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Johnny Bower: the beginning and the end

Leaf fans of my generation certainly remember Johnny Bower as an outstanding goalkeeper who helped lead Toronto to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. Bower was a classic stand-up goalie who, in retirement, has been as popular as he was effective in his 12-year career with the blue and white.

But there are two sometimes neglected aspects of Bower’s Hall-of-Fame career.

The first has to do with when Bower first made it to the NHL; the other about the fact that he “never” wore a mask.

Leaf aficionados know the part about General Manager Punch Imlach picking up Bower off the minor-league scrap heap in Bower’s mid-30s. Early in his professional career, Bower was a popular player with the old American Hockey League Cleveland Barons for many years in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. He told me in an interview I did with him about 10 years ago that he loved the city of Cleveland and the hockey fans there, and he figured he’d play there through the end of his career.

But then opportunity knocked. Bower actually played a full season in the NHL with the New York Rangers in 1953-54, at the age of 29. He supplanted Gump Worsley as the top guy and Worsley played that year in the minors.

Bower played all 70 games for New York and had a good season, but by the next season was back in the minors with Vancouver of the old Western League. He played a few more games with the Rangers over the next few seasons but looked certain, given his age, to play out his career in the minors.

Yet Bower surfaced again in the NHL when claimed by Imlach prior to the 1958-’59 NHL season, and the rest of his career was a Cinderella story- albeit one built around tremendous dedication to training and hard work. Otherwise, he couldn’t have played until he was in his mid-40’s. Bower turned Imlach’s waiver claim into a full-time NHL job and a Hall-of-Fame career.

The other thing that seems rarely noted about Bower is that he did play with a mask—once.

Unless I am not remembering this accurately, and I believe I am, Bower played one game in the 1969-’70. It was against Montreal and the Leafs lost something like 5-1. Bower wore a mask in that game, for the first and only time (other than in practice).

He was 45 at the time. Bruce Gamble was handling most of the Leaf goalie chores, and Bower was fighting age and injuries. That Montreal game turned out to be the last game of his lengthy professional career.

Bower played about 1,350 games as a professional goalie—and a grand total of one with a mask. (By all means, if readers remember his last game differently than I do, let me know!)

Interestingly, the very next season, the guy who “invented” the first modern-era goalie mask, long-time Leaf nemesis Jacques Plante, signed with the Leafs. He was 40—a veritable kid compared to the guy he was replacing.

3 comments:

  1. Actually it was Dec 10, 1969 versus Montreal. Canadiens won 6-3. No mention in the Dec 11 Montreal Gazette that Bower wore a mask. http://news.google.ca/newspapers?id=nPwtAAAAIBAJ&sjid=PaAFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1520,2418543&dq=johnny+bower&hl=en
    Two weeks earlier he is quoted as saying "I wouldn't start wearing one (a mask) at my age".
    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=RCMrAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4J8FAAAAIBAJ&pg=5411,1566558&dq=johnny+bower&hl=en

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  2. Bower wore a mask for the first time on January 19, 1969 when he came into a game (in the third period) to relieve Bruce Gamble (getting stiches) in a game against Boston, which the Leafs lost, 5-3.

    He played eight minutes and gave up one goal on two shots before Gamble returned.

    Bower told the Hockey News recently that he played a total of 17 games with the mask.

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  3. Thanks Scott...yes, my memory is a bit different. I could be wrong, but what I remember is that Bower only played one game in the 1969-'70 season, and he wore the mask in that game when the Leafs lost against Montreal. I don't recall him wearing a mask before that season.

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