Legendary Leafs goalie stood apart
Saskatchewan native Johnny Bower showed determination to make it to the NHL where he displayed a calm demeanour in the heat of battle
He was called the China Wall because he was solid, resolute and, so it was suggested, almost as old.
Johnny Bower tended goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their last great championship era, as valuable a contributor as any to the Stanley Cups won in 1962, 1963, 1964 and, as the oldest man on the greatest team of veterans ever assembled, 1967.
He was known for his calm demeanour, rarely letting fear or a soft goal disturb his composure. In the sixties, the NHL boasted five legendary goaltenders of distinct characters and styles: Terry Sawchuk, a crouching bundle of anxiety; Glenn Hall, nervous and acrobatic; Jacques Plante, the eccentric innovator with panache; Gump Worsley, a rolling, improvising battler; and Mr. Bower – imperturbable, with utter economy of motion.
Unlike others whose skills were evident and acknowledged at an early age, Mr. Bower endured an extended apprenticeship and would not achieve stardom until reaching an age when even the greatest athletes are well into decline.
Mr. Bower died on Dec. 26 at the age of 93 after a short battle with pneumonia, according to a family statement.
He was born into a large Saskatchewan family of nine girls and two boys raised primarily by their father. The separation of his parents and his formative years under the surname Kiszkan – matters Mr. Bower consistently sidestepped in interviews – would later foster speculation about his age. So would his medical discharge from the Canadian army in 1944. His hockey exploits in Prince Albert, however, lend credence to his stated birthdate.
Goaltending appealed to him when he was eight years old – despite the discomfort of a stationary post on frigid outdoor rinks. "I used to watch the defencemen and forwards get bounced around, knocked down and get back up again," he once told writer Stan Fischler. "I figured, heck, I got it better than they do. At least I'm still standing on my feet."
The Kiszkan household couldn't afford anything beyond necessities, however, so young Johnny improvised. A friend fashioned goalie pads from a discarded crib mattress. His first skates were a battered oversized pair that he made fit by stuffing socks in the toes. He couldn't buy a hockey stick, so his father found a crooked tree branch and carved one out of it. ("I'll tell you, it was really heavy but it lasted a long time," he recalled.)
Any long-range plans he entertained were dashed by the outbreak of the Second World War. Sacrificing the experience and attention-grabbing potential of junior hockey, he lied about his age to enlist as a 15-year-old, only to have all his plans – athletic, military and contingency – go awry.
"A lot of us younger guys joined the reserve in [Prince Albert]," Mr. Bower said. "To us, being a soldier was a big thing; we probably didn't know better. We were just kids. They'd train us to march and to handle rifles. I went overseas around 1943 and I was going to play hockey at one of the camps, but when I arrived I found out that Turk Broda and pretty well all the pros that played for the Maple Leafs were on this hockey team, so I turned around."
Training exercises that included fording neck-high streams inflicted Mr. Bower with arthritis, which rendered him unfit for combat. Shipped back to Prince Albert in 1944, the 20-year-old had a year of junior hockey eligibility remaining and backstopped both the junior Blackhawks and the senior Warhawks, most of whom were employed at the local munitions works.
"The Warhawks were a proud team," he said. "A lot of former Warhawks had died at Dieppe."
Still identified as Kiszkan in 1944-45 team pictures, he adopted the surname Bower upon turning professional the following season with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, the best collection of talent next to the NHL.
By the early 1950s, he was probably among the 10 best goalies in the world, a status that would guarantee $3-million a season in today's NHL but in the Original Six era meant steady minor-league work at about $5,000. It took eight full campaigns in Cleveland for Mr. Bower to earn an NHL assignment: all 70 games of the 1953-54 season with the New York Rangers. His debut was solid: a 2.60 goals-against average (GAA), 29-31-10 won-lost-tied record and five shutouts. While in New York, he perfected the poke-check, which became his signature move.
"That's where I met Charlie Rayner," Mr. Bower said of a fellow Saskatchewan-born goaltender.
"He had retired but he watched me closely and was a great help because he taught me how to do the poke-check. It was very effective for me – one of my best weapons."
Nevertheless, the Rangers reinstalled Mr. Worsley between the pipes the following winter and, save for seven games in emergency duty for the Rangers, Mr. Bower spent four more years as a minor leaguer with the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks, the AHL's Providence Reds and, completing a career circle, the Cleveland Barons.
Unhappy as the Rangers' property and resigned to finishing his career in the minors, Mr. Bower got a fresh opportunity in 1958 when Punch Imlach was appointed general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mr. Imlach, a former AHL coach, claimed the 34-year-old goalie in that summer's interleague draft and proved his intention to give him a genuine shot at the NHL by travelling all the way to the Waskesiu Golf Club north of Prince Albert – where Mr. Bower ran the canteen and met his wife, Nancy – to sign him to a new contract.
Within half a season, Mr. Imlach fired head coach Billy Reay, placed himself behind the bench and promoted Mr. Bower from Ed Chadwick's backup to the No. 1 goalie. Soon the Maple Leafs reclaimed their status, squandered since 1951, as a dominant force: Stanley Cup finalists in 1959 and 1960, 10 consecutive winning seasons, regular-season champions in 1962-63 (to date their only first-place overall finish since 1948) and the four Stanley Cup triumphs.
By his third season in Toronto, he was the linchpin of the team's defensive emphasis. In 1960-61, at the age of 36, Mr. Bower cast off all shreds of the minor-league mantle by leading the NHL in wins and goals-against average, earning the Vézina Trophy and making the first all-star team.
Even his inability to complete the final series in 1962 was heroic. Facing the hardest shooter of his (and perhaps any) day, Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks, Mr. Bower executed a classic "splits" save, stretching his left leg and arm to snatch a bullet-like slap shot pegged for the low corner. But the move ripped his left hamstring and put him on crutches for the rest of the playoffs. Pain and injury were commonplace for goaltenders of the era, who wore inadequate padding and, in most cases, no facial protection. Mr. Bower eschewed a mask for games until his final contest in 1969 and took at least 250 stitches in his face over his career. Mr. Imlach ushered in the two-goalie system in 1964-65 by acquiring Mr. Sawchuk to share the load. Competitive but declining, the aging Maple Leafs arose for a storybook win in 1967, the centennial year, upsetting first the regular-season champion Blackhawks and then the ultraswift Montreal Canadiens to claim the Stanley Cup. Mr. Bower, by then 42, won only two playoff games before a pulled hamstring sidelined him: a 3-0 shutout in the Montreal Forum in Game 2 and a spectacular 52-save effort for a 3-2 double-overtime victory in Game 3 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
He could still produce such performances because of his dedication to fitness and practice. Even near the end of his playing days, he drew admiration from Mr. Imlach as the best-conditioned athlete on the team. Ultimately, that self-discipline was rewarded with extended NHL service and enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He holds no NHL career records but might have if the league had been a 30-, 20- or even 12-team loop after the Second World War. Mr. Bower won more professional hockey games than any goaltender before or since: 639 in the regular season (250 in the NHL, 389 in the minors), 67 in playoffs (35 NHL, 32 minors).