Copyright © 2016 by Oksanna Crawley
Previously published as So, You Be Keon and I’ll Be Mahovlich
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All NHL logos and marks and NHL team logos and marks depicted herein are the property of the NHL and the respective NHL Teams and may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of NHL Enterprises, L.P. NHL 2009. © All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
Photograph credits: (used with permission)
Barilko’s last goal, Imperial Oil, Turofsky, 1951, Hockey Hall of Fame, Toronto.
Maple Leaf souvenir program, January 19, 1949, Toronto versus Montreal, Hockey Hall of Fame, Toronto.
Fairchild 24 airplane by Eric Presten.
The illustrations were rendered in soft pastels on pastel paper.
Available through your favourite book retailer.
[To Niall and Larissa
“Every young hockey player, girl or boy, dreams of being in Niall’s place and having the same results. That’s what makes the story so much fun … I enjoyed the story very much.”
—David Keon, Honoured Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Toronto, and former Toronto Maple Leafs Captain
“Such a heartwarming hockey story—the magic, the tragic, the mystery—just wonderful!”
—Anne (Barilko) Klisanich, sister of Bill Barilko
“A Field of Dreams for kids …”
—Peter Carver, Editor, Author and Children’s Writing Instructor
I’d like to thank the late Anne Klisanich (Bill Barilko’s sister) for her kindness; David Keon for his generosity; Visual Artist Sheri Tenaglia, my art instructor; Elizabeth Day, my editor, at Authorhouse; my husband, Brendan, and son, Niall, my hockey consultants; my daughter, Larissa, for her advice and constant encouragement; Craig Campbell and Ron Ellis at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto; The National Hockey League and the Toronto Maple Leafs; the Toronto Star, The Toronto Telegram, The Globe and Mail newspapers; Kevin Shea and his book “Barilko: Without a Trace”; Brampton Memorial Arena; the late D. Johnson, my grade 10 English Literature teacher for telling me that I would become a writer; and the spirit of Bill Barilko.
Thwack! The frozen puck bounced off the end boards. It was a cold, clear winter’s night with a blue-black sky, and I was alone on the ice across the street from Grandpa’s house.
After my dad died in 1965, my mom and I moved to Timmins to live with Grandpa. I didn’t know just how special that outdoor rink would become. I practised on it morning, noon, and night, and I dreamed of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs! But, I had one big obstacle. I was afraid to try out for the Timmins Wolves. That was my local team.
That cold winter’s night, I pretended the rink was Maple Leaf Gardens and I was slick number 14, Dave Keon, my hero. There I was, breaking for some open ice, handling that puck and stick as if they were a part of me. I could hear the play-by-play announcer’s voice in my head: “Keon, perfect pass to Mahovlich streaking up the left-wing boards. Back to Keon in the slot, dekes around Pilote, pulls Hall out of the net. Backhand! He scores! Keon picks the top right corner!” There was wild applause!
Just then, I heard another voice behind me.
“Nice moves, kid.”
Out of the darkness stepped a young man in a Maple Leafs uniform. There was something different about the uniform; it looked old-fashioned, more like a sweater than a real jersey, and the leaf was fancier. The man was really tall and had blond hair and a great big smile.
He glided onto the ice, and suddenly the darkness around me disappeared. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the bright lights. I could hear the sounds of skate blades and pucks hitting the boards. I looked around, and my jaw dropped—we were in Maple Leaf Gardens, the real Maple Leaf Gardens, standing right on the blue line. There were players practising all around us, but, oddly, no one even glanced at us. Some of them looked very familiar.
“Who are you?” I asked this man who had appeared out of the darkness.
“My name’s Bill,” he replied. He had the number 5 on his back, but I couldn’t remember who wore that number.
“My name’s Niall,” I said. “It’s easy to remember—just think of the Nile River.”
“Okay, Niall,” he said. “So, you be Keon and I’ll be Mahovlich.”
I had fun playing hockey with this guy who made it look like a piece of cake. We must have been there for at least half an hour shooting and passing, but before I could ask him any more questions, he skated off the ice and was gone.
In that instant, I was transported back to the little rink across the street from my house. Gone were the bright lights, and all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. My breath became a silvery mist in the crisp night air, and I realized that my icy toes needed warming.
I went home for a cup of my mom’s hot cocoa and told her about my amazing trip to the Gardens. She laughed!
“You’ve always had such a wild imagination, Niall!”
Had I just been daydreaming?
I went back to the rink across the street the next night, wondering if the mysterious hockey player would show up again. It was hard to concentrate, but I was able to focus enough to practise skating backwards for a while. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone coming out of the snow-laden trees. I smiled when I saw the Maple Leafs uniform, and he smiled too. It was Bill. He was back.
Then, just like magic, we were back in the Gardens on the ice. Bill was showing me some amazing tricks with the puck when out of the blue he said, “So, you don’t want to try out for the Wolves, eh, Niall? How do you expect to play in the big leagues then?”
“Hey, I didn’t say anything about the big leagues.”
“You want to play for the Leafs, don’t you?” Bill asked.
“Well, yes,” I answered. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Well, what’s the matter?”
A lump came to my throat. But when I looked up into his blue eyes, there was something so warm and kind that I knew I could tell him.
“Well, I … I guess—I’m afraid,” I stammered. “What if I don’t make the team?”
“You think that you’re not good enough?”
“Well, kind of,” I said looking down at my skates.
“Don’t be afraid. I’ve got something that can help you.” He held out his stick, which looked as if it had been in a thousand games. “This is a special stick. It’s the one I used to score my last goal. You have to believe in the stick, Niall, but most important of all, you have to believe in yourself. I’ll be there when you try out.” With that, he took my old stick and placed his in my hands.
In an instant, I was back home on my rink, and Bill was nowhere to be seen. To my surprise, I was still holding his stick. I carried it home, and I somehow just knew that the moment of truth had arrived.
I was very nervous when the big day came. As I lugged my heavy hockey bag through the doors of the arena, I began to think it had all just been a dream, and that there was no Bill. But then, I looked down at that beat-up, old stick in my hand.
The ritual of putting on my shin pads, taping them in place, lacing up my skates, and slipping on my jersey seemed to calm me.
I went out there looking for Bill, and to my amazement, there he was, up in the stands, still wearing that old Maple Leafs uniform. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. No one else seemed to notice him.
Well, I skated and stick-handled that puck in a way I’d never done before.
“Not bad, not bad at all!” exclaimed the coach. “Where’d you learn to play like that? And where have you been hiding!”
I made the team and went home the happiest boy in the world. Maybe that stick was magic!
But if it was, the magic wore off pretty quickly. The season didn’t exactly get off with a bang. Our first five games out, we won only once—and I was no star. I hadn’t seen Bill since the tryout. Then one evening when I was out on my rink practising, Bill appeared, and in the blink of an eye we were back in the Gardens.
“So, things aren’t going that well, are they?” said Bill.
“No, no, they’re not. I just can’t seem to play the way I thought I could. I guess I’m not that great after all.”
“You’ve got to keep up your spirits, kid,” said Bill while he showed me his amazing backhand. “You try it now,” he said. I swooped in and tried to backhand it just like Bill. “That’s it—harder! There will always be great skaters and big shooters, but the team with the most heart will be the truly great team. Never, never quit, kid. And remember—use the stick.”
I took Bill’s advice and played my heart out. It seemed to really fire up my teammates, too. We got a winning streak going—six games in a row! We were hot, and Bill was always there for me, alone in the stands, watching and smiling.
We made it to the finals; it was the Wolves versus the Hawks. The best-of-three series was tied at one game apiece. It was tomorrow or never. I had my stick and I had Bill—how could we lose?
I was cracking off some slap shots across from my house when Bill skated onto the ice.
“I can’t stay long tonight,” he said. “Are you ready for tomorrow, kid?”
“I’m starting to get a little worried,” I admitted. “I don’t know if I can keep it up. The Hawks are a really tough team.”
“Never forget, Niall, that it’s a team game, and you’re a centre. Just set up your buddies and you’ll do okay.”
Bill headed for the net. “Show me what you can do, kid. Try to get one past me.”
After a few goes, Bill gave me some last-minute advice. “Even though you’re a centre, don’t forget to back-check and help your defencemen, too. You’re doing great.” He winked. “Good luck, Niall. I’ve got to go.”
“But, Bill, you’re going to be there tomorrow night, aren’t you? You wouldn’t—”
He vanished before I could finish my sentence. In my bed that night, I tossed and turned, worrying about the most important game of my life.
The next day, I couldn’t think of anything else. The big game had finally arrived. At the arena, the home crowd was bustling with excitement. The place smelled of buttery popcorn and old, damp wood. I looked up in the stands for Bill, but he wasn’t there. I got a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Now what?
The puck dropped and we were off. Both teams were really hyped. The Hawks’ right-winger picked up the puck behind our net. He passed it up to his centre who—whack!—let go a slap shot that sailed that puck right over our goalie’s shoulder. Oh, no.
But just before the buzzer sounded to end the first period, my left-winger, Sid, got it past their goalie to tie it up.
The Hawks went ahead 2 to 1 on a power play in the second period.
Still no Bill. I was beginning to lose hope.
The third period was even more frustrating. I was sitting on the bench when a voice whispered in my ear, “Never give up, kid. Never, never quit.” I spun my head around, but there was no one.
Just then my coach tapped my shoulder. “You’re up.”
There was just one minute left when the Hawks got a penalty for slashing. This was our big chance!
The face-off was to the left of the Hawks’ goalie. At the precise moment the puck hit the ice, my stick swept it back to Gus, my defenceman. As Gus moved to his left and began his wind-up, I headed for the net. The goalie got his pad out just in time. The rebound came right back to me, and all I had to do was flip it into the roof of the net.
“He sccooorrrres!” The buzzer sounded and the place went wild! People whistled. Horns blasted! We were tied two-all. I’d saved my team from elimination! Now, it was sudden death overtime; whoever scored first would win. But where was Bill?
Play had just resumed when the worst possible thing happened. Sid had just slid the puck out to me in the slot. I slammed it with such force that I heard a terrible CRACK! I looked up in horror to see my splintered stick blade spinning through the air. How could I play without Bill’s stick?
In desperation, my eyes searched the stands for Bill. Then I heard it again right in my ear. “Never, ever give up,” the voice whispered.
I skated hard to our bench for a new stick. The Hawks were buzzing all around our net.
I hustled to get back into play. I saw the Hawks’ right-winger pass the puck back to his defenceman. He was already winding up for a slap shot. But before he could make contact, I deftly hooked the puck away.
Sid streaked up the ice, and we had a two-man break. The crowd chanted, “Go, Wolves, go! Go, Wolves, go!”
As we closed in on the net, Sid faked a shot and slid the puck over to me. I watched as the puck appeared to take forever to reach me. All of a sudden, that small, shiny piece of black rubber seemed as big as a soccer ball as it loomed toward me. I could see it parting the thin layer of shaved ice on the rink’s surface. In my ears, the noise of the crowd was just a faint din far, far away.
This is it! If I score now, I’ll be the hero. But I thought about Bill, and instead, I slid the puck back to Sid. He tapped it past the sprawled out goalie into the open side of the net.
The crowd went crazy! We’d done it! The trophy was ours!
Mom and Grandpa were so proud of me. When we got home, I was thinking about Bill. I knew inside my heart why he hadn’t come, but I missed him deeply.
“I just want to go out to the rink for a minute, okay?” I said to Mom.
“Haven’t you had enough hockey for today?”
I shook my head with a pleading look in my eyes.
“Okay, but not for long,” she said smiling.
As I approached the ice, I could see that someone was skating out there. Could it be? My heart jumped. It was him!
“Bill! Hi!” I shouted with excitement as I raced up to the ice.
“Hey, kid!” he said, smiling that big grin. “Congratulations. Put ’er there.” He offered me his hand.
“Thanks, Bill,” I said, shaking his hand so hard I thought it was going to fall off.
“Know what I think?” he said. “I think you’ve got what it takes to make it in the big leagues. You’ve got heart, Niall. Your father would be very proud of you.”
I was so thrilled I thought I was going to explode. Bill smiled ear to ear as he ruffled my hair. I threw my arms around him and gave him a big, grateful hug.
“I love you, Bill,” I said.
“Love you, too, kid. Now, go home and get some sleep.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding.
Then, he skated off to the opposite side of the ice, stepped over the snow, and disappeared into the darkness.
When I got home, I was thinking about Bill’s number.
“Why isn’t there a number 5 on the Leafs?” I asked Grandpa.
“Oh, no one’s donned that number for a long time,” he replied. “It was once worn by a fellow named Bill Barilko, born right here in Timmins. He was one of the best defencemen the Leafs ever had—and your dad’s favourite player, by the way. He won the Stanley Cup for the Leafs back in ’51. I was lucky enough to be at that game.”
“Oh, let me tell you, it was really something. It was Toronto versus the Habs. A real classic match-up.”
Grandpa leaned forward in his chair, and his voice filled with passion for the game. “The Leafs were ahead three games to one in the series. Toronto was trailing 2 to 1 with less than a minute left,” he began.
“Then, Tod Sloan scores a goal on a power play to tie it up, and it’s sudden death overtime. About two minutes into play, the Leafs’ Harry Watson gets the puck. He takes a shot, but the Habs’ goalie stops it. Howie Meeker gets the rebound for the Leafs, goes behind the net, and passes it out front.”
“Is this where Barilko comes in, Grandpa?” I asked.
“You bet. Barilko sees the puck. He lunges in from the blue line and takes this incredible backhand shot that sweeps him right off his feet. He’s parallel to the ice,” Grandpa said, holding both arms out in front of him, head down.
“Wow! He must’ve looked as if he were flying!”
“You’re not kidding! Then, he shoots! He scores! Well, it was just shear madness in the stands and on the ice. Barilko was a hero! His buddies picked him up and carried him all over the ice as if he were the darn Stanley Cup. Yup, it’s a tragic story, that one,” Grandpa said, shaking his head. Sadness clouded his green eyes.
“Tragic? How’s it tragic, Grandpa? It was fantastic!”
“That was the last goal Barilko ever scored,” Grandpa replied. “That summer he went fishing with a buddy on James Bay. Their plane went down in the bush, not too far from here,” he said pointing out the window. “The trees covered up the plane, and they didn’t find the wreck until eleven years later in ’62. Ironically, that’s the next time the Leafs won the Cup.”
“He was killed in a plane crash?” I asked, the hairs on the back of my neck bristling. “He’s dead?”
“That’s right. And he was only twenty-four years old. I think I’ve got a picture of him.”
Grandpa went over to the bottom drawer of his dusty roll-top desk and started leafing through some old papers.
“Bingo!” he said. “Here’s the program with Barilko on it.”
A chill went up my spine. On the cover of the program was a photo of Bill Barilko, number 5, clear as day.
I let out a gasp. Grandpa asked if I was all right.
“You look a little pale, Niall.”
“Yes,” I whispered, but that’s all I said.
And, although sometimes I can still feel his presence, I’ve never seen Bill again.
These are the facts upon which this story is based:
• Bill Barilko was born in Timmins, Ontario, Canada on March 25, 1927.
• He joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as a defenceman in 1947.
• He wore number 5,
• He was 5 feet 11 inches tall, 185 pounds, and was described in the news media as blond, blue-eyed, handsome, and good-natured with a smile for everyone.
• On April 21, 1951, Barilko became a national hero when he scored a sudden-death overtime goal against the Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup for the Maple Leafs.
• Just four months later, on August 24, Barilko went on a fishing trip in northern Ontario with a friend.
• On August 26, their plane disappeared somewhere between Rupert House (on James Bay) and Timmins.
• The largest air search in Canadian history to that date was conducted, and it lasted for weeks, but no sign of the plane was found.
• On June 6, 1962, 11 years later, the wreck of the plane, with the two bodies still inside, was found near Cochrane, Ontario.
• 1962 was the same year the Maple Leafs won their next Stanley Cup.
About the Author
Oksanna Crawley is a retired teacher and former award-winning broadcast journalist
who worked at radio stations in Saskatchewan and at CKEY Radio in Toronto. She was born in Val d’Or, Quebec and graduated from the University of Toronto a long time ago.
"The Mysterious Hockey Player" is a heart-warming story about a little boy's dream to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The story cleverly weaves historical fact with fiction as it tells a magical and action-packed tale of the boy's hopes and of the mysterious hockey player who tries to help him overcome his fears and pursue his passion." -Oksanna Crawley "Most young readers will find something appealing in this story. Though centered around hockey, the message is applicable to any goal...(the book) is sure to hold a place of honor on the bookshelves of all who read it." - Foreword Clarion (5-Star rating) One of Best Books of 2010 - Canadian School Libraries Association (Published in print as "So, You Be Keon and I'll Be Mahovlich")