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From the Archives: The Fall and Rise of Johnny Mowers

Johnny Mowers blew a 3-0 Cup final lead before winning the Vezina Trophy and the Stanley Cup one year later. Stan Fischler looks at the rollercoaster journey.
Cartoon of Johnny Mowers

On April 19, 1942, Detroit's goalkeeper Johnny Mowers was regarded as a bum – B-U-M – by hockey fans in the Motor City and elsewhere in the hockey world.

And there was a good reason for the humiliation. Mowers was the netminder for the first team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 playoff series lead and lose the Stanley Cup in such an ignominious fashion.

The Toronto Maple Leafs captured the Silver on April 18, 1942, and the primary reason was that Mowers – a product of Niagara Falls, Ont. – had relinquished 19 goals in the final four games. No other goalie could make that statement, nor would he want to do so. But Mowers had no choice nor alibis, to boot.

Writing in The Hockey News' Collector's Edition, Top 100 Goalies of All-Time,

author Ken Campbell accurately noted that, "A humiliation like that might have felled a lesser man."

Ah, yes, but Mister Mowers – fortunately for manager Jack Adams' Red Wings – was not such a lesser man. Not by a long shot, nor even a tip-in. What this tale of triumph is all about comes down to one episode. That is, how the ultimate embarrassment not only made Mowers strong but eventually led ‘Jumpin' Johnny’ to sip champagne from the Stanley Cup.

Simultaneously with the near-destruction of Mowers' career – the 1942 playoffs – was the time that I started my first hockey scrapbook. And, as you'll see, the ensuing 1942-43 season was when Detroit's goalie delivered his greatest triumph.

"Mowers came back with a vengeance in 1942-43," wrote Campbell in Top 100 Goalies of All-Time.

If any visual item underlined the veracity of Ken's comment, it would be the drawings featured above which appeared on Jan. 14, 1943, in my hometown newspaper, the New York World-Telegram.

World-Telegram artist Willard Mullin already had been renowned for his splendid caricatures and humor. The fact that – in this case – he featured an out-of-town player was exceptional to say the least.

But as you'll see from the accompanying New York Times' story by Joe Nichols, Mullin's artwork coincided with the Red Wings invading Madison Square Garden for a game against the Rangers.

New York Times article, Red Wings Rout Rangers

Not surprisingly, the Detroit sextet won 4-1, but Mowers backstopped the victory with key stops right off the opening faceoff.

"Two of Mowers' saves occurred within the first minute," wrote Nichols in the Times,  "when Lynn Patrick and Phil Watson fired at him."

Newspaper clipping

Johnny was discovered by legendary Detroit scout Carson Cooper in 1939 when Mowers was playing senior hockey. The bird dog convinced Adams to sign the prospect, and the newcomer played like a winner until the fateful 1942 final.

Despite his playoff collapse, Mowers rebounded more challenged than ever in the following campaign. His initial team success was powering the Wings to first place, although Detroit failed to place anyone among the top 10 NHL scorers.

Nevertheless, Mowers was a first-team all-star, won the Vezina Trophy and then completed his most rewarding feat in the 1943 final round against second-place Boston. One, two, three, four – just like that – the Bruins got booted to Bye-Bye Land.

Mowers' mauling of the Beantowners went like this: 6-2, 4-1, 4-0, 2-0. The fact that ‘Long John’ didn't allow a single goal in the last two games accentuated his greatest triumph.

"If there were ever any questions about Johnny Mowers' intestinal fortitude, he answered them emphatically on and off the ice in his short NHL career," Campbell said.

No doubt it would have been a lot longer, but the Second World War was now reaching its peak, and Mowers did his duty for the Allies. After his Cup triumph, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and remained in the Armed Forces for the duration of the conflict.

The fact is – that while serving – Johnny lost three of his best NHL years to the RCAF. Upon his return, it was clear to the Detroit brass that their goalie had lost his championship reflexes. Still, Johnny gave it one more try in 1946-47, but his legs were gone after seven games, and Mowers was replaced by up-and-coming Harry Lumley, a future Hall of Famer.

But I'll remember Mowers as one of the first outstanding goalies I'd known during my kid days as a fan. As an 11-year old, I knew that Mowers was a star because Willard Mullin drew such a nifty caricature of the keeper, and it's still proudly pasted in my original scrapbook.

Cartoon of Johnny Mowers


Willard Mullin not only drew magnificently but also had a knack for embellishing his artwork with clever captions.

The following lines are what accompanied the Mowers gem:

1. Mullin's title simply is "Uncharitable."

2. Top left: One player tells the other: "Bring th' puck with ya."

3. To the right: he has a commentary on wartime hockey: "Those loose, disjointed scrambles on the ice this year look more like a neighborhood shinny game than big league hockey."

4. But then Mullin adds: "But when Johnny Mowers is in the nets for the Wings, it is a hockey game...already he has three shutouts. One of those shutouts stopped the Rangers phenomenal string of scoring games at 128."

5. In another drawing, he has a Ranger being chased and saying, "Skate this thing down to the other end...Hit that guy in the chest or some place...And skate back again, very discouraging."

6. On the bottom: One Ranger appeals to Mowers: "Aw, come on Johnny...shut your eyes just for a second. This is a charity game." To which Mowers replies: "I don't belong to any Rangers Benevolent and Relief Society."

7. Mullin concludes: "And it will be 100 percent for the Red Cross...There is no charity for the Rangers in the stingy Mister Mowers' heart..."


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