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.
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.
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!)
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?