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It was late January of 1953, Dan Robson writes – Johnny Bower was the goalie for the Cleveland Barons, playing in Pittsburgh against the Hornets. ‘The puck… smacked him directly in the mouth. He was nearly knocked unconscious by the blow. The impact drove his teeth through his flesh. … The game slammed to a worried halt.’

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Legendary goaltender Johnny Bower extends to make a save during his days playing for the American Hockey League's Cleveland Barons.Imperial Oil – Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame

Excerpt from Bower: A Legendary Life by Dan Robson © 2018. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Nancy Bower woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rustling downstairs in the kitchen. She looked over to her husband’s side of the bed. He was gone, but his pillow was drenched through with blood.

Panicked, she rushed down the stairs to the kitchen, where she found Johnny struggling to tend to the terrible wound that had split above his lip. Nancy had seen her husband carry many cuts and bruises home from the games he played. He’d had his nose broken a few times and been knocked out now and then. It was common place for Johnny to come home with a new lump or cut on his face. (Team trainers often kept leeches to place on lumps and bring down the swelling.) Up to that point in his career, Johnny had already lost eight teeth. It was always scariest when an injury was close to an eye or the mouth. This was by the far the worst she’d seen.

Earlier that evening in late January, 1953, Nancy had been at their house in Cleveland listening to the live broadcast as the Barons played the Hornets 2½ hours away in Pittsburgh. She’d heard the reports that Johnny was down on the ice after taking a shot in the face. The puck, fired by the Hornets’ John McLellan, smacked him directly in the mouth. He was nearly knocked unconscious by the blow.

The impact drove his teeth through his flesh. It knocked out a four-tooth bridge he already had in his mouth. A pivot tooth broke. Another front bridge was shattered, one anchor tooth was knocked out and another was cracked. One of the broken teeth exposed a nerve.

The game slammed to a worried halt. Pittsburgh’s goalie, Gil Mayer, rushed across the ice to see if Johnny was okay and helped with first aid when Bower was taken to the locker room. Dr. Philip Faix, the Pittsburgh team physician, said it was the worst injury to a goaltender he’d ever treated. To Faix’s shock, Johnny asked the doctor to let him continue the game. Dr. Faix refused. Plastic surgery was needed to repair the damage to his lip.

A Barons front-office worker, Floyd Perras, had to come in from the stands, get dressed and finish the game. It was one of the game’s quirks that a team employee would take over in net if a goalie was hurt. The cost of keeping a second goalie was deemed too expensive, so the Barons’ promotional manager would have to do. To Perras’s credit, he did sometimes practise with the team. But the single-goalie system remains one of the most illogical rules of the game’s history.

Back in Cleveland, Nancy was still waiting for news on the radio. She hoped the team would have the sense to take Johnny to a hospital in Pittsburgh. When Nancy got a call saying her husband was travelling home on the team bus that night, she was incredulous. She waited and waited for him to arrive. Hours later, when he finally walked in the door, Johnny held a filthy-looking towel to his face, covered in blood.

“Didn’t they do anything for you?” she asked.

The doctor had cleaned up the wound, bandaged it and given Johnny an anesthetic to freeze out the pain.

Nancy tried to get Johnny to go to the hospital, but it was already late and he planned to get checked out in the morning. She had packed up some ice for him to put on the wound. But now, in the middle of the night, his pillow was drenched in blood and her husband was puttering around the kitchen, trying to mend his own face.

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Johnny Bower, right, speaks with fellow Toronto Maple Leads goalie Terry Sawchuk.FRED ROSS

“That’s it! We’re going to the hospital.”

At 3 a.m., she took her husband to get his face fixed.

The next morning, Nancy got a call from team management, asking why she’d taken Bower to the hospital.

“He never should have come home on the bus,” she said. “He was bleeding so bad.”

Nancy was told she should have taken Johnny to the hospital affiliated with the Barons, instead of the closest one to their house.

“Well,” she said, “that’s just too damn bad.”

After being transferred to the Barons’ infirmary of choice, Johnny spent the next several days lying in a hospital bed. It took 12 stitches to close the bloody gash above his lip. He’d need to have a full plate put in during the off-season, but Johnny wasn’t concerned about going toothless for a while. The Barons were battling for the top spot in the regular season and he just wanted to get back on the ice.

After missing just three games, Johnny returned – wearing a brace on his jaw and a big white bandage across his upper lip. He’d spent the week on a liquid diet, unable to chew solid food. Still, Johnny made 20 saves. It was a 3-0 loss, but he was heralded for his courage in returning to the team so quickly. But Johnny didn’t think much of the feat. His face would just go numb when he got hit with a puck, and later, when the pain set in, it wasn’t unbearable. Johnny simply viewed it as a test. If he didn’t get right back in the net – or if he did but flinched when a puck was shot at him – it would show that he was scared to play. He had to show that he wasn’t. At the time, wearing a mask in a game didn’t cross his mind. Sometimes he wore one in practice. It was a clear piece of Plexiglas that looked like something a welder would wear. Johnny hated it. Every time he wore it, it would fog up and he wouldn’t be able to see anything. So, despite his missing teeth, Johnny wasn’t about to start wearing a mask in games.

And anyway, he seemed to thrive in painful settings. Two nights after his return, the Barons tied the Syracuse Warriors 4–4 in an overtime draw. Johnny made 52 saves. A few nights later, he made 35 saves in a 4–2 win over the St. Louis Flyers.The following week, the Barons travelled to Buffalo to face the Bisons and a young netminder named Jacques Plante, who was his rival for top-goalie honours that year. The future Montreal Canadiens star would become the first NHL goaltender to wear a mask in games on a regular basis. A still-bandaged Johnny made 47 saves on 50 shots – while the Barons put seven past Plante on 40 shots, including one from the Barons’ end that skipped over his stick.

That season, Geoffrey Fisher, a reporter from the Cleveland News, started to refer to Johnny as “the China Wall” in his reports. Fisher first used the reference to describe how impenetrable the Barons goalie was after he’d posted a couple of shutouts. Johnny picked up the paper one morning and saw Fisher’s China Wall reference. He loved it. The Panther Man, as Johnny had been previously, just didn’t have the right ring to it. The idea of a vast, ancient wall was the perfect way to describe Johnny’s play – and it would become increasingly relevant as time went by. After Fisher first used the term, it stuck. And ever since, in the world of hockey the China Wall would be synonymous with Johnny Bower.

As the season wound down, in late March, Johnny had a bone chip removed from his upper jaw – and in the process, the doctor discovered that his jaw had been broken the entire time. “The dentist lanced the jaw, but Bower will play tonight,” reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Complications are still arising from a terrific face wound received by the star goalie.” Despite those lingering complications, Johnny finished the regular season with a 2.54 goals-against average and six shutouts.

In the league final that spring, the Barons battled the rival Pittsburgh Hornets for the Calder Cup. The Hornets were then a minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs and were coached by King Clancy, a former player with the franchise. Clancy would move up to coach the Leafs the following season and eventually settled into a role as the team’s assistant general manager, alongside Punch Imlach. Clancy was about to get a taste of what his future goalie was capable of.

Throughout the playoffs rumours swirled that the New York Rangers were planning to make a deal with the Barons that would finally bring Bower to the NHL. While he did his best to downplay the chatter, the battered Bower played like a man with something to prove. After putting up two shutouts in the first series over Syracuse, Johnny blanked the Hornets 2–0 in the opening game of the final series, as 8,500 fans packed into the Arena in Cleveland. Later, in Game 6, Johnny made 78 saves in a game that took four overtime periods to lose. The 3-2 victory by the Hornets in Pittsburgh forced a seventh game. During the game, Johnny was struck in the face by a puck that was thrown from the stands. Police officers were unable to track down the perpetrator. The match lasted for 121 minutes 46 seconds of playing time, less than a minute shy of the AHL record. It ended just before 2 a.m. “Yes, I’m tired,” Johnny admitted at practice the next day. “And I didn’t get much sleep. I was playing the game over, I guess. But I’ll be rested by tomorrow.”

Johnny was rested enough to post another shutout – his fourth of the playoffs – in Game 7 as the Barons and Hornets battled once again to overtime, this time tied at zero. In one of the more bizarre ways to win a championship, the Barons’ Bob Chrystal lobbed a high shot on goal from 70 feet out that bounced awkwardly, changing direction in front of Hornets goalie Gil Mayer and finding its way into the net. The Arena erupted as the Barons celebrated on the ice, crowding around the Calder Cup. It was the “longest and hardest-fought playoff series” in league history, the Plain Dealer would declare. The Barons pumped their fists in the air and let out a cheer as a camera captured the moment. Johnny, kneeling on the far left, had the biggest toothless smile of them all.

In eight seasons with the Barons, the shy kid from Prince Albert had become an AHL star. But could his success in the minors translate to the National Hockey League? Johnny himself didn’t doubt it. There was certainly a difference between the skill level of the NHL and AHL, but with only six teams in the top tier, Johnny had faced plenty of talent in the minors. Cleveland had been kind to Nancy and him. It was as much of a home as any other place he’d lived in his life. But the New York Rangers were knocking on the door, and answering would mean an opportunity to finally prove what many had long suspected – that Bower was one of the best in the game, period. The rumours excited him. A move to New York would also mean a higher salary, and in an era where even the best players had to pick up side jobs in the summers, turning down a raise just wasn’t an option.

As Johnny unstrapped his heavy, sweat-soaked leather pads after the Barons celebrated their Calder Cup win on the ice, he was asked about his future. Any deal made by the Barons required his approval.

“If they will match the National League salary here, I’ll stay,” Johnny said, making it a matter of simple economics. But Jim Hendy had already said he’d match any NHL salary his goalie was offered – while adding that he wouldn’t stand in the way if Bower wanted to leave. Still, he knew that after eight seasons in Cleveland, Bower was too good for the AHL. “We can’t hold him back any longer,” Hendy said.

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Gordie Howe, then with the Detroit Red Wings, puts a puck past Johnny Bower of the New York Rangers for his 215th goal on Nov. 11, 1953, in New York.The Associated Press

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