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Bower, Worsley became Hall of Famers after leaving Rangers

Goalies succeeded in NHL after being demoted following excellent rookie seasons with New York

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his knowledge, humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

This week, he looks at two goalies, Gump Worsley and Johnny Bower, who started their careers with the New York Rangers but found success elsewhere on the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

When a hockey player knows that he's been successful at his trade, it's difficult for him to accept being told that he's also been a failure. But that's precisely what happened to Gump Worsley and Johnny Bower, a pair of goalie prospects with the New York Rangers in the 1950s.

Worsley, a Montreal native, was regarded as having NHL potential while playing with Verdun of the Quebec Junior Hockey League.

"He looked like he had the goods, so we promoted Gump to our New York farm club, the Rovers," said Frank Boucher, then the Rangers general manager, referring to their team in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League. "We knew it was only a matter of time before he made the big club."

The Rovers often played Sunday afternoon games at the old Madison Square Garden before the Rangers played at night. Worsley was scouted on a regular basis as the potential successor to oft-injured starter Chuck Rayner.

Worsley, whose real name was Lorne but got his nickname because he bore a keen resemblance to comic book character Andy Gump, was just 5-foot-7 but compensated by playing his angles with near perfection. Most of all, he was a battler.

"Gump was as keen a competitor as any goalie I ever saw," said forward Andy Bathgate, a longtime teammate of Worsley in New York.

Worsley got his break during the 1952-53 season when injuries limited Rayner to 20 games, and he made the most of his chance. The 23-year-old started 50 games and was as advertised -- fast, fearless and fun to watch.

Despite their rookie goalie's heroics, the Rangers couldn't get their act together. They finished last in the six-team NHL, 19 points behind the fourth-place Chicago Black Hawks for the final berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs although their rookie goalie went 13-29 with eight ties and a respectable 3.02 goals-against average. That was good enough for Worsley, who turned 24 in May 1953, to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie despite his team's lack of success.

Video: Fischler on Worsley and Bower playing for Rangers

"He may be 24 now," one press box wag said after the award was announced, "but if he stays with the Rangers another year, he'll be 34!"

However, Worsley wasn't around for another year. Despite the critical acclaim and the fact that he had quickly become a fan favorite, the Rangers stunningly demoted him to Vancouver of the Western Hockey League for the 1953-54 season. If nothing else, Worsley instantly became the answer to a trivia question: Who was the only Calder Trophy winner not to play a single NHL game in the season after winning the award.

Worsley's transformation from NHL rookie of the year to minor leaguer turned into an opportunity for Bower, who was excelling for the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League and had been regarded for several years as the best goalie not in the NHL (remember, teams generally carried one goalie in those days).

With Worsley off to Vancouver, Boucher took a gamble on Bower, who was set to turn 30 a few weeks after the season started.

"Johnny had been frustrated by the failure of NHL clubs to make a move for him," Boucher wrote in "When the Rangers Were Young," his autobiography. "He was 30 years old and with his experience, we thought he'd be better than Gump."

Statistically, physically and artistically, he was.

"Johnny was as good as they come," said forward Aldo Guidolin who played 68 games as Bower's teammate with the Rangers in 1953-54. "He kept us in the playoff race and proved that he was a big leaguer all the way."

Bower played every minute of the 70-game season, finishing with a 2.54 GAA and five shutouts. He was 29-31 with 10 ties, giving him 16 more victories that Worsley had during his Calder Trophy-winning season. With a little help from Rayner, a fellow Saskatchewan native, he perfected the poke check, which became his trademark.

However, Bower's performance wasn't enough to get the Rangers back to the playoffs; they improved by 18 points and moved up from sixth to fifth but ended up six points shy of the last postseason berth. Despite the failure to make the playoffs, Bower had every reason to believe he had secured the starting job in New York for the 1954-55 season, as did just about every Rangers fan.

But it was not to be. Bower's reward for a solid rookie season in the NHL was to be relegated to the minors. Amazingly, his replacement was none other than the goalie he had replaced -- Worsley, who played well enough with Vancouver to be named MVP of the WHL.

Why the merry-go-round in goal? To hear Boucher tell it, the issue was age; Worsley was five years younger than Bower.

"Having failed with our veterans," he explained, "we turned to our kids. And Gump was one of them."

The Worsley-Bower paradox continued through 1954-55. Worsley played in 65 games, producing 15 wins, an NHL-worst 33 losses and 17 ties, with a 3.00 GAA. Bower was promoted to New York for five games, going 2-2 with one tie and a GAA of 2.60.

Worsley kept the starting job with the Rangers through the 1962-63 season before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens. Bower's last stint with New York was a two-game cup of coffee in 1956-57; he went 0-2 with a 3.01 GAA.

But here's the real kicker: Worsley and Bower each went on to win the Stanley Cup multiple times -- but not for the Rangers.

Bower signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs for 1958-59 and helped them overtake Worsley and the Rangers for the last playoff berth on the final night of the season. He went on to excel with the Maple Leafs for the next decade and played on four Cup-winning teams from 1961-62 through 1966-67.

The Rangers traded Worsley to his hometown team on June 4, 1963, and he helped the Canadiens win the Cup four times in a span of five seasons from 1964-65 through 1968-69.

That means one or the other got his name on the Cup in eight consecutive seasons. Each played into his mid-40s and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame -- Bower in 1976, Worsley in 1980.

The one area Worsley had an edge was humor. While still with New York, where he was subjected to barrages of 40 and 50 shots on a nightly basis, Worsley was asked by a reporter which team gave him the most trouble.

His reply: "The Rangers!"

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