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Heck, forget the Alumni game in January—let's ask Johnny Bower if he’ll be a part-time back-up this coming season…

I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of old-timer games, or as they are called now (for marketing reasons, I guess…it seemingly always has to be about money and marketing) “Alumni” matches, but I have to say I was intrigued to see that Johnny Bower was going to “play” in the  game between the old Wings and Leafs at the University of Michigan next year, just ahead of the Winter Classic.  I mean, c’mon, the guy (one of the most beloved Leafs of all-time, no question) is what, almost 90 years old?

But good on him, as they say (I think they still say that).  The rest of the list of intended participants is nice, but Bower was the eye-catcher for me.

Even recent-to-the-party blue and white supporters know the name Johnny Bower.  They have likely read about him, heard of his nicknames (“The China Wall”, for example…) and are well aware that his number "1", while not retired, hangs up in the rafters at the Air Canada Center as one of the team’s treasured “honoured” jerseys.  It’s an honour that is richly deserved.

I can’t do justice in a few words to what he has meant to the organization, the city of Toronto or to the millions of Leaf fans around the world.  I can only speak about what he meant to me as a young Leaf supporter back in the day.

He was one of the first Leaf players that I really became aware of in the late 1950s when I first fell in love with hockey and the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Eddie Chadwick (right), the goalie who preceded Johnny as the “number-one” guy in Toronto, has always had a special place in my heart, too, and that was reinforced when I was able to interview Chadwick in my small-town radio days more than thirty years ago.  Despite being a former NHL’er and then  a well-known and widely respected NHL scout (I think for the Islanders, at the time, maybe the Oilers, I’m trying to remember) he was as unassuming a person as you can imagine.  He was, incidentally, the last Leaf goalie ever to play every single regular-season game.  I’m pretty sure that happened during the 1957-’58 season, when the NHL schedule consisted of 70 games. (Chadwick was only 24 or 25 at the time, I believe...)

For his part, Bower, a Western Canadian guy, had built a name for himself in the American Hockey League.  He was a folk hero of sorts in Cleveland, playing for the old Barons for many years at different points in the 1950s.  He did supplant another future Hall-of-Famer, Gump Worsley, in the New York Rangers line-up for one season back in the early 1950s (that's a picture of Johnny with the Rangers below left), but he subsequently lost the post to Gump the next year.  Johnny kept plying his trade in the minors, happy where he was (he told me once how much he loved the people and fans in Cleveland), but hoping, deep down, he’d get that one last chance to “make it” in the big time.

That he did, after being picked up by the Leafs on waivers, or the Intra-league draft, I think it was, in the summer of 1958.  That coincided with the arrival of then so-called “assistant” General Manager Punch Imlach.  (There was no real acting GM with the Leafs at the time.) Early in the 1958-’59 season, Imlach did not like the direction the team was going, and went to the Board of Directors who ran the club and asked for permission to fire the current coach, ex-Hab star player Billy Reay, and take over the team himself.  He was suddenly promoted to full-time General Manager and head coach, and a legend was born.

As the season went on, Bower got more and more time in goal, slowly getting a hammerlock on the top job.  The Leafs made a miracle push in the last two weeks of the regular-season to make the playoffs, then upset a very good Boston team in the first round.  They lost to the powerful Habs in 5 games in the Cup finals, but sent a signal to the hockey world  that, under Imlach, they were a team to be reckoned with. (Most of the 1950s had not been good to the Maple Leafs…)

Bower was the undisputed number-one guy between the pipes by the following season, as the Leafs again made it to the finals, bowing out to Montreal in a sweep.  (That was the playoff spring that Rocket Richard scored his last ever NHL goal/playoff goal, on a backhand against Bower at Maple Leaf Gardens.  I can’t remember if it was in Game 3 or Game 4.  I was not quite 7 at the time, so my memory is a bit fuzzy on that one!)

In any event, after a playoff hiccup in the spring if ’61, the Leafs became a great team, built from the goal out.  (Where have we heard that line lately?)  Bower was the netminder who backstopped the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the next six seasons. As I’ve mentioned here before, he did share the net, because of injuries, with a very capable back-up, Don Simmons, in the spring of ’62 (Simmons was actually in goal for the last two games of the final series against the Blackhawks) and in ’67, when Terry Sawchuk also put together some outstanding games to help the Leafs upset both Chicago and Montreal and win an unlikely Cup—the last we’ve seen here since, not that we need much reminding. (That's Bower at right playing against the Rangers in New York in the early 1960s...)

After the championship in '67, Bower went on to play for a few more years.  His last game was during the 1969-’70 season against the Habs in Montreal.  I believe it was the only time he ever wore a mask in a regular-season NHL game, but I could be wrong.  (I asked Johnny about that when I interviewed him for an article I was developing more than a decade ago, but his memory seemed fuzzy on that question…).  The Leafs lost that night something like 5-1.  Bower was pretty broken down and fighting injuries at that point.  I’m guessing he was maybe 45, 46 years of age.  Since Bower couldn’t play much that season, the Leafs under then new GM Jim Gregory had him earning his salary as a part-time scout.  I think he was, in fact, one of the scouts who first recommended the team draft Errol Thompson, a Maritime kid, who later became a fine winger for Toronto in the mid-1970s.

Bower always seemed to be around the team for years after his retirement, as a scout, and as a practice goalie.  The thing is, Bower has always been—and come across—as an everyday individual.  Nothing fancy…no airs about him.  Just a down-to-earth, good and decent man.  When I did my little interview with him years ago, he was exactly as I had heard him described over the years.  A nice and indeed, decent man.  He was humble, though I’m sure he is proud of his remarkable legacy  as a professional athlete.  The fact that he accomplished what he did when most players (and certainly goalies) were past their prime, and  played superbly until his mid-40s was just one of the things that made him special.

When I was really young, maybe 10 years of age, my oldest sister was what we now call a flight attendant with the old TransCanada Airlines.  On one occasion, she was working on a flight that was taking the Leaf team somewhere.  She managed to get the entire team to autograph a piece of paper, which I kept for years.  Eventually I couldn’t find that piece of paper.  Not my best work.

Not long after that, she was working a flight that was taking Bower and Gordie Howe, intense rivals and competitors but fishing buddies off the ice, on a flight to their home in Western Canada one summer.  She got them each to sign a picture for me.  I held on to those photos in a special place for decades, but I have managed to misplace those wonderful signed pictures as well. (I would love to be able to show you the photos, but, well...)

I guess what I’m saying (beyond acknowledging my inability to hang on to treasured possessions) is that everything I have ever heard or personally witnessed about Bower has been overwhelmingly positive.  He was a very, very competitive guy.  He didn’t like to give up goals, even in a practice situation.  But by all accounts he was a tremendous teammate, and real team guy.

The fact that he is still around and apparently capable of playing at his age even for a few minutes in an old-timers game is amazing.  Maybe he’ll just coach.  It doesn’t really matter.  As I said earlier, these games generally don’t move me much (I prefer watching athletes at their best, I guess, not so much fifty years after the fact…) but it would certainly be inspiring to see Johnny on the ice, on skates, one more time, wearing the Maple Leaf crest and his famous number "1".

And for the record, if we can’t sign another goalie this summer, ah…I mean, maybe we could ask him to hang around, just in case, right?


  1. Just looking at how Bernie Parent was in his one period at the Alumni game last year, how could Bower possibly play at all, being 20 years older?? He'll face his first shot on net and shatter!

  2. Maybe Johnny will just be on hand for the ceremonial stuff, but it will be nice to see him! Thanks PB....

  3. Is he going to wear a mask this time? According to, Bower is 87 years old ... younger than former Wing radio guy turned p.a. man Budd Lynch, who is still working.

  4. Wow...87. I figured Johnny had to be up there, Dave.

    Budd Lynch? Great to hear he is still going strong. I remember him fondly as the "voice" of the Red Wings (albeit an ultra-homer, as all play-by-play guys for local teams need to be) when I was a kid in the early and late 1960s. He was on, if I'm not mistaken, WWJ radio and then on the UHF TV station, WKBD, Channel 50 in Detroit.

    The Red Wing broadcaster I really thought was great, though, was Bruce Martyn. Thanks Dave.

  5. OMG. Goalies were really small. Oh, they weren't wearing all those huge pillows and monster catching mitt. It looks like the goalie stick was the same size. These guys must have been really good, not just puck blockers.

    I seem to remember Chadwick was a large guy.
    In those old days, most NHL goalie pads were made by hand by Pop Kenesky in the upstairs of Kenesky Sports in Hamilton. Real goalies used Kenesky pads. These leather pads became so heavy that goalies needed to be weighlifters.

    And they wonder why goals scoring is low and most goals are garbage goals. Time to reduce the equipment size (or make use old heavy equipment??)

    I also believe NHL (similar to NFL) is on their way to a lawsuit on concussion issue and would be wise to turn regular pads from weapons to protection.

  6. Goalies were indeed truly outstanding in those days, RLMcC- not that the guys today aren't skilled, but it has largely become a cookie-cutter position. Over-trained goalies, and virtually everyone plays the same way.

    How do you beat this guy? Shoot high...(it's the only place where there is a couple of inches of room, just under the cross bar...). It's the same for pretty much every goalie.

    I'd have zero problem with reducing goalie equipment size- and as you suggest, all equipment. It has become a real danger with those elbow and shoulder pads. It's not "safe" if you are injuring other players....

    Thanks...great stuff.