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100 Greatest Players

Johnny Bower: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Playing into his 40s, goalie won four Stanley Cup championships with Maple Leafs

by Stu Hackel / Special to

Johnny Bower had a secret. Just how old was he when he was the backbone for the great Toronto Maple Leafs dynasty of the 1960s?

He wasn't telling and no one really seemed to know. He looked like your grandfather, but he moved like a teenager -- light on his feet, quick with his hands and especially adept at thrusting his stick out to poke the puck from a charging attacker.


Video: Johnny Bower led Leafs to four Stanley Cup titles


His amazing 12-year run with the Maple Leafs, which began in 1958 when Bower was -- allegedly -- 34 years old, included four Stanley Cup championships, two Vezina Trophies, a first-team All-Star selection and Hart Trophy consideration.

He was nicknamed "The China Wall" by a Cleveland sportswriter during his lengthy minor-league career, apropos for a goaltender who often protected the twine as if he were made of bricks. More than one press box comedian would remark, "Well, he's as old as the Great Wall of China," which led to his nickname. Whatever his actual birth date (records show it's Nov. 8 1924), it was no impediment for Bower to become one of hockey's top goaltenders during the Original Six era when almost every team's regular goalie was a bona fide Hall of Fame candidate.

"Johnny Bower was the best standup goaltender I'd ever seen, even better than Turk Broda," former Maple Leafs forward Howie Meeker said on the "Legends of Hockey" TV series. "He played his angles better than anybody else, he stood on his feet better than anybody else, and he stopped the puck very, very well."

"Johnny Bower was the hardest goalie to deke in the entire league," Montreal Canadiens center Jean Beliveau wrote in his autobiography. "He would simply refuse to go for a move. As a result, he was difficult to score against on a breakaway. He positioned himself in such a way that he drew you toward him almost as if you were moving down a funnel." 


Games: 552 | Wins: 250 | Losses: 195 | Ties: 90 | GAA: 2.51


Warm and fun-loving, Bower was immensely popular with fans and teammates, universally praised as both a competitor and a gentleman. He was born John Kiszkan, but changed his name to Bower following what he called a "separation in the family in my youth." He selected the new surname himself, although he didn't legally change it until he had already played pro hockey for a season with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League.

Bower and his friends in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, played shinny on rivers, lakes and any patch of natural ice he could find during the long prairie winters where, he said, the temperature routinely hit 45 below zero. He didn't mind standing in front of the goal, however, believing it was less dangerous than the forwards who got bounced around.

"I didn't want any part of that," Bower wrote in his autobiography. "I'm going to stay in goal, I figured. It's easy as pie. As I got older, I started to realize it wasn't so easy after all." 

Growing up during the Great Depression, his first pads were made from a mattress cut in half and, like many of his Prince Albert chums, his first stick was fashioned by his father out of a poplar tree limb. Pucks might be pieces of wood, rolled up black tape and even frozen horse manure, known as 'road apples.' "When you got hit in the mouth with one of those," Bower said on the TV documentary "Legends of Hockey," "you knew that, too." 

He was better equipped during his organized youth hockey career, which took place entirely in Prince Albert, and he faced other teams from the province, including Gordie Howe's Saskatoon team.

Confusion about Bower's real age began when he lied to join the military during World War II at age 15. He shipped out to British Columbia and then England, but rheumatoid arthritis led to his discharge. Fortunately, he continued to play for military teams while in the service, and after he was discharged, he had junior hockey eligibility remaining. He joined the Prince Albert Black Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1944-45, where his play caught the attention of the Barons, who signed him for a $50 bonus and $1,700 for the season.

His Cleveland coach, former New York Rangers forward Bun Cook, refined Bower's game. Cook taught him to play the angles rather than just hurl himself at shots. He also began using lighter weight sticks, a necessity because the arthritis had weakened his hands. By the 1949-50 season, Bower was Cleveland's ace and he helped the Barons win their division five times in seven seasons and win the Calder Cup three times. He was also voted the AHL's top goalie three times.

The New York Rangers traded for him in 1953. Bower had been happy in Cleveland, but also wanted the chance to play goal at the highest level and he beat out incumbent Gump Worsley at Rangers training camp.

While the 1953-54 Rangers weren't very good, Bower was, earning praise for his efficient style, his sense of anticipation and his easy demeanor under adverse conditions. And while in New York, he was tutored by former Rangers star goalie Chuck Rayner on some of the position's fine points, including puck-handling and, especially, the poke check. Because he could wield his lighter stick quicker than others, Bower's poke check became a major weapon in his arsenal and it would become his signature move.

Yet he found himself back in the minors most of the following season and would bounce from Vancouver of the Western Hockey League to Providence of the AHL and back to Cleveland over the next four years. He was clearly the best goalie not in the NHL, winning championships and earning All-Star selections. He also was the first AHL goalie to be league MVP and the first to win the honor three consecutive times (1956-58).

Enter the Maple Leafs, looking for an upgrade in goal and a veteran to help train their junior prospect Gerry Cheevers. Bower initially didn't want to go. He was happy in Cleveland, had a successful restaurant there and was tired of moving. But, like most hockey players, his Stanley Cup dreams proved irresistible and he wasn't going to win that in the AHL.

By the end of the 1958-59 season, Bower had helped the Leafs on a miraculous run to the final playoff spot on the season's final day. As far as GM/coach Punch Imlach was concerned, he had found his goalie of the future, and his age was insignificant.

Like most goalies, he had his quirks. He remained quite particular about his equipment, as he wrote in his 2008 autobiography.

"I'd wear my right pad loosely and my left pad snug. I felt I could kick out my left leg quicker if the pad was tight to my leg, but the right one had to be loose or it didn't feel right. I developed a habit of pounding my right pad three or four times with my stick at every stoppage to knock it back into position because I wore it loose. My belly pads were real thin and we had no shoulder pads - just pieces of felt sewn on the underwear. I had a trapper, a black one. It was a heavy thing, not lightweight like today."

Knowing all goaltenders had their eccentricities, Imlach and the players admired Bower's determination, especially during practice where, unlike most goalies, he tried as hard as he did in games. And in games, Bower could be heroic, like the game against the Detroit Red Wings in 1961 when he was plowed over by bad boy Howie Young, injuring his left leg and losing a tooth. Bower had to haul himself upright following saves by grabbing the goalposts, but he refused to remove himself from the game, and he led the Leafs past the Red Wings that night, largely on guts and willpower.

"He was thinking about the team and (finishing in) first place," Imlach wrote in his autobiography. "That's the kind of man he is."

Bower missed some weeks after that and Imlach believed the injury cost the Leafs first place, and perhaps even the Stanley Cup. But Bower's Cup dream came true in 1962, and the two seasons afterward as well. In 1963-64, the 39-year-old Bower played 51 games and posted a league-leading 2.11 goals-against average. When Toronto acquired 35-year-old Terry Sawchuk for the next season, it allowed Imlach to platoon two of the great goalies of their era and it likely extended their careers.

The duo shared the Vezina Trophy in 1965 and Bower again posted the NHL's best goals-against average (2.38), and the next season (2.25) as well. The excellence of Bower and Sawchuk were generally regarded as the main reasons why the aging Maple Leafs captured the 1967 Stanley Cup.

The Leafs also respected how Bower continually worked to improve his game. He kept what he called "a little black book" on his NHL opponents, their tendencies with the puck and where they'd shoot on him, which he'd study before games.

He was always trying to add new wrinkles to his style. Imlach noted in his autobiography that Bower "is simply not a normal sort of guy. He had so much desire that he was able to continue to develop all the time," where most other athletes eventually "stop being able to get better. Bower never did stop. He came in, well, we'll say he came into the NHL at 40 years of age, damn near, and he was able to keep on getting better. On top of all that, he had the heart, the will.

"By wanting to be the best so badly," Imlach said, "he overcame the aging process."

Perhaps that was Bower's secret all along.


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