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Before the new season starts, remembering ex-Leaf great goalie Johnny Bower’s (many) back-ups

This season, one of the areas of (we hope) noticeable improvement for the Maple Leafs will be in goal.  A Stanley-Cup winning veteran (Giguerre) and a young guy with potential (Gustavsson) provide a reason for at least some optimism.

When the Leafs have been good over the years, goaltending, as with most teams, has had a lot to do with it.  The Leafs were competitive when Curtis Joseph and then Eddie Belfour manned the nets, and before that Felix Potvin was instrumental in the Leafs making it to the final four on two occasions under Pat Burns.

In the late 1970s, Mike Palmateer provided some stellar play at times and helped the Leafs be at least respectable for a couple of seaons.  Earlier that decade, the ageless Jacques Plante and young (and fellow future Hall-of-Famer) Bernie Parent led some pretty good Toronto teams, until the WHA closed that short-lived window.

And way back…..when the Leafs actually won something, the man in goal was the legendary Johnny Bower.

It was a different world back then of course, and the NHL was very different, too.  NHL goalies largely were expected to play all the games in the then 70-game regular season.  There were no “back-ups” on the bench in the 1950s or early 1960s.  If a goalie was hurt during a game, the options included a junior A or local amateur goaltender, if one happened to be in the stands.  Detroit Red Wing trainer "Lefty" Wilson, an old practice goalie himself, was on occasion plucked from behind the bench to fill in—for the other team.

The reality was, however, that not every goalie could play every single game, although some did, sometimes.

Indeed, Chicago's Glenn Hall, who also played earlier for the Red Wings, played a remarkable 500+ games in a row without missing a single one, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  In Toronto, however, Johnny Bower’s injuries - and age- provided the opportunity for other guys to get at least a bit of playing time.

I've written in the past (click on their names to see the stories) about Eddie Chadwick (pictured at right) and Don Simmons , each of them providing quality back-up support  after Bower came to town in time for the 1958-’59 NHL season.  Chadwick was actually the “number-one” goaltender in Toronto until new General Manager Punch Imlach and then Bower arrived.  He was then traded during the 1961-’62 season for Simmons, and Simmons was in goal the night the Leafs won the Cup in Chicago in April, 1962. (Bower had been injured earlier in the playoffs, while stretching to save a Bobby Hull slapshot, as I recall.)

They were the two main “back-ups” in Toronto in those early Bower days.  But others played some, as well, over the years.

In 1960-’61, Cesare Maniago  played a few games for the Leafs, enough to give up  “Boom Boom” Geoffrion’s record-tying 50th goal one March night at the Forum in Montreal in 1961.

Future Maple Leaf General Manager Gerry McNamara also played a handful of games that 1960-’61 season.  Then he didn’t make another appearance in the Leaf net for almost 10 years, playing in parts of two games during the 1969-70 season, Bower’s last in hockey.

Gerry Cheevers is best remembered for his time in Boston and the two Stanley Cups he earned with those strong Bruin teams in the early 1970s.  But he began his fine career in the Maple Leaf junior system of the time.  He actually started two games for the Leafs during the 1961-’62 season before being lost to the Bruins in the intra-league draft, I believe it was, a few years later.

Bruce Gamble played for the Bruins (see the great old game-action photo above of Gamble in early 1960s against "Red" Hay and the Hawks, with Bobby Hull and Teddie Green in the background) a bit in the early 1960s, but joined the Leafs later that decade.  He started about 10 games for Toronto in 1965-’66, and more in ’66-’67, though I’m not sure if his name  appears on the Stanley Cup as he didn’t play in the playoffs.  Eventually Gamble became the number-one guy in net, though Bower was still around in the late ‘60s.

Gary Smith is perhaps best known for his later years with the Oakland/California Golden Seals as the wandering goalie in those green and gold uniforms (and later sharing the Vezina trophy with Tony Esposito one season in Chicago).  But he also was on the Leaf roster in 1965-’66 and 1966-67, playing a total of 5 games.  Al Smith, who also had a long pro career, played in parts of 10 games with the Leafs between 1965-’66 and 1968-’69 before moving on to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In Bower’s final NHL season, 1969-’70,  veteran minor-leaguer Marv Edwards played quite a bit for the Leafs, along with Gamble, as Bower did not actually play most of that season.

Of course, fellow future Hall-of-Famer Terry Sawchuk was on board for three seasons in the mid-‘60s, including the last Cup team in ’67, but he was more sharing time with Bower rather than being a “back-up”.  Interestingly, they changed the rules for the Vezina Trophy after the 1964-’65 season, when the Leafs had allowed the least goals in the league and Bower and Sawchuk had combined to achieve the best goals-against average.   Interestingly, I believe Sawchuk played 36 games, Bower 34.  The league was planning to give the award solely to Sawchuk, but he made it clear he wouldn’t accept it unless Bower was included as well.  (I don’t know how many guys would do that kind of thing in this day and age.) 

Previous to that season, only one player could be officially named as the winner of the award

In any event, this all just goes to show that while we old hockey observers tend to wax sadly about the good old days when goalies ‘played every game’, for the most part, it wasn’t quite true—at least in Toronto.


  1. Michael,

    This isn't a comment about Johnny Bowers back ups although I enjoy reading your articles - it's more a request for help.
    I'm 54 years old and live in Sydney, Australia. My son currently lives and works in Toronto and I visited him for the first time last July. He took me to a Leafs game against the Avalanche. The Leafs lost but Colton Orr dropped the gloves (I've got some of the jargon down but I'm still learning the game)and we saw some goals and I was hooked. So much so that I paid the extra to my Pay TV provider and took time off work so I could watch the Olympics from Vancouver. I subscribe to a number of sites and am looking forward to the start of a new season.
    Is there a history of the Leafs that you could recommend? I love my Rugby Union and enjoy reading about past players and games and would like to do the same about the Leafs

    Thank you
    David McKay

  2. Thanks for the comment David. I'll connect with you via e-mail with some books that come to mind.