Leafs legend Johnny Bower reflects on P.A. roots

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By Ty Dilello 

Special to The Daily Herald 

Prince Albert is located in the heart of Saskatchewan, along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River and is known as the "Gateway to the North" because it happens to be last major centre along the route to the resources that pertain to the northern region of Saskatchewan. Prince Albert has a population of roughly 35,000 and is actually the third largest city in its province after Regina and Saskatoon.

The city is home to the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL, who won a Memorial Cup in 1985 and play out of the Art Hauser Centre. Hockey is the pride of the town of course and although Prince Albert hasn't produced many big time players who have gone on to have a successful pro career, it just so happens to be the hometown of one of the greatest goaltenders ever to grace a sheet of ice, Johnny Bower.

Johnny Bower is hands down the greatest goalie in Maple Leafs history along with Turk Broda. The man singlehandedly redefined what "longevity" meant for goaltenders in the NHL, playing well into his 40's. He was nicknamed the China Wall not because of his brick wall-like goaltending, but because of his ancient age! But in all seriousness it was because the guy was unbeatable at times. At the time of my chat with Johnny, he was 88 years old and easily the oldest person I have ever interviewed, but it was also one of the best interviews because he was just such a pleasure to talk to and I felt more than honoured that he took some time to talk to me.

Like all the boys growing up in the same time period, Johnny began his hockey on the outdoor rinks and ponds, "In Prince Albert where I grew up, the winter were always 35 below zero so we had a lot of ice and snow, even the highways were just like ice and the river was frozen solid. That's where I learned my hockey pretty well and I got to like it. I played as a defensemen for a little bit until the coach told me I was very slow and not really good so he suggested that I tried goalie. I didn't really want to but I still went in net and actually really loved the position. I thought boy this is a great spot, I have the best seat in the house! I can see what's going on and my only job is to stop the puck."

Bower was the only boy of nine children in a family that was very poor. He made his goalie pads from an old mattress and catalogues and made pucks out of horse manure. His dad never had money to buy Johnny a proper goalie stick so he carved one out of tree or the cash for a pair of skates so a friend had to give Johnny his first skates.

Johnny would listen to the Foster Hewitt on the radio every Saturday night so he was as in touch with the NHL as everyone else was. There was no internet or television of course back then so listening to the radio or reading the newspaper was all you had to keep you updated.

Johnny's talks about his childhood idol, "I loved Boston and their goalie Frank Brimsek growing up. They called him Mr. Zero and I said someday I'm going to be like him and people will call me Mr. Zero!"

But before his hockey even had even begun, Johnny fought in World War II and was very lucky not to have lost his life overseas.

He was 15 when he lied about his age to fight for his country. And at the age of 18, he was supposed to be involved in the 1942 invasion of Normandy at the port of Dieppe. A mission that proved to be disastrous as 3400 of the 6000 person infantry were killed or seriously wounded and the rest were taken prisoner.

"I'd been all set to go but a day or two before the raid, nine guys in my company, including myself, got sick with a respiratory infection. They had to take use of the boat and put us in the hospital - we could hardly breathe. I guess if I'd gone, I probably would have lost my life. Most of my friends did."

Johnny was eventually discharged from the Army in 1943 due to rheumatoid arthritis. A condition that would stay with him for his entire hockey career. It's amazing the fact that he could even compete at the NHL level when he had many difficulties just clutching a goal stick.

When he returned from the war, his junior career resumed and he played for a local team in Prince Albert. He progressed from there and made his way to the Cleveland Barons and Providence Reds of the AHL where he spent eight full seasons before even getting in an NHL game. In 1953-54, he finally got a crack in the NHL with the New York Rangers, playing in all 70 games for his club. And although the Rangers struggled that year, Bower put up very respectable numbers that he thought positively about making the team next year. Unfortunately that was not the case. Johnny came to training camp the next year ten pounds overweight and the team decided to go with Gump Worsley going forward. And although Bower was sent back to the minors, he vowed to always be in tip top shape going into camp, which he was for the remainder of his career.

It was thirteen seasons in total playing in the minors before Johnny got his gig with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958-59 and became the 35 year old rookie, "Back in the day, there were so many amazing goalies like Turk Broda, Bill Durnam and Chuck Rayner that made it very tough for a goalie like me to break in, so I bided my time in the minors and waited, waited and waited, and finally my wish came true. You wait long enough and your dreams just might come true and mine did."

"When I was drafted by Toronto, I didn't even want to go there because my family and everything was in Cleveland. I had a good thing going for me with the Barons, but the GM of Cleveland told me if I didn't go to Toronto then I'd be suspended. So I ended up going to the Toronto camp but I had a deal worked out that if Toronto sent me down, then I would report back to Cleveland. I ended up making the team and it went from there! I think my experience from playing in the minor leagues all those years for sure helped me beat out the other goalies at the camp that year."

"I had a standup style, not too often I'd go down even though at first I was a flopper, but later coaches were always me to stand up more because I was falling too much. They didn't want us flopping around, they wanted the goalies to stand up and challenge the shooters."

It's actually beyond crazy how one of the greatest goalies of all time had to wait so long to become an established presence in the NHL. Talk about perseverance.

 Johnny joined a team that struggled during most of the 1950's; but with Bower's arrival, the Leafs improved dramatically around their goaltender and in his first season with the club, he led them to the Stanley Cup Final where they fell to the mighty Montreal Canadiens during their dynasty years. It was a sign of good things to come for the goalie from Prince Albert.

From then on, Bower embarked on a eleven season tenure with the Maple Leafs that had many high moments and only a few lows. He had his best regular season in 1960-61, posting a league leading 33 wins and a 2.50 GAA. In the playoffs though, the Leafs suffered a major heartbreak, losing in the first round.

Even though that was a very tough ending to such a good season, Johnny didn't let it bother him for very long as he raised his game to a whole new level, winning the Vezina Trophy in 1961 and 1965 which reflected on his team's results big time as the Leafs embarked on a run of three consecutive Stanley Cups (1962, 1963, 1964.)

Bower reflects on winning the holy grail, "Winning the first Stanley Cup was really special for me. I dreamed as a kid obviously but never thought I could actually win it so when we won it in 1962 and again in 1963, 1964 and 1967, it was very special to me and I'll never forget those. You never say die; you'll always succeed if you worked hard and I worked hard."

Johnny's playing career was constantly hampered by poor eyesight, but despite that he remained one of the best goalies in the NHL. He was maybe best known for his hard-nosed, scrappy playing style that had him poke checking players as they were coming in on him at full speed. He learned of the poke check through Rangers legend Chuck Rayner, who at one time mentored Bower.

What he would do is dive head first into the player and even if he missed the puck, he would take out the players legs and send them flailing into the boards. On one particular occasion he got a skate in the cheek, knocking a tooth out through his cheek. He suffered innumerable cuts to his mouth/lips and lost almost every tooth in his mouth from sticks and pucks.

He also never wore a mask for practically his whole career. "I had trouble seeing when they first made a mask for me. I tried it in practice for a while but I found that I was relying too much on my defensemen because I would lose the puck in the area around my feet and they had to help a great deal and yell where the puck was."

"One time when I was wearing a mask in a game against St. Louis; I let in a goal on a routine shot down low from the blueline and Punch started going off on me saying what the hell are you doing? Now we are a goal behind-is your eye sight going? I said No, I was screened! He said there was no one in front of me so he ended up getting the best of me there. Punch was a very strict coach but I liked him because I liked to work hard."

In 1967, Johnny teamed up with Terry Sawchuk to form an epic goaltending tandem of two legends of the game. At this point, Bower was in his 40's but he was still very eager to learn more about goaltending while practicing with the greatest goaltender of all time, even if Sawchuk was also in the twilight of his career. They won the Stanley Cup that year defeating the heavily favoured Montreal Canadiens in a legendary six game series which marked the fourth and final Cup for Bower.

Bower finally retired from the game in 1970 at the age of 45. Johnny reflects on his longevity, "Experience helped a lot and working hard was always good. I just kept going on and going on as long as I possibly could because I had to put food on the table for my family.

"They retired me when I was forty-five. Punch said we got to retire you and I said I was tired but I didn't want you to retire me. I guess he misunderstood and that was it. Time was creeping up on me though and my eyesight was very blurry stopping shots from the blueline. There were guys like Bobby Hull that could just shot the puck like a cannon and I was losing sight of the puck a lot. I'm thankful I never lost an eye off a deflection or shot. I got out on time and that was it. Hockey was very good to me and my family, and that was a job for me all my life."

After retiring, Johnny stayed in the sport by being a scout and later goaltending coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, often donning the pads in practice with the much younger goalies. On January 9th 1980, he signed a one game contract to back up in an emergency situation for the Leafs. The minor league call up arrived just before the game started so Johnny wasn't needed. But how crazy would it be if we saw a 55 year old goalie appear in an NHL game!

Johnny had a 250-195-90 record in 552 career NHL games with 37 shutouts and a 2.51 GAA. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976 and is one of the few Leafs in franchise history to have his number honoured. He also remains one of the most popular and beloved Leafs of all time.

"Turk Broda once told me when I met him; John, you're going to get number one and never let anybody else ever take that from you. So I didn't."

 

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