GLENDALE, Ariz. – Among the players who wear the Maple Leaf, Johnny Bower was basically Mr. Maple Leaf.
He had left an impression that strong during meetings at charitable events or even his frequent appearances on the Air Canada Centre video board during games. So as the team reconvened Wednesday following the Christmas break and Bower’s unexpected death, the current day Maple Leafs spoke about him with reverence.
James van Riemsdyk called Bower “larger than life.”
Frederik Andersen smiled broadly and mentioned all of the “iconic pictures” he’d seen of the former goalie hanging around the rink.
Patrick Marleau pondered the list of accomplishments Bower accumulated after age 40 and said: “Unbelievable. That happening nowadays would be unheard of.”
To have known the 93-year-old was to adore him. He was nearly five decades removed from his playing career and still found a way to connect with the new generation. Andersen recalls how upbeat Bower was during a conversation they shared before last year’s Centenntial Classic outdoor game.
“It was pretty eye-opening the way he loved being a Maple Leaf,” said Andersen.
The team is planning to honour him in some way when it visits the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, but hadn’t settled on an exact tribute as of late Wednesday afternoon.
That speaks to the sudden nature of Bower’s death. He made his last public appearance just before Christmas and died Tuesday from pneumonia.
While tributes flooded in from around the hockey world – there were moments of silence held before multiple NHL games on Wednesday night – the Leafs had a unique perspective because Bower remained closely tied to the organization right up until his death.
Johnny was on a first-name basis with everybody.
“He was a great man and I enjoyed talking to him a lot, the chances I did get,” said Andersen. “He was a positive guy and still did a lot of good stuff for the Leafs [in retirement]. Appearances and stuff like that.
“That’s something you can look up to.”
It’s something head coach Mike Babcock plans to raise with his players. He’s already spent some time reflecting on Bower’s life and was sent a photo from Scotty Bowman on Wednesday that featured Bower and Gordie Howe at Waskesiu Lake in Saskatchewan.
“I don’t know him like a lot of people did, but what he appears to me is to be an example for all of our players to try and live up to,” said Babcock. “When you treat people the way he did and when you make people feel better about themselves just through a conversation that’s the mark of a great, great man.
“Obviously, he was an unbelievable goaltender and an unbelievable Leaf, but I think what he did off the ice for our fans and what he did for people is far more impressive, to be honest with you.”
The organization has strengthened its relationship with alumni in recent years. Bower is among those recognized with a statue on Legends Row outside the ACC and had his No. 1 officially retired at the start of the centennial season.
He’s also frequently represented with a nameplate over an empty stall in the team’s dressing room – a practice Babcock brought over from the Detroit Red Wings.
“I think it’s important for our guys to learn about him, and they’re going to hear a lot about him over the next while, to understand just what a good man he was and what a great role model he was,” Babcock said of Bower. “I think we all think that we’re doing a pretty good job but then when you hear about the quality of person he was it’s pretty humbling, to say the least. …
“He had a great life, 93 years young. My conversations with him were spectacular even at this age, so obviously he did a lot for the Leaf community.”
That hardly seemed lost on those several generations younger than Bower in the organization.
Auston Matthews called him a gentleman while van Riemsdyk noted: “He just carried himself really humbly.”
Bower played in the days before goaltenders wore masks and Andersen struggles to wrap his mind around some of the footage he’s seen of him taking sticks and pucks to the cheek.
“In my backyard, I think I’ve taken a puck off the face, but not a real game,” said Andersen. “It took a lot of courage, I think, back then. I’m glad they invented the mask before I started playing.”