It would be pure folly to suggest Johnny Bower belongs in the pantheon of the truly all-time great goaltenders in NHL history. The fact is, he wasn’t even the best goalie in the six-team NHL when he played, nor is he even considered the best to ever play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even Bower thought Turk Broda was better than he was.
But there is definitely something about Bower than makes him special. Perhaps it’s the fact he was such a genuinely decent person for the 93 years he occupied Earth. It might have had something to do with him not making the NHL as a full-time player until he was 34, then playing beyond 45, making him the first active player to also collect an NHL pension. But the legacy has endured, and there’s a statue of Bower along Legends’ Row outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto to ensure it continues. “I always refer to him as the honorary grandfather of every Leafs fan,” said hockey historian Bob Duff, who ghostwrote Bower’s autobiography, The China Wall: The Timeless Legend of Johnny Bower, when Bower died in 2017. Bower won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs and is a worthy inductee into the Hall of Fame, but if not for a serious illness while serving in the Canadian Army and a trek to rural Saskatchewan in 1953 by Rangers GM Muzz Patrick, Bower might be nothing more than a historical footnote.
The first break came during the Second World War, a campaign Bower entered only because he lied about his age. (He also lied about his age for much of his NHL career so people would think he was a couple of years younger than his birth certificate indicated.) While he and his Winnipeg unit were doing water training in preparation to fight in Dieppe, Bower became deathly ill. He later became a hospital orderly, while most of his comrades were killed when his unit was essentially wiped out.
The other came when the Rangers, impressed with Bower’s fine work with the Cleveland Barons in the AHL, offered him a contract after the 1952-53 season, which Bower turned down. That summer, as he did every summer, Bower returned to his hometown of Waskesiu, Sask., to flip burgers at Bower’s Big Boy. Patrick made the trip to see Bower, and by the time lunch was finished, he had signed an NHL contract. He played one full season with the Rangers, then most of the next four in the minors before going to the Maple Leafs for the 1958-59 season. But he had it written into his contract that he would only report to the Maple Leafs if he had the freedom to return to Cleveland if things didn’t work out. All told, of the first 14 years of his pro hockey career, all but one of them was spent in the minors.
Bower was hyper-competitive, abhorring the thought of allowing a goal in practice. In fact, the Leafs would tuck pucks behind him while he was trying to stop another player during a practice drill just to annoy him. He used to make wagers with his teammates for milkshakes in practice. “I must have won hundreds of milkshakes from those guys,” Bower told Duff for the book Without Fear: Hockey’s 50 Greatest Goaltenders, “but they never paid up. That just made me try even harder not to let them have any goals.”
Born: Nov. 8, 1924, Prince Albert. Sask.
NHL Career: 1953-1969
Teams: NYR, Tor
Stats: 250-192-90, 2.51 GAA, .921 SP, 37 SO
All-Star: 1 (First-1)Trophies 2 (Vezina-2)
Stanley Cups: 4
DID YOU KNOW?
Despite his 250 career wins, Bower doesn’t even rank in the NHL’s top 50. But only one goalie in the history of professional hockey has won more games than Bower. Because he spent 13 of his first 14 years as a pro player in the AHL, where he picked up a total of 359 wins, Bower is second on the all-time wins list for professional hockey with 609. He trails only Martin Brodeur at 705 (691 in the NHL, 14 in the minors).