On November 8, 1924 in Prince Albert Saskatchewan, Johnny Bower was born. He was the second of nine children… no brothers and eight sisters. Lying about his age, for the first time, at 15 he would leave his increasingly crowded home to enlist with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, to serve in England during the Second World War. Discharged in 1944, after four years of service in the military, Johnny would pick-up his hockey career where it left off, in Saskatchewan.
Fast forward fourteen years to June 3rd, 1958, and the day Johnny Bower was claimed by the last place Maple Leafs from the Cleveland Barons in the AHL Inter-League Draft. That fall, the winningest goalie in American Hockey League History would make the blue and white… he was the oldest player on the team. In fact, for every game of his twelve seasons in Toronto, he would always be the oldest on the team. For his final ten seasons, he was the oldest player in the League… although no one knew exactly how old that was until after he retired. Some say Johnny earned his famous nickname, The China Wall because he’d been around as long as the impressive fortification but those who faced Johnny knew, it was because it was harder to put a puck past old number 1, than it was to get shot through the Great Wall.
Of course Johnny preferred to play without the protection of a mask, “I just made up my mind that I was going to lose my teeth and have my face cut to pieces” was Johnny’s take on the matter. He would intentionally block shots with his face and patented the poke check, his signature move that would thwart oncoming attackers, before they could even begin their assault on the Toronto net. Johnny’s career accomplishments are impressive and weave their way through one of the most beloved eras in franchise history. A four time Stanley Cup Champion, he would drink from the Cup in 1962… 1963… 1964 and as part of the oldest team that has ever won or ever will win the Stanly Cup, in 1967. After 67, Johnny would suit up for three more seasons, before retiring during the 69/70 campaign at the age of 45. Since then, he has filled the rolls of Goalie Coach, Practice Goalie, Scout and Santa Claus. Along the way he has made more appearances in our community than any Maple Leafs player in history. As active today in his 90th year as he was when he arrived in Toronto in 1958, Johnny still treats every fan as if they were the first that ever wanted to shake his hand… always gracious… always wondering what all the fuss was about.
In 1976 Johnny Bower, the winner of 255 regular season and Playoff games with Leafs and two Vezina Awards, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Nineteen years later he, along with Nancy (they’ve been married 65 years), watched his number one raised to the rafters of Maple Leafs Gardens. Number one in your program for every game he ever played, Johnny remains number one in the hearts of generations of Leafs fans.