Goaltender Johnny Bower, who spent 13 seasons in the minor leagues before putting together a Hockey Hall of Fame career that included helping the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup four times in the 1960s, died Tuesday of pneumonia. He was 93.
"There is so much to appreciate in Johnny Bower's accomplishments on the ice -- including the four Stanley Cups and membership in the Hockey Hall of Fame -- and yet there was so much more to the man who served his sport, his country and his community with such distinction," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Johnny Bower enriched us all by sharing the pure joy he felt for the game he played and for the men who played it, with him and against him. It was a personal privilege to know him, a delight to be in his presence, and an honor to celebrate him as one of the 100 Greatest Players in NHL history.
"Johnny Bower was a bright light of our sport, a light that will shine forever. As the NHL family grieves his loss, we send heartfelt condolences and comfort to his wife, Nancy; his family; and his countless friends inside and outside the game."
Video: Johnny Bower led Leafs to four Stanley Cup titles
Bower spent the equivalent of a full career in the minors before becoming a full-time NHL goaltender at age 34. Before retiring at 45, the "China Wall" (a nickname that had as much to do with his advanced age as it did his goaltending) won 250 games, including 37 by shutout, and had a 2.51 goals-against average.
"[He's] the greatest athlete in the world," his coach, Punch Imlach, once said of Bower. "By wanting to be the best so badly, he overrode the aging process."
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But Bower nearly didn't get the chance to win one championship, let alone four.
Born John Kiszkan in the wilderness village of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Bower grew up poor as the only boy in a family of nine children. At 15, Bower lied about his age to enlist in Canada's army and was sent to England in 1940. He was discharged in 1943 with rheumatoid arthritis in his hands, an ailment that would plague him throughout his hockey career, and embarked on a journey through the minor leagues.
The NHL at that time was a six-team league in which full-time backup goaltenders were a rarity, so Bower (he changed his name after turning pro) played with Cleveland of the American Hockey League from 1945-53. He won the Hap Holmes Award as the AHL goalie with the lowest GAA and was named league MVP three times each.
Bower signed with the New York Rangers for the 1953-54 season and played every minute of all 70 games, finishing with a 29-31-10 record, a 2.60 GAA and five shutouts. But he lost his job to rookie Gump Worsley before the 1954-55 season and spent almost all of the next four years back in the minors, ending up with Cleveland again in 1957-58.
"I was sick of jumping around the country and I wanted to settle down with my family," Bower would say. "Cleveland was going to be my home."
But Imlach, the general manager and coach of the Maple Leafs, had other ideas. Imlach visited Bower during the summer of 1958, then drafted him from Cleveland. At age 34, Bower established himself as Toronto's No. 1 goaltender, helping the Maple Leafs move from last place in 1957-58 to the Stanley Cup Final in 1959 and 1960.
In 1962, Bower and the Maple Leafs defeated the Chicago Blackhawks for their first championship since 1951.
"When we won the Stanley Cup, my head went numb, my whole body went numb," Bower recalled. "That was my dream from Day One. You just can't explain the feelings inside you."
Toronto won the Cup again in 1963 and 1964. The third championship came a few months before Bower's 40th birthday.
Bower, who played without a mask for most of his career, became known as the inventor of the poke-check. He would aggressively leave the crease and try to poke the puck away from an onrushing attacker. The move wasn't without risk: During his career, Bower lost nearly all of his teeth and on one occasion caught a skate to the face, knocking one of his teeth through his cheek.
Video: Remembering Johnny Bower's life and career
After losing in the semifinals in 1965 and 1966, the Maple Leafs stumbled into the 1967 Stanley Cup Playoffs; they had finished third, 19 points behind first-place Chicago, during the regular season. But Toronto upset the Blackhawks in the thanks to the goaltending duo of Bower and 37-year-old Terry Sawchuk. The Maple Leafs' opponent in the Final was the Canadiens, who were going for their third consecutive championship.
Bower replaced Sawchuk after a Game 1 loss and shut out Montreal 3-0 in Game 2, then made 52 saves in a 3-2 double-overtime win in Game 3. He was injured during warmups before Game 4, but Sawchuk helped Toronto finish a six-game series victory that gave the Maple Leafs their fourth championship in six years.
Bower retired in 1970 as the second-oldest goaltender to play in the NHL. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976. But he continued to strap on the pads for a few years after his retirement, serving as a practice goalie when one was needed.
Bower was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players on Jan. 1 at the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic in Toronto.
"The entire Toronto Maple Leaf organization is deeply saddened following the passing of Johnny Bower," Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. "Johnny was beloved by so many for much more than his Hall of Fame credentials as a player. It was his generosity of spirit, kindness and passion for people that made him a legend at life. The Toronto Maple Leafs, and our fans, are deeply indebted to Johnny for all that he gave to us, and taught us over the years. We will miss him dearly, but we know that his presence will forever be felt by our club and our city.
"Our deepest sympathies and gratitude go to Nancy, their children, and the entire Bower family for sharing their husband, father and grandfather with us for so many years.
"There may not be a more loved Toronto Maple Leaf, nor a former player who loved them as much back."