Greatest Maple Leafs: No. 5 Johnny Bower

Long after his playing days, Johnny Bower was still inspiring young Maple Leafs fans to don the pads (Graphic Artists/HHOF Images)

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When I was a kid my aunt gave me a framed painting of Johnny Bower, a limited edition print, No. 968 of 1967. He signed it personally in silver ink, “To Danny” — ostensibly negating any monetary value, but immediately making it my most prized piece of art. It hung on my wall inside a silver frame with a light blue trim to match the blue-grey tint of the painting, which gives it the feeling of a dream.

Bower is low in his crouch, with his helmet-less buzz-cut well below the crossbar. His right leather pad is bent slightly more than the left—bracing to push off. His catcher is turned so the mitt faces the net, an unorthodox quirk of Bower’s old-school style. The white boards, blurry in the background, are made of wood panels. The crease is square and faded under layers of skate marks. It’s a snapshot from someone else’s memory.

I didn’t get to sit in the wooden seats of Maple Leaf Gardens through the glory of the 1960s. I’ve never counted down the final seconds to a Stanley Cup win, or felt the rush of a roaring crowd as it poured onto Carlton Street. But that painting hung on the wall of my bedroom, on top of the airplane wallpaper, next to the plaques and team photos of my minor league hockey career, when my goalie pads were brown like his.

It came with me when I went away to university and to every apartment I’ve lived in since. I never saw him play, but I imagined the chill at Maple Leaf Gardens and the smell of popcorn in the lobby. I could hear the cheers of fans who have become mothers and fathers, grandparents and ghosts. Bower’s painting tied me to something I wanted deeply to be a part of. Dreams beget dreams; they’re passed on.

Just like mine, Bower’s dreams began with a hero he’d never seen play. The voice came through the speakers of Jim and Betty Kiszkan’s radio at their home in Prince Albert, Sask., a farming town two hours north of Saskatoon.

It was the late 1930s and the house was busy with seven sisters and two brothers, living with the economic realities of life in the late-Depression Prairies. By then, Johnny Kiszkan had already been playing goal on the rivers of Prince Albert for a few years, with Eaton’s catalogues strapped to his shins and size-12 skates stuffed with socks. He’d spent his winters on the ice, enduring minus-45-degree days, catching pucks in his thick wool mitts or deflecting them with the crooked tree branch his father carved into a stick.

On those cold Saturday nights he’d sit there in the Kiszkan home, with his crew of friends, listening to the nasally, majestic voice of Foster Hewitt carry dreams into the living room. Of all the players they imagined, one captured Johnny Kiszkan’s mind beyond the rest: Frank Brimsek of the Boston Bruins, known as “Mr. Zero” for his mounting shutouts. Johnny Kiszkan wanted to be Mr. Zero, too.

“When you want something, you dream long enough, sometimes your dreams come true,” Johnny Bower says wistfully over the phone from his home in Mississauga, Ont., looking back on his boyhood at age 87. “Mine did.”

Then, he chuckles: “It took me a long time.”

He’s jumping ahead a bit, of course. There are a few stops between those Saturday nights in Prince Albert and his Stanley Cup parades. The Second World War, for one, when he first lied about his age (he was 15) in order to enlist. He took a train from Prince Albert to Vernon, B.C., and trained to the barks of drill sergeants—“Up! Down! Up! Down!”—wading through rivers, carrying a rifle over his head. He never saw action. Got sick and, by grace, wasn’t among the five boys he knew from Prince Albert who stormed Dieppe and never came back. He was content to train as a boilermaker afterwards, while playing junior hockey for the Prince Albert Black Hawks in 1944.

The Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League lured him away from that life. He signed with the team in 1945 and moved to Ohio on a $4,000 salary. A year later he changed his named to Bower, his mother’s maiden name, after his parents divorced. No one was really certain how old he was—he swears he’d forgotten himself. He told a Cleveland reporter he was born in 1928, and told other reporters he wasn’t sure. It had the effect of making him seem four years younger than other men born in 1924, his actual birth year.

“I think it helped with my contract negotiations,” he says. Bower spent eight stellar seasons in the minors before finally seeing NHL action with the New York Rangers in 1953, playing every game for the team that season. There he gleaned wisdom from retiring Rangers netminder Chuck Rayner. After watching Bower play, Rayner told him, “You got to learn how to poke check.” And he made a line of pucks on the ice for Bower to practise on — “Up! Down! Up! Down!” just like the Army drills. “Must have done that 50 times,” Bower says. “Boy was I tired.”

The Rangers decided to go with younger prospect Gump Worsley, and Bower didn’t find a steady role in the NHL until 1958 when the Maple Leafs — coming off a last-place season — decided to take a chance on a 33-year-old goalie. That’s where this story begins — the start of the Bower era, the last great decade in team history.

Bower became a favourite of Leafs GM and coach Punch Imlach, who took a hands-on approach with the goalie, pulling him aside after games to tell him he needed to work on his angles or threaten to fine him $10 every time he flopped to the ice in practice.

“Other guys didn’t like him because they thought he worked them too hard,” Bower says. “But I don’t think so. The more I worked the better I got, the more shutouts I got.” Bower thrived in the hockey-mad city of Toronto. He won the Vezina Trophy in 1961. The following season he stood in his crease at the Gardens as the seconds ticked down in game six of the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Black Hawks.

Bower tuned out the roaring crowd as the Leafs held on to a 2–1 lead — “You forget about everything,” he says. “You just look at that black disc.” The horn sounded, reaching back through decades of dreaming, through 655 minor league games, to find a boy who used to sit in front of the radio and believe that this moment would come.

The Leafs poured onto the ice and charged toward Bower. He tossed his stick in the air, but forgot to move. It smacked into his forehead before the players piled on, giving him eight stitches to add to a growing collection of scars.

“My dreams came true,” Bower says. “It was the happiest feeling in the world. My whole body went numb.”

The Leafs went on to win the Cup in 1963 and 1964, completing the three-peat. Terry Sawchuk joined the team the following season and shared duties with Bower, who bristled at the all-star’s arrival.

“I was mad when they got Sawchuk, because I thought I’d have to sit on the bench,” he says. “But he was a great goalie. I learned a lot from watching him.” Imlach alternated playing his veteran goalies, allowing them to keep playing when they hit a winning streak. The strategy worked out — Sawchuk and Bower shared the Vezina in 1965. Bower was 40 years old, somehow still playing despite fading vision that gave him trouble with long shots.

In 1967 — that final year of glory — the Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens in six games to win the Stanley Cup. Bower was on the bench for the final countdown, having suffered an injury early in the series. Still, his first and last Stanley Cups remain his favourite memories as a Leaf.

During a game against the Black Hawks in 1970, Bower reached for a Bobby Hull shot and pulled his groin. It was his last game. “I was slowing down, I was losing the long shots from the blueline. They decided that was it,” he says. “I was 45 years old. I decided to hang them up.” (Even then, no one was certain just how old he was.)

In the decades since, Bower has been a fixture at Leafs games. “I always loved Johnny Bower,” says Lanny McDonald. “He had that big s—-a– grin on his face, loving life and loving the game.” He worked as a Leafs scout and goalie coach, and then took his place as an icon. Every time he’s introduced fans give him an overwhelming ovation that immediately takes him back to the 1960s. “It’s the greatest thing,” he says. “It makes you feel like you’ve won the Stanley Cup.”

Like a painting on a wall, the ageless one remains a fixture from the past — a memory for those who lived it, a legend for those who didn’t. He gives life to the faint cheers of the old Gardens on Carlton Street. You can feel the first-period chill, hear that organ song, smell the popcorn in the lobby. Bower is a living memory, a boy who lived his dream and passed it on. “To Danny,” he signed, and those words meant everything.

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