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Flashback interview with Leaf legend Johnny Bower

Back in the year 2000, I was asked to write an article for a sports collectibles magazine.

It was always enjoyable developing those kinds of pieces, and this was one particularly so, as the subject was long-time Leaf goaltender and Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bower.

In my encounter with him, everything I had heard about him was indeed true: he was generous with his time, humble, fascinating- and while his memory sometimes wavered slightly, he was a real gentleman.

Johnny was 76 when I spoke with him, so he must be 85 now. By all accounts he remains in good health and is a wonderful guy.

Here are some highlights and quotes from my interview with Bower:

• About his many years with the AHL Cleveland Barons: Johnny said he “loved it there” and that “the Cleveland fans knew hockey”.

• About being selected by then Assistant General-Manager Punch Imlach to join the Maple Leafs in the fall of 1958: “I wanted to play for the Leafs so badly”.

• About his “formal” retirement after the 1969-’70 season, after he had played only one game. “I said I was tired, not retired”.

• He humorously recalled a night in the late 1950s in Montreal, when he was about to play his nemesis, Rocket Richard, and the Canadiens. He attended a church service with a teammate, and lit a few candles, hoping for a little help from above. Unfortunately, as he recalled, he noticed Montreal great Dickie Moore going up after him, and lighting a few candles of his own. “I think Dickie blew my candles out after I left”, Johnny told me. The Leafs lost.

Here are some of his observations about opposing players.

• About the Rocket: “I couldn’t figure him out. He never shot the same place on me twice. He was dynamite from the blue line in.”

• About Jean Beliveau: “I don’t have enough time to say how good Beliveau was. And what a gentleman.”

• Gordie Howe was “so strong and great in the corners”.

• Bobby Hull “had a tremendous shot. He knew where the net was. He was a great two-way player”.

• Of Bobby Orr, he simply said “Great skater”, naming Orr and Doug Harvey as the two finest defensemen he has seen.

I also asked him about a couple of former teammates. He talked of how “strong” Tim Horton was, and how “Alan Stanley played angles so well”. He spoke fondly of all his former mates, mentioning many by name.

He scouted in retirement for Toronto, and told me his proudest “find” was when he was out east and during some down time decided to take in a Senior A game in Prince Edward Island. He spotted young Errol Thompson, and urged the Leafs to draft him. They did, and Thompson went on to score more than 200 goals in less than 600 NHL games, often playing on a line in Toronto with future Hall-of-Famers Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald.

Bower has lent his name and time to countless philanthropic causes, and told me he “just loves giving back.”

He did that during his splendid seasons in blue and white, and is still doing it every chance he gets.

There aren’t many athletes who really deserve to be called heroes but Bower may just be one of them.

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