Johnny Bower was born before the Great Depression. He stopped his first NHL puck more than half a century ago. He announced his retirement the same year the Beatles broke up. And yet, when the news broke of his passing Dec. 26, 2017 at age 93, it cut to the core of the hockey world as if we’d lost a close friend we just spoke to hours earlier. Bower retired long ago but never left our hearts. Even when he was long gone from manning the Toronto Maple Leafs’ crease, maskless face famously gnarled by bloody encounters with enemy pucks, he was with us. He remained one of the sport’s most beloved philosophers, as prominent in community outreach as any Leaf alumnus in history. He was a remarkably affable and intelligent storyteller even as he reached his 90s.
When Gordie Howe, Bower’s rival, great friend and longtime fishing buddy, died in July 2016, my first call was to Mr. Bower. He was 91 at the time, inundated with media requests, busier than most people 50 years his junior, but he took the time to share his memories of Mr. Hockey. Bower heralded Howe’s humble devotion to signing every last autograph for his fans. He laughed at the way Howe, all business, would shut down any hockey talk when the two were out on the lake fishing. Bower was bursting with stories like these and loved sharing his humor and wisdom. He remained a vibrant and relevant voice in the game until his final days.
“It is with great sadness that the Bower family announces the passing of Toronto Maple Leafs legend Johnny Bower earlier today after a short battle with pneumonia,” said his grandson John Bower III in a statement Tuesday. “The family requests privacy at this time to deal with their sudden loss. Details about a memorial service will be shared at a later date.”
Bower’s Hall of Fame career was a remarkable story considering it had such humble beginnings. Born in Prince Albert, Sask., he spent what would’ve been his prime years as a journeyman AHL goaltender, racking up Calder Cup championships with the Cleveland Barons. He played more AHL games than NHL games in his career. That makes it all the more impressive what he did when he became a full-time starting NHL goalie with the Leafs in 1958-59 after he spent several seasons bouncing back and forth between the AHL and the NHL, where he debuted as a New York Ranger. ‘The China Wall’ arrived for good at the ripe old age of 34. By his second season as a Leaf, he’d won his first Vezina Trophy and finished second in 1959-60 Hart voting. He led the NHL in goals-against average three times and backstopped the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, including three straight from 1962 to 1964. Bower won the Vezina in 1964-65, making him the first netminder 40 or older to do so, and only Jacques Plante later equalled that feat. Bower is part of the NHL’s ultra-exclusive “45 or older” club. He joins Howe, Moe Roberts, Chris Chelios and Jaromir Jagr as the only men to play in the NHL at age 45 or older.
When THN released its list of the greatest 100 players of all-time in the late 1990s – a list curated by the likes of Scotty Bowman, Sam Pollock and Al Arbour – Bower cracked the list at No. 87. He was also named to the league’s centennial list of the 100 greatest players of all-time earlier this year. Not bad for a guy who spent the first half of his career not knowing if he’d ever be an NHLer. And he never stopped devoting himself to the game, spending two decades as a scout and coach before becoming the Leafs’ goodwill ambassador in 1990. He was a constant presence at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Air Canada Centre at games right through to his 90s.
"He is one of the nicest people I have ever met," said Grant Fuhr, a fellow Hall of Famer and fellow Leaf alumnus. "He always had time for everyone."
Bower is survived by Nancy, his wife of 69 years, and his three children: John Jr., Cindy and Barbara. He also had eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. The Hockey News extends its deepest condolences to the Bower family. And we thank you, Johnny, for your endless generosity toward all of us who love the game. You will be missed.