I’ve gone through a revival with the Tragically Hip in the past couple of years. I’d seen them live about a decade ago and kept a few of their albums close, but obviously, the news about Gord Downie’s condition and ultimate fate spurred a re-inspection.
In what’s sure to not be a shocker, there was a lot more there than I’d initially found all those years ago. There was a depth to the lyrics that was much richer than I’d realized, the music was at once involved and catchy … the Tragically Hip was a goddamn great band. This shouldn’t be breaking news to anyone who cares about rock and roll.
Obviously, a song that’s captured my attention in the past year is “Fifty Mission Cap.” It’s one I knew, but I clearly listened to Day for Night a lot more than Fully Completely. So it found its hooks into me in a new way — I catch myself singing it to myself constantly now, and I also decided to finally dig into the story. And so we meet Bill Barilko, a 24-year-old defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs who scored the decisive goal in the 1951 Stanley Cup Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. In a still that almost previews Bobby Orr’s famous, Cup-clinching goal 19 years later, Barilko is seen lunging forward on a loose puck, firing it past Montreal’s Gerry McNeil.
About four months later, Barilko boards a plane for a fishing trip before the next season’s training camp with his dentist and is never seen again. Their bodies are discovered 11 years later, and in the time between, the Leafs went on a drought that saw the Canadiens, Red Wings and Blackhawks take turns with the Cup. They won it that year, though, as Downie tells us in the song.
Downie’s story revolves around a air force pilot who’s flown a number of high-octane missions working in his cap and using a hockey card to keep the front of the crown upright. It serves form and function, and it hides a little totem inside his hat that only he knows is there.
This is an idea I can get behind. I’ve kept two baseball cards — Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek — in my wallet together in a top-loader for years. For just as long, I’ve also kept a Patrice Bergeron card in the console of my car in something as close to a lucky charm as I’ve got.
And the notion that a pilot from long ago could’ve used a card to prop up his cap isn’t totally ridiculous. Apparently, playing cards were more customary, but there was a Parkhurst card that was issued that celebrates the same goal that Pro Set commemorated — albeit in 1952, seven years after the end of World War II. I’m not sure if they still issued caps for missions during peace time, but “Fifty Mission Cap” isn’t supposed to be a documentary.
It’s fiction that revolves around the discovery of this incredible story, the agonizing tragedy of a disappearance and loss and how it wraps itself around the community surrounding the most Canadian of sports. And, how even a decorated fighter pilot could pull inspiration from it and use it to prop up the most prominent symbol of his heroism.
I’ve done none of these things, but I’d want that card, too. I have a good number of cards from 1991-92 Pro Set, but this one never fell out of a pack into my nine-year-old self’s lap. But it was too good a story not to find one for myself. So for about $4 on eBay, I nabbed one — in French — and it’s been sitting on my desk for a few weeks now. It’s not a bad reminder that I need to work on rediscovering my French skills.
And it’s a little weird at this exact moment with the Bruins on the eve of a playoff matchup with the Maple Leafs, but glory for Toronto isn’t why I’m keeping it here. I think Gord would be on my side on that part. It’s a memento of a great song, a great goal and a great moment in the life of a young man who wasn’t long for this world, not to mention another great man we lost too soon. So I’ll keep it close by.