Johnny Bower Memories: A Hall of Fame player and person

Brendan Shanahan spoke to the media while standing beside Johnny Bower’s statue, shedding light on the goaltender’s influence on not just the Maple Leafs but the sport of hockey and his community as a whole.

It was a fun month of September celebrating the 25th anniversary of the launch of Sportsnet 590 The FAN as Canada’s first all-sports radio station which debuted in September, 1992. It was actually just called the FAN then and it was located on the much weaker 1430 frequency on the AM dial before moving to the stronger 590 a few years later. I didn’t have a full-time show on the FAN until about a year after it began, so I did many different duties in its initial year.

One was filling in for the regular hosts at different times throughout the day. For some reason, the one and only time I remember co-hosting a show with Ken Daniels, then at the FAN but now the longtime play-by-play voice for the Detroit Red Wings, was on Christmas Eve, 1992. We were paired to host a shift before the recorded programming would kick in for the brief holiday period. I don’t know who thought of the idea (it might have been Ken), but a call was placed to Johnny Bower. He agreed to close our show by singing his rendition of the legendary (and only) Johnny Bower musical classic “Honey The Christmas Goose.”

He was to sing it over a regular phone line with his wonderful wife Nancy playing the keyboard in the background. As we got ready to close our Christmas Eve show, I feared this had all the makings of a Saturday Night Live skit gone bad! But it WAS Johnny Bower! That just NEVER happened. He nailed it as did Nancy as the musical director over the regular phone landline. It left all our listeners smiling and in the true Christmas spirit as we signed off right after our special legendary sports and musical guest. It was perfect.

And why not? Not only had Johnny played Santa Claus for many years at the Toronto Maple Leafs family Christmas parties, every day felt like Christmas when you had a chance to chat with Johnny Bower. The FAN had launched the month before the Toronto Blue Jays were to win their first World Series. The Leafs were playing average hockey under new head coach Pat Burns as they took the Christmas break. After Bower’s appearance, the Leafs went on a winning tear the second half of the regular season and would experience that magical playoff run in the spring of 1993. The Blue Jays would win a second World Series as well.

My youth was memories of being a Leafs fan for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember much before the last Leaf Stanley Cup win in 1967, I just remember that Bower was always MY goalie. I don’t know what made him great, I just knew that he was. What a great name as well. Like Whitey Ford and Sandy Koufax of that era in baseball, Johnny Bower was just such a cool name for an NHL goaltending legend. And like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers that Ford and Koufax played for, the Maple Leafs were champions as well. And the only goaltender’s name on all four Stanley Cups was Johnny Bower.

I had some good fortune in being able to work part-time for the Leafs on game nights. Then my good fortune increased when in the middle of the 1976-77 season, general manager Jim Gregory offered me a part-time position in the Leafs front office to help with some of the duties that had been done by an employee named Howie Starkman, who was leaving to become the first-ever Public Relations Director for the Toronto Blue Jays.

The desk that Gregory gave me to work out of (I continued my studies at University of Toronto as well) was in an open-space office area that had four desks. I soon learned that the other three belonged to Chief Scout Gerry McNamara, Toronto Marlboros coach (and Leafs scout) George Armstrong and another scout by the name of Johnny Bower. Are you kidding me? Was I in the first type of TV reality show before those shows ever existed? I couldn’t believe my good fortune on many fronts.

Celebrate Our Community. Celebrate Our Game.

Johnny was a guy that stayed out of the office politics, the limelight and the inner sanctum of what was going on throughout the organization. I learned that he attacked life the way he attacked being a Hall of Fame goaltender: He focused on getting the job done. I don’t think many people realize that in an era that was criticized for not embracing the Leaf Alumni (a valid point), that Bower was actually the one player that retired and moved right into the Leafs front office as a scout. Give the underrated Gregory credit for that.

A scout’s life was a busy life and Johnny would scour arenas all across North America to try and find players comparable to those he had played with in the 1960s. When he went to a small junior arena with a few thousand fans, it meant that the game in question would suddenly be “big time,” simply because the great Johnny Bower was in attendance.

He was never boastful about his success but I would enjoy just hearing him talk about his playing days. He wasn’t one for idle gossip so it would have to be a focused flow of conversation that would get him going. It would be others that would fill me in on how great a player he actually was. That this nice, pleasant man I sat near was actually as fierce a competitor as there was. He detested giving up goals even in practice. He worked as hard and took it as seriously as any player. That was a key to his success.

It is too bad that the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoff MVP wouldn’t begin until after the Leafs’ three consecutive Stanley Cup wins from 1962 to 1964. If it had, Bower would have certainly won at least one, possibly two of those awards. Dave Keon would be the deserved winner for the 1967 Cup team.

I loved the Bower self-taught poke check. Nowadays, whether it be by Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne or whomever making the play, it remains the Johnny Bower poke check. I learned that for the latter part of his career, Bower knocked down more pucks rather than catching them because his hand throbbed from the pounding of catching pucks with the inferior goaltending equipment of his day. I learned that what couldn’t be quantified with statistics was that Bower was as much of a money goaltender as one could be. The bigger the game, the more pressure the situation — the more likely Bower would come up with that much-needed huge save.

I thought of those keys to detail to getting the job done right when I read an article a few years ago. A park in Mississauga, Ont., had been named after Bower. Then the story related how Bower took it upon himself to be the person who would go out on a daily basis and clean up the litter in the park that bore his name. That was his credo. Get the job done right.

He was also a “simple” man and I mean that in a very positive complimentary way. He really was as nice as you thought he was upon meeting him. There was no mystery. He never had a bad day and he made a point of never having anything but a positive interaction with anyone. That was why it just worked for Johnny’s persona to grow and evolve over the decades as the link to the Leafs glorious past while paying tribute to him in the present. He went from the most iconic Leafs player to the most treasured Leafs player.

Any time Bower was in attendance at the Air Canada Centre, it was a good thing. Acknowledging that he was in attendance would evoke a never-ending series of sincere standing ovations. Whatever struggles the Leafs might be going through, or one might be going through in their own lives, Johnny Bower represented all that was good — not just with the great Leafs memories, but with what was great about the world in general.

I am really glad that he and his family got to see his figure added to the legend’s row of Leaf statues and to see his number retired. When I think of Bower at his work place desk, I remember how his eyes and voice would light up whenever it was a phone call or visit from one of his children. We may know him better as the Hall of Fame NHL player, but he cherished being a Hall of Fame husband, father and grandfather even more.

I was concerned when he wasn’t one of the many Leafs alumni on hand for their Dec. 19 game that was celebrated as the first NHL game of the next century. It was only fitting that the one-hit musical wonder would make it through one more Christmas Day. My tweet after I heard the news on Dec. 26 was that I never imagined a world without Johnny Bower. Fortunately it will continue to be a world with so many great Johnny Bower memories.