If there were ever any questions about Johnny Mowers’ intestinal fortitude, he answered them emphatically on and off the ice during his short NHL career. There’s a chance that, unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings zealot or a hockey nerd, you’ve never heard of Mowers, which makes his inclusion on this list all the more impressive.
Those familiar with Mowers know he was responsible for one of the best individual stories of redemption ever. Had Mowers not been so resilient, he may have ended up as a footnote in NHL history. That’s because he was the goalie of record for the Red Wings in the 1942 Stanley Cup final, a team that will live in infamy for becoming the first team in NHL history – and only the fourth ever – to blow a 3-0 series lead. The Wings, who led 2-0 in the second period of Game 4, remain the only team to ever choke that badly in a Cup final.
And part of the reason the Red Wings lost? Well, Mowers gave up 19 goals in the final four games, including nine in Game 5. A humiliation like that might have felled a lesser man, but Mowers came back with a vengeance in 1942-43. Not only did he win the Vezina Trophy, but he also backstopped Detroit to the Stanley Cup, putting his stamp on the final by leading the Wings to a sweep of the Boston Bruins and not allowing a single goal in Games 3 and 4.
And it was after that season that Mowers put his hockey career on hold to serve his country in the Second World War, joining the Royal Canadian Air Force and being stationed in England. One of his teammates on the RCAF hockey team that won the Overseas Championship in 1944 said Mowers took his games in the Air Force every bit as seriously as he did his NHL contests. “The funny part is that he was a pro hockey player, we were playing Air Force hockey, and he’d throw up before every game,” said Nick Melnechuk.
Even though Mowers never saw battle, the three years he spent in England with the Air Force and one year coaching the Wembley Lions after the war effectively ended his NHL career. Mowers only played seven games after he returned in time for 1946-47, losing his job to Harry Lumley. “They did all the drills over there, but they mostly just played hockey,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “But he was still three years out of the NHL and when he came back he just wasn’t the same goalie. Any sport to be gone for three years and try to come back, but especially a goalie where in those days it was all about reflexes and timing, to lose three years of your prime and then come back would be tough. Like some guys who went to war, he kind of got lost in the shuffle.”
Born: Oct. 29, 1916, Niagara Falls, Ont.
NHL Career: 1940-46
Stats: 65-61-26, 2.56 GAA, 15 SO
All-Star: 1 (First-1)
Trophies: 1 (Vezina-1)
Stanley Cups: 1
DID YOU KNOW?
Mowers was one of the first finds by Carson Cooper, the scout responsible for mining talent for Detroit and credited with being a major component of the Red Wings’ dynasty of the 1950s. Cooper saw Mowers playing senior hockey in Niagara Falls in 1939 and convinced the Wings to sign him. Cooper later was credited with discovering Gordie Howe, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Alex Delvecchio.