the top of the table. Sid Smith is seated second from the right. This serves as visual evidence of just how close, as Kevin advised, the two brothers were. Also, it indicates how accepting the Leaf players were of Alex.

Also, in his collection, our host, Mike Wilson, has a hand-written letter Alex and Bill sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the correspondence, they ask if the Leafs would grant them a try-out so they could play together for Pittsburgh.

"One of the best things that ever happened here was when Anne Barilko-Klisanich (the sister of Alex & Bill) came for a visit," Mike said. "I took that letter down and she stood over in the corner reading it. She read that letter and cried."

The last word on Bill Barilko went to Kevin Shea.

"Right place-right time, great determination. Here he is now remembered all these years later. Here we are talking about a guy who last played in 1951. And his story is virtually as fresh as it was back then."

The next speaker was Bill Barilko's teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Danny Lewicki. They played together on Toronto's 1951 Stanley Cup team. Born and raised in Fort William, Ontario, Danny Lewicki holds a distinction unmatched in hockey history and one which will unlikely be equalled anytime soon. He is the only player, while still eligible to play junior hockey, to capture the Memorial Cup, Allan Cup and Stanley Cup.

Danny discussed his hockey career and touched on a number of things. Here are some edited highlights.

His early love of the game...

"At nine years-of-age, I started skipping school. I hid my skates under the back porch. You can imagine how it'd be in Fort William back in those days. The temperature would be 30 to 40 below. I'd go to the outdoor rink and spend six to seven hours skating by myself."

On being discovered by the Toronto Maple Leafs...

"The Toronto Maple Leafs got hold of me because their head scout, Squib Walker, lived in Fort William. He ran an insurance business. He wanted me to go to Toronto. He came over to our house and wanted me to sign a "C Form". He came into the kitchen and piled up a bunch of one-dollar bills on the table. My mom asked, 'what's he doing with all that money on the table?' I said he wants me to go to Toronto and play hockey. She got a broom and threw him out of the house! She told Walker, 'no one is taking my son from me, get out!!' Eventually, I did go to Toronto.

Playing junior hockey in Stratford...

"I turned down a contract to play in Brandon and for the Marlboros and I went to Stratford because my coach in Fort William was there. I thought I would be more at home with someone I knew."

The dreaded "C Form"...

"After playing in Stratford, I didn't realize my coach, Leo Barbini, had signed me to a Form the year before my 16th birthday with Providence (AHL). He said it would be a great experience for me to go to their training camp. He said, 'if you go they will even give you $100 for expenses.' Like Bill's family, we were very poor and to give my mom $100 was like giving her a million-dollars. Then, he said, 'in order for you to get the $100 for expenses, they want you to sign this to make sure you show up at training camp.' Little did I know that I was signing a "C Form".

His refusal to play in Toronto and remain in Stratford...

"When Stratford asked me if I would fight the "C Forum" in court, I said okay (the matter, however, never reached that stage). Mr. Smythe was ready to kill me. They suspended me for about two months before I finally went to the Marlboros. Mr. Smythe called me up to his office. He was so furious and being an army-man he would turn beet-red. He called me an impertinent brat. And I didn't know what an impertinent brat was! I don't think Mr. Smythe ever forgave me for battling the "C Form."

On playing injured in the 1951 playoffs...

"Before the game, they would freeze my groin and tape it up. My job at that time, because of the way I could skate, was to go up and down my wing and make sure my winger doesn't score a goal."

On being demoted to Pittsburgh in his second season after signing a new lease (as okayed by Leaf coach Joe Primeau) on an apartment in Toronto...

"I told Conn Smythe about Joe Primeau telling me I could sign the lease (something he wouldn't have done if he knew he was being shipped out to Pittsburgh) and he said, 'is that all that's bugging you? If you go down to Pittsburgh and you prove to me that you belong in the National Hockey League, I'll buy you any house in the city of Toronto.' I went to Pittsburgh and I was there 3 weeks and I scored 17 goals and got called back up."

Did Conn Smythe keep his part of the bargain?

"He called me into his office and said, 'I've got a couple of homes in my area that I built (near Smythe's gravel pit).' On one street, Turk Broda lived there as did Gus Mortson. I liked one house that was on the corner right across from Turk's house. Smythe put in an offer of $10,500 and it was accepted. After signing the papers, Smythe asked me, 'by the way, can you live on $70 a week?' I said, what. And he replied, 'well, you have to pay me back for buying you the house!'"

Playing in New York after being traded by the Leafs...

"My career in New York was great, especially the first year. I had Don Raleigh as my centre and Nick Mickoski, who was a real good checker. We had a great line. I scored 29 goals and made the All-Star Team. The second year, Muzz Patrick took over as general manager and he brought in Phil Watson as his coach. Watson tried to turn everyone into a checker. As a result, my production dropped to 18 goals. After 4 years in New York, I was left unprotected and claimed by Montreal."

His experience in Montreal...

"They were looking for a left-winger to play with Beliveau and Geoffrion and I thought here's a really good opportunity. I really thought I was going to make the Canadiens that year. I was there until the last day of camp."

On playing in Chicago...

"My first year in Chicago, Rudy Pilous took over as coach. A lot of the kids he coached in St. Catharines came up. It was Bobby Hull's first year. I started the season playing centre between Ted Lindsay and Kenny Wharram. The first 9 games, I had 5 goals and 8 assists and I thought I was going to have a hell of a year. Then. I was benched 45 games after a run-in with Pilous. It started when Eric Nesterenko kept forcing a play and couldn't control the puck. I gave him the puck twice on a power play, but each time it went off his stick and into the other teams zone. They would then send it back down to our end. The next year, I wasn't even invited to Chicago's training camp, as I was sent directly to Buffalo."

Closing out his career...

"I spent one year in Buffalo and they made a deal for me to go to Quebec City. They had a working agreement with the Canadiens and I thought maybe I would get called up to Montreal when all was said and done. After 2 years, I didn't get the call and I got totally discouraged. I wasn't enjoying the game anymore and I told Quebec I was retiring. I got a call in the summer from the Hershey Bears saying they made a trade for me. They made a deal for me in exchange for Willie Marshall. I said if I do go, I would be stealing money from you because I don't enjoy the game anymore. Willie went back in Hershey."

Remembering Bill Barilko...

"About Barilko, you mentioned that he owned the television place on the Danforth. Television was just getting started and there were 12-inch sets. Turk Broda went over to see Bill and he wanted to buy a television, but he wanted a discount. And Bill wouldn't give him a discount. Turk said, 'I'm one of your teammates!' Bill responded with, 'I don't give a shit, you're paying full price!' I'll say one thing about Bill; he was one of the best hitters with the body that I saw in the National Hockey League. He wasn't a great skater, as Kevin mentioned, but he had the ability to get up so much speed and then all of a sudden, he'd get that hip in there. When he hit you, you got hurt. He had it down to an art. He was one hell of a great defenceman. It was a tragedy what happened that summer after we won the Stanley Cup."

Following Danny's talk, the next speaker was Jimmy Thomson, who began his NHL career in 1986-87 with the Washington Capitals. His final year was in 1993-94, when he skated in 6 games with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

The other Jimmy Thomson...

"When I was 14, my dad brought me down to Maple Leaf Gardens and we'd talk about Jimmy Thomson (Toronto Maple Leafs 1945-46 to 1956-57 / Chicago 1957-58 / no relation). As you walked through the front doors, one of the pictures there was of Jimmy Thomson. I'll never forget that."

Getting into the game...

"The Toronto Marlboros scouted me and asked if I would like to play junior hockey with them. Harold Ballard was their owner. We had a hell of a team with Peter Zezel, Steve Thomas and Greg Johnston. Our coach was Tom Martin. At Christmas we were 43-and-3. We were the number one team in Canada. After Christmas, the wheels fell off. Peter Zezel was called up to Philadelphia and Greg Johnston broke his leg."

From goal scorer to tough guy...

"One night with the Marlboros against the Oshawa Generals, a guy takes a run at Dave Meszaros. I get on the ice and with four older brothers, I was taught to protect your own. I ended up fighting this big winner and knocked him out. So, the OHL Yearbook is printed a few weeks later and it says, 'Alberta raised winger has established himself as one of the best fighters.' Also in the OHL at that time, were guys like Bob Probert and Jeff Beukeboom. And I was a goal scorer. As the OHL career went on, I started not to like hockey."

The American Hockey League...

"My first year in the American Hockey League was with Binghamton. Larry Pleau was our coach and he taught me a lot. I probably had 20 fights and things were starting to change. I was drafted in the 9th round by the Washington Capitals and met with Bryan Murray and David Poile at our year-end meeting. They called me in and told me the 15 goals I scored were pretty good for a rookie in the AHL, but if I were going to make the Washington Capitals, I would have to fight. The next year in Binghamton, I had 41 fights in 57 games. I had established myself as the guy they wanted."

The National Hockey League...

"After staring the next year in the AHL, the Caps finally called me up. My first game was in Washington against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And my first assignment was to cover Mario Lemieux! Here I'am a fourth-liner and I'm starting the game against Lemieux. On one play, a drop pass went over my stick and resulted in a scoring chance for Lemieux. When I got to the bench, Bryan Murray really let me have it. 'I'll bury you so far that The Hockey News won't find you.' I never saw another shift that game."

Going to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 with the Kings...

"Wayne Gretzky, before the Final started, told us that when you go home and brush your teeth, that is the only time you look at yourself and that's when you're real with yourself. It was something they did in Edmonton. If you gave it your all today for the team and were honest and worked together, we're going to have success."

Hanging up his skates...

"I got picked up by Anaheim the following year ('93-'94) in the expansion draft. I suffered a shoulder injury and after two operations, I retired from the Mighty Ducks."

Left to Right: Kevin Shea, Danny Lewicki & Jimmy Thomson
In hockey terms, the three stars of the night were Kevin Shea, Danny Lewicki and Jimmy Thomson and getting the game puck was our host, Mike Wilson!

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