Sometimes the past is interesting not because of its long-term historical significance or because it might teach us some questionable lesson about the present, but simply because it contains wondrous reminders of the serendipity of fate. I am fascinated by a goal that Bill Barilko scored on April 21, 1951, not because it was a precursor to Paul Henderson's life-saving marker in 1972, or to Sidney Crosby's goal of redemption at the Olympics, but because I was there. There were officially 14, 577 fans at that game-well, plus one because my grandmother slipped me through the turnstile (the attendants all knew her by name) and squeezed me onto the bench beside her in the first row grays, directly above the south blue line. I was seven.

In those days there was an imposing formality to the Gardens, encouraged by the militaristic owner and GM Conn Smythe. Everyone dressed in their Sunday best, in suits, furs and fedoras. The intermission entertainment was by a band or orchestra playing live on the south balcony and, mercifully, we were spared the ghastly noise of the piped music and shilling that corrupts the ears in stadiums these days. The only sounds were made by enthusiastic fans, who would not dream of disturbing their neighbours during play to buy refreshments, and by the contact and whistles of the game itself. In moments of quiet, a garage owner by the name of John Arnott, famously beckoned the Leaf captain Ted Kennedy with a plangent, almost plaintif call, "C'mon.... Teeederrrrrrr.” The long climb up the Gardens stairs and through a warren of dark hallways was daunting to a boy but was rewarded by the view from the top into the massive dome held high, it seemed to me precariously, by slender bands of steel, and by the pristine sheet of ice below. Afraid of heights, it was years before I could look up at the catwalk over which Foster Hewitt made his way to his famous "gondola.” In fact the very idea gave me nightmares.

Granny, as I called Mrs Annie Radford (she was not my real grandmother but a good Samaritan who had partly adopted me), was a fanatic Leaf fan who had been a subscriber since the days when the Leafs were the St Pats and played in the "old Mutual Street Arena.” She believed in the good Protestant values of work and humility and the industrious Leafs were made in that image. She was even a little suspicious of the fancy "dipsy doodler” Max Bentley, for whom Smythe had recently traded a pack of hard working drones. She hated the Montreal Canadiens, who were not only French and Catholic, but in her eyes were unseemly in their flash and Latin tempers. For her, Maurice Richard was the epitome of evil, a "louse” in her strongest language. The fact that he was an incredible hockey player irritated her no end and she could only put his success down to a pact that he had made with the devil.

Newspaper reporters wrote afterwards that they had never heard such uproarious cheering as they heard that night, so it is not surprising that I have vivid memories of that game. The Leafs led the series three games to one, but all four games had gone into overtime, with Sid Smith,Ted Kennedy and Harry Watson scoring for the Leafs and the dreaded Richard for the Canadiens. The two teams were separated in Smythe's expression, "by an eyelash.”

Early in the game a Toronto defenceman was penalized for charging. He was not the kind of player Granny approved of, rambunctious and pugilistic. And he took chances, ignoring the dictum of his coach "Hap” (the nickname was ironic) Day to "stay at home.” Granny was upset and distracted by his penalty (she literally picked her nails from her fingertips when the game got tense and hated powerplays, on either side). I determined that very minute that the feisty defenceman would be my favorite player. I wanted to know his name and I remember licking my finger and writing the number 5 on the wooden railing in front of her and pestering her until she petulantly answered with his name: "Barilko!”

Bill Barilko was a burly young man born in Tisdale Township, amid the mining camps of northern Ontario. His immigrant parents from Poland and Belarus struggled to make ends meet. Bill and his brother Alex made do with hand-me-down cloths and skates from their father's boss. An indifferent student, Bill quit school at 15 and drove truck for one of the local mines. He learned to skate in his mid-teens and although he worked hard he was never a fluent skater-but he determined to get where he was going and he arrived with malice. (He did not spare his teammates in practice either, but warned them of his arrival with a "beep beep.”) The irascible Smythe saw an ideal in him ("if you can't beat them on the ice, beat them in the alley” he famously ordained) and in 1947 promoted him to the Leafs directly from their lowest farm team, the Hollywood Wolves. In those days bodychecking was an artform, particularly the "hip check,” and Barilko became its master. More than once the slick skating Boston centre Milt Schmidt found himself airborne trying to skate around Barilko.

Barilko and other toughs like Bill Eziniki were "ruffians” to Granny. She reserved her praise for the classy Syl Aps and the tenacious Ted Kennedy. She encouraged the underdogs and unappreciated soldiers like Hugh Bolton, master in her mind of the effective "poke check,” which obviated the need for violence. Furthermore, Barilko had an ethnic air about him that unsettled her British nativism.

The game itself was as closely contested as the previous four. It was scoreless after the first period, which saw two players carried off on stretchers: the Leaf captain Kennedy (he would return) and Canadien Bobby Dawes (with a broken leg, he would not). The irrepressible Richard scored on a solo rush and Tod Sloan tied it for the Leafs. Barilko fueled my quiet adoration by getting into a fight with Tom Johnson and into a stick swinging duel with goalie Gerry McNeil. He seemed determined to pound the Habs into submission. Paul Meger put Montreal up 2-1 with a goal in the third period and McNeil turned back Meeker, Kennedy and Timgren in successive assaults. Coach Day pulled Leaf goalie Al Rollins with 1:33 to go and Sloan scored his second goal on a goalmouth scramble. The crowd erupted, "joy crazed,” according to the Toronto Star.

Richard almost ended the game in early overtime with a breakaway. He deked Rollins and was about to score when Barilko swept in from nowhere to deflect the puck from the goal line. (These events have since been verified by silent films taken at the game-except the goals, which have been excised for highlight reels!)

Foster Hewitt, broadcasting to 3 million listeners on the radio, described what happened at 2:53 of the aptly named "sudden death” overtime: "Meeker went by the net. Centres out in front. McNeil fell. In front again. Watson shoots. He shoots, he scores! Barilko! Barilko has won the Stanley Cup for the Leafs!” Ignoring his coach's constant imprecations to stay back and keep his position, Barilko had pounced on the centering pass, tripped over teammate Cal Gardner (who might have scored with the same loose puck) and backhanded the puck over the sprawling McNeil. "You see! You see! Barilko!” I shouted to Granny. She was quiet. For her the thrill of victory was always far less pervasive than the relief of not losing.

Barilko, Toronto Maple Leafs, Stanley Cup
Bill Barilko frozen in time as he scores his Cup winning goal, April 21, 1951 (Hockey Hall of Fame).

How much of the enduring appeal of that goal is owing to the subsequent tragedy is hard to say. Certainly no one foresaw that it would be Barilko's last game. The following summer, on August 26 1951, Barilko and his friend and amateur pilot Henry Hudson took off from Rupert House (not far from where Hudson's namesake was lost) in a fish-laden, single engine bush plane and disappeared into the tangled forest of northern Ontario. I was devastated, flabbergasted, confused. How does a 7-year old sort out the mythic implications of the death of a hero? Barilko's number 5 was etched onto my heart and even today is the nearest thing I have to a superstition. The site of the crash was not discovered until 1962, 100 kilometres NW of Cochrane, supposedly lifting a curse and allowing the Maple Leafs to win another Cup, as they conveniently did that year.

More certain is the effect on memory of the astonishing photograph of the goal snapped by Ned Turofsky on his Graflex camera, with such exquisite timing that he caught the puck in the net before the goal light had flashed. McNeil is planted on his seat, having stumbled trying to follow Meeker's antics behind the net. Richard waits for a pass he will never get. Meeker will never see the moment of glory, as he is plastered against the boards by Tom Johnson. Barilko is suspended in mid air, frozen in time, forever elated, forever young.

A dark, grainy film clip of the goal can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaHdiOt_1Rw (Hewitt's commentary has been dubbed and does not describe the play.)

A few clips of Barilko bodychecks, one that sends Detroit's Gordie Howe flying can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blddhUFvkZk&NR=1