TORONTO – It all comes back to those hands. That’s how Johnny Bower showed the way to his immense heart.
They seemed to play a part in every story on Wednesday afternoon as roughly 60 Toronto Maple Leafs alumni joined family, friends, fans and dignitaries to celebrate the Hall of Fame goaltender’s life.
Longtime Leafs broadcaster Joe Bowen, the master of ceremonies at Air Canada Centre, spoke of meeting Bower inside the team’s dressing room as a teenager. He was a goaltender in Sudbury at the time and Bower was his hero.
“I shook hands with him and my hand was immediately buried in this enormous paw,” said Bowen.
“You’ve probably all shook his hand,” said former Leafs captain Darryl Sittler, speaking to a couple of reporters. “I mean his hands were huge and thick because of the shots that he would take.”
The speeches painted a portrait of a life well lived.
Each of Bower’s three kids, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren were in attendance, just as they had been for a ceremony in the goal crease before the Leafs hosted Tampa on Tuesday night. John Bower III spoke of the great lengths his grandfather would go to for a laugh – taking out his dentures and donning a one-piece women’s bathing suit at the cottage, or getting a stuck in an intertube during a family trip to Florida.
He had a propensity for falling off ladders even into his 80’s. As it turns out, a man who once stopped pucks in the NHL without wearing a facemask wasn’t much of a handyman.
“There was a time he asked me to help him hook up his new ceiling fan in his bedroom and he turned the power on as I was connecting the wires,” said John Bower, his grandson. “I fell off the ladder. He laughed. And after a moment of disbelief so did I.”
Those personal anecdotes aligned perfectly with the way so many members of the Leafs sprawling fanbase felt they knew Bower. The organization has just finished celebrating its centennial season and may never have had a better ambassador.
“What do we have here in the GTA, seven-million people?” said former captain Doug Gilmour. “Johnny probably knows about five-[million].”
The one thing Brendan Shanahan couldn’t reconcile after taking over as team president is how the kind soul he came to know Bower as managed to endure 13 years in the minors before getting his first shot in the Leafs crease at age 34.
Of course, Bower then went on to win four Stanley Cups, two Vezina Trophies and gain induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame while playing another decade. He also has the most wins in AHL history.
“It’s an incredible story,” said Shanahan. “There had to be an internal furnace or fire burning inside him.”
Ron Ellis, part of Toronto’s 1967 Cup team with Bower, produced an answer for what pushed the beloved goalie.
“Johnny considered it a privilege, not a right, to be a Maple Leaf,” said Ellis. “Gratitude is what drove him to become the best he could be.”
Dave Keon, another former teammate, spoke of how valued Bower was among his peers. While most remember Toronto’s 1964 Stanley Cup victory for Bobby Baun’s overtime goal on a broken ankle, teammates remember a huge Bower save on Detroit’s Larry Jeffrey that allowed Game 6 to get that far.
“Winning the Cup takes heart, but John was our soul,” said Keon.
His competitive streak extended beyond his playing career.
Bower stayed on as Leafs goalie coach in retirement and Keon recalls bringing his 10-year-old son, Dave Jr., down to Maple Leaf Gardens for a skate one day. Bower let the first shot from the kid in. Nothing else got by him.
“He said I let him have one Davey because he’s your son, but one was all he was going to get,” Keon recalled.
The current Leafs were among those in attendance for Wednesday’s ceremony. The family even asked goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney to serve as pallbearers, helping wheel the casket away afterwards.
Virtually every player on the team had crossed paths with Bower at some point.
Tyler Bozak would ask him how he stood in for shots without a mask – “He’d act like it was nothing,” said Bozak. “That’s the crazy part about it” – while Morgan Rielly recalled a fan event where Bower put everyone else to shame.
“There were kids bringing jerseys around with a bunch of autographs on them, and you always knew which one was his because he would handwrite his name perfectly,” said Rielly.
Head coach Mike Babcock was touched by seeing the size of the Bower clan before Tuesday’s game.
“When you’re in hockey, you’re in something with notoriety, people think about your career and the Hall of Fame and all of that,” said Babcock. “The measure of a man is the family he raises. Did you see all those people coming out? It was unbelievable to me. That’s what stood out in my mind is if he touched the Leafs and Leaf fans the way he has, can you imagine what he did for that family and that foundation he probably built with his wife for those people?”
That was evident in John Bower’s words about his namesake and grandfather. However, he noted that they always felt part of two families – those with the Bower bloodline and those associated with Leafs.
Standing before a crowd of a couple thousand people that included everyone from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to former Montreal Canadiens star Yvan Cournoyer, he thanked Babcock and the current players for their support.
“We wish you much success this season,” he said. “As grandpa would say: ‘We know this is the year.’ You have an angel watching down from the rafters at the Air Canada Centre who will be enjoying every minute of your chase for the Stanley Cup.”