Whose puck is it anyway? The Hockey Hall of Fame and a long-time Leafs fan both claim to have the puck Bill Barilko used to score the historic OT goal in 1951.
Think for a moment about the pucks out there that have mass appeal because of their exceptional time stamps on hockey history. There are the individual milestone ones – the Wayne Gretzky puck breaking Gordie Howe’s scoring record, Mike Bossy’s 50-in-50 puck, dozens more like that. But what about the pucks marking seminal moments in the game? Paul Henderson’s winner from the 1972 Summit Series? Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal that won the 2010 Olympic gold? The Bill Barilko puck would have to be in that category as well, largely due to the mysterious disappearance of the Stanley Cup hero that same summer he scored his Cup-clinching goal. His body was eventually found 11 years later, but the mystery doesn’t end there. The famous puck that bore a hockey legend is in dispute. Is it the one that’s been on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame since it opened in 1961? Or has it been more humbly showcased on the Donohue family’s mantel nearly 65 years after Barilko won the Maple Leafs Lord Stanley’s mug?
The limousine showed up at the Wellington House on Cannon Street in Hamilton, Ont., at about 3:30 p.m. that cool, spring day April 21, 1951. Jeremiah Donohue patted the shoulder of his barkeep and told him not to wait up. “It’s going to be a late night,” he said with a wink. “A fun night.”
“Hey, Jeremiah! You sure you don’t want to take me with you?” a pickled patron bellowed across the tavern. “Doesn’t Harry have homework? There’s a nice radio in the corner he can listen to.” Just then, 16-year-old Harry, wearing a suit, came bounding down the stairs from his bedroom above the bar. “Let’s go, Dad. Let’s get there early. I want to see them warm up.” Jeremiah was passionate about hockey. The great-grandson of an Irish immigrant who settled in Hamilton, he had four season tickets to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940s and ’50s. Usually, he took one of his wife Jeannette, older son Jerry or younger son Harry to games, and Jeremiah always did so in a limo, since he didn’t drive. The other two tickets were typically meant for friends, business associates, even lucky patrons who frequented the Wellington House. On this Saturday, April 21, 1951, Harry was the lucky one up next in the Donohue family hockey queue. It just happened to be Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final between the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, with Toronto holding a 3-1 series lead. “We just have to find a way to stop The Rocket,” Harry said, tapping his dad’s hat as the limo began its hour-long journey to Toronto. “He’s scored in all four games so far. He’s unstoppable!” “But don’t forget, Harry, we won three of those four games,” Jeremiah reassured. “Yes, we needed overtime each game, but I’d settle for that one more time.” Harry always looked forward to a night out with his dad. Over the years, Harry and his brother had grown up to share their father with the community. Jeremiah was a fixture in Hamilton who loved to glad-hand and exchange stories. In a few short hours, he was about to witness a scene that would become Wellington House lore for decades. As the limo pulled up to Maple Leaf Gardens, Harry was a bundle of nerves and barely had anything to eat at dinner. Sitting in the Red section, 10 rows up from the blueline, father and son joined 14,575 others in attendance to watch a scoreless first period. When Maurice Richard opened the scoring for the Habs at 8:56 of the second period, Harry glared over at his dad and said, “See?” With Montreal nursing a 2-1 lead in the final 90 seconds of the third, Toronto coach Joe Primeau pulled goalie Al Rollins. It was down to the last 40 seconds when Canadiens coach Dick Irvin sent out his best players to lock down the match and force a Game 6 back in Montreal. It was Richard, Doug Harvey, Elmer Lach, Bert Olmstead and Butch Bouchard. In Montreal’s net was Gerry McNeil, the story of the game so far. Toronto star Ted Kennedy won the draw back to Max Bentley, who passed the puck to Sid Smith. A shot rang off the Montreal post, and the puck was scooped up by Tod Sloan, who scored the equalizer with 32 seconds left. Fans showered papers and programs on the ice and the band started playing. Jeremiah looked at his son and said, “See?” Harry was jumping up and down as rink personnel cleared the debris. During the 10-minute intermission before overtime, Harry couldn’t hear a thing in the corridors of the Gardens, just gibberish. All he could see through the cigarette smoke were fans whacking each other on the back. The Leafs pressed from the first second of the extra period. In the third minute of overtime, Howie Meeker worked the puck over the blueline and took a shot that McNeil kicked aside. A rolling puck was collected by Toronto defenseman Harry Watson. He passed it to Meeker, who rounded the Montreal net and fed it in front. ‘Bashin’ Bill Barilko came rushing in from the point and delivered a diving, head-first backhand shot that landed high in the net over McNeil to win the game and the Cup for Toronto. A legend was born. The walls of the Gardens seemed to vibrate with noise around Harry as he watched the mayhem on the ice. Toronto players left the bench and swarmed Barilko, then drifted to center ice to mob Rollins, the winning goalie. Montreal players stood in disbelief. Their season was over. When they skated over to congratulate the winners, Harry grabbed his father’s arm and leaned towards his ear. “Can I go down and get that puck in the Montreal net?” Jeremiah looked to the ice, then back at Harry. “Yes, but ask that usher first.” Harry weaved his way down the steps to the side of the boards, asked the attendant about the puck and pointed toward it. The usher nodded. Harry hopped over the boards, shuffled toward the empty Canadiens net and fished the puck out, holding it with both hands as he made his way back to his seat. “I’ll give you 20 bucks for that puck, young man,” said a fan in the first row as Harry swung his legs over the boards. But the boy wouldn’t oblige. “Nice souvenir you have, son,” Jeremiah said upon his return. “The overtime goal that won the Stanley Cup. I’m going to get that mounted for you, Harry.” On Monday morning, Jeremiah called a craftsman in Toronto who could build a wooden mount with a plaque that would display the winning Barilko puck. A week later, the family had it on their fireplace mantle where they lived above the Wellington House. Little did the Donohue family know how the Barilko legend would grow and grow all these decades later. Four months after scoring that Cup-winning goal, Barilko and a friend flew to northern Ontario for a fishing trip and were never seen again. Despite an expansive air search, their remains weren’t found for another 11 years. The Maple Leafs, who had won four Stanley Cups in a five-year window, ending with the Barilko goal in 1951, didn’t win another until 1962, the year he was discovered. If you read that above sentence in shrilly, rhythmic verse, that’s because The Tragically Hip song
Fifty Mission Cap is part of Barilko’s growing legend. The 1992 song is not the only thing Barilko-related that has resurfaced in the past generation or so. “The Hall of Fame still gets Barilko artifacts coming in,” said Phil Pritchard, the HHOF’s curator. “Just recently, a lady living up near where Barilko went fishing came to us with his fishing rod. She was a little girl in 1951 when Barilko gave it to her because the plane was so full of fish.” Also part of the Barilko display at the Hall are the flight papers from his last journey that ended with the crash, the OPP report, and the reward letter, not to mention his game-worn jersey and game-used stick. Back in Hamilton, Harry and Jeremiah would occasionally bring the puck sitting on its stand into the tavern and show it to appreciative customers, who would flip it in the air the way it flipped over McNeil’s blocker 2:53 into overtime. They’d study the crest on it, maybe even kiss it.
As Harry got older and was married, the Barilko puck would travel with him from one house to the next, always finding a prominent spot on the mantel. First, his oldest son, Dan, would play with it as a little boy, then Brian, then Chris, then Harry J. All four sons were aware it was Dad’s special puck, but they didn’t realize to what degree. “When Dad died (in 2013, at age 78),” his son Dan said, “my brothers thought the best way we could honor him and his memory was to loan the Barilko puck to the Hall of Fame so other fans could see it as well. Kind of like he and his father sharing it with hockey fans at the Wellington House.” That’s where this story hits a bump in the road. In preparing to pass along that special puck to the Hall of Fame in 2013, the Donohue family was stopped in its tracks by a stunning revelation: The Hockey Hall of Fame already has the Barilko Cup-winning puck. When Dan found that out, his nephew Nicholas Roberto did some digging and put together a research paper on NHL puck usage. He discovered the Hall of Fame’s designated Barilko puck was made by Spalding and used in the NHL from 1920 to 1942. On the other hand, the crest on Harry’s Barilko puck matches the ones used in the NHL from 1950 to 1958. The goal was scored in 1951. Is it possible the Hall has had an impostor puck all these decades? The mystery only gets cloudier here. The Hall had been accumulating material in the 1940s and ’50s before the exhibit officially opened in 1961, and the Barilko puck has been on display since then. But that was long before Pritchard’s time as curator, which goes back 27 years, and he’s been unable to track down the original source of the Hall’s Barilko puck. Dan also contacted CBC Archives to examine video footage of the Barilko goal, in the event he could track what happened to the puck after it eluded McNeil. “Wouldn’t it have been neat if in the background of celebrations, there was footage of my dad hopping the boards and grabbing that puck?” Dan said. “But the sports librarian said the camera pans away from the Montreal net and follows the Toronto players.” Dan’s next stop is the national archives, to see if any still images of the game exist. For now, and probably for eternity, there’s no irrefutable evidence Harry’s Barilko puck is the real deal. Could be it was just a puck shot into the stands during the warmup that day or earlier in the game and what happened afterward just fiction from the creative mind of a 16-year-old. “My rebuttal to that is, ‘You don’t know my father, and perhaps more importantly, my grandfather,’ ” Dan said. “My grandfather was a well-respected man in a lot of circles, and honesty meant everything to him. He wouldn’t have created a plaque and had that puck mounted had he not seen with his own eyes his son go on the ice and get it.” (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve known Dan for more than 20 years. We married into the same extended family. I knew his father, Harry, for the last decade of his life and can attest he was a man of honor and integrity.) The Hall of Fame is caught in a tough situation. It already has one Barilko puck on display. What’s it supposed to do? Decommission it on the word of a stranger all these decades after that special goal? “I hear Dan’s story and I have absolutely no reason not to believe it,” Pritchard said after meeting with Donohue in 2014. “It’s a great story. Why would anyone make that up? We’d love to have that in the Hall of Fame. I don’t know how we’d do it with the other (Barilko) puck already there, but we’d find a way. It’s a terrific story that’s worth telling and showing people. “The entire Barilko story is mystical and has snowballed over the years. He’s a cultural icon.” Next April marks the 65-year anniversary of the Barilko goal. And nothing would make the Donohue family happier than to see Harry’s puck validated and shared by the Hall of Fame. “I’d love to see that Barilko puck on display in my dad’s name,” Dan said. “A few years before he died, he said to me ‘Dan, whatever anybody ever says to you about the puck, just know this: it’s the real thing.’ ”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the November 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.