“Goaltenders are a different breed” is an often used quote to describe a hockey player willing to stand as the last line of defence on a hockey team. Pucks come at you at all angles, at high speeds and many times the goaltender cannot see the puck until the very last second. In the Six Team era of the NHL, “guarding the net” was a term with a dual meaning. Primarily it meant to prevent pucks from getting behind you, but it also meant to guard the net against another netminder who wanted to take your job. Therefore, if a goaltender had earned an NHL job, he was not yielding his crease to another goaltender under any circumstances. They were expected to play every game of every season, and most did. We all know Wayne Gretzky set scoring records that will likely never be broken, but one NHL record that is certain to never be broken is Glenn Hall’s record of 502 consecutive games played. Hall would spend time in the washroom before and during games vomiting from nerves, yet continued on. Teams didn’t carry a 2nd goaltender until the mid 1960’s. If a goaltender was cut or injured, the game would be delayed while they went in to get stitched up and eventually return. With only 6 NHL jobs available, there were some very good goaltenders in the AHL and other professional leagues just waiting for a chance. Johnny Bower was one of those goaltenders.
Johnny Bower’s career as a hockey player is well known. It’s been mentioned many times this past week that the stories of his playing days have been kept alive by the fathers and grandfathers that saw him play. If you aren’t entirely familiar with his career, take 25 minutes and watch the Legends of Hockey video below. It tells his amazing story of perseverance, courage and determination. He retired at age 47, it is believed that his eyesight was finally betraying him; physically he still wanted to continue. He did continue off the ice however, and gave the Leaf organization an additional 46 years of serve as a coach, scout and above all as a community ambassador that will never be replaced. Johnny has impacted the lives of countless hockey fans of all ages through playing and serving as a role model for young players, teaching the game at hockey camps and above all engaging on a personal level with every fan he met. I had the very good fortune of meeting Johnny on a number of occasions, always a memorable experience. The first meeting was a special one to me though, and it is this meeting I would like to share.
The ritual was played out on playgrounds, streets, frozen ponds and rinks all across Canada. Neighbourhood kids gathered with their sticks, nets, gloves, pads, balls and pucks. Two kids were nominated to pick teams; you never wanted to be the last picked. Once the teams were chosen, we all ran or skated to our net and formulated a plan of who would play where. As we broke, teammates would yell out their favourite NHL player that they were going to be for the game that day. For young Leaf fans of the 1960’s era, there were two main choices. Davey Keon was the player we all wanted to be and if you called it first, you got it. The other was Johnny Bower. Not every kid wanted to take a turn in net, but I loved doing it. I played every other game in net all through minor hockey. I had a good teacher; I copied everything Johnny Bower did. The way he would gather in his pads and get ready for each faceoff. The way he would make a kick save and direct the puck away from the net into the corner. The way he would tap the snow off his stick on his pads. The way he would skate cradling his stick in his catching hand. Even his legendary poke check. Above all: do anything to make the save.
One of my hockey coaches had somehow arranged for us to attend a Leaf practice in 1963. Before the players took to the ice we were given a tour of Maple Leaf Gardens. One of the highlights of the tour was being led in groups of 3 or 4 out onto the narrow catwalk leading to Foster Hewitt’s Gondola. We went back down to ice level and the players began to come out onto the ice. We were in awe. George Armstrong shot pucks over the glass for us to chase. He got a kick out of it but I realized much later on that Punch Imlach probably deducted the cost of those pucks from his pay. After the practice was over, we were led to the Wood Street door at Maple Leaf Gardens and were told that a lot of the players used this door to leave. We sat on the floor and patiently waited for them to emerge. Gradually, they came out. Larry Hillman, Allan Stanley, Billy Harris and more. We politely asked for their autographs and most just signed and didn’t engage with us at all. Dave Keon came out and patiently signed each book or paper that came his way, but said almost nothing. Then out came Johnny Bower, he smiled when he saw us with that distinctive twinkle in his eyes. He had a massive new black catching glove with him that he was taking home to break in. He talked to us all as we offered our books for him to sign. I managed to tell him that I was a goalie too and he asked me if I wanted to try on his new glove. It seemed like it weighed more than I did, it came up to my shoulder. I stood to one side with it and threw the puck into the mitt realizing I was as close to being Johnny Bower at that moment as I would ever be. After he had finished signing, it was time to give him back the glove and let him be on his way. I could still smell the new leather on my hand and arm during the car ride home.
He lived 93 years, a life as full as many of us could ever dream of. The familiar smile and twinkle in his eyes were there to the end. He was grateful for what this great game gave him, and he wanted to return it all to us. One of his daily routines was to walk over to the neighbourhood park that was named in his honour and clean the litter from it so the kids would have a safe place to play. He was always willing to talk hockey, sign something or pose for a picture. We have seen what Johnny has meant to fans of the Maple Leafs, but we have also seen that the fans of the game in all of the cities around the league are aware of him and what he stood for. Howie Meeker said “The wonderful thing about this game of hockey is that it rewards so many great guys that give their heart and their soul and their life to it.” Johnny was one of those great guys; he was rewarded and he shared it with us all.
Thank you Johnny.
Johnny's reaction to when his number got retired was so pure and heart-warming. RIP. pic.twitter.com/LhZdKXcXN1
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) December 27, 2017