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Bower was champion on ice, beloved gentleman off it

Friends, family, former foes to celebrate life, career of Hall of Fame goaltender, who died Dec. 26

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- The late Jean Beliveau faced dozens of NHL goaltenders during his Hall of Fame career. But in some ways, there was none who posed a greater challenge than Johnny Bower of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a man who would become a dear friend.

On Wednesday afternoon, thousands will gather at Air Canada Centre -- family, friends, fans, former teammates and opponents, members of the Maple Leafs current team and organization, and NHL and civic dignitaries -- to celebrate the life and career of Bower, who died on Dec. 26 at age 93.

Stories will be shared about Bower's selfless community and charity work and his love of wearing the Maple Leafs logo, first on his sweater and, for decades after he retired, on his lapel. You'd probably also have found it burned onto the heart of the man who arguably was the most popular Maple Leafs player of all time.


[RELATED: Bower's legacy lives on with Maple Leafs | Bower dies at age 93]


Jokes will be made about Bower's age, which was a running gag for years after he fibbed about it so that he could enlist in the Canadian army at age 15, during World War II.

"We'd kid Johnny that he enlisted for the Boer War (of the late 1800s)," Bower's friend and fellow goaltender Glenn Hall says with a laugh.

And of course, the native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, will be remembered for his heroics in goal for the Maple Leafs, anchoring Stanley Cup championship teams in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967.

"Johnny was the hardest goalie to outmaneuver in the entire League," Beliveau wrote in "My Life In Hockey," his 1994 autobiography. "He positioned himself in such a way [on a breakaway] that he drew you toward him, almost as if you were being drawn into a funnel.

"I remember sending [forward] John Ferguson in on him several times. Fergy didn't have the greatest moves in close, so quite often he'd just keep on going and run right over Bower. ... Johnny would get up, shake himself off and mumble (to the teammates rushing to his aid): 'It's part of the game, guys.'"

In early December 2014, a month after his 90th birthday, Bower flew to Montreal from his Toronto home with a grandson to attend Beliveau's funeral. He was in the very back of Montreal's Mary Queen of the World Cathedral when the coffin of the late Canadiens captain entered the church; Bower looked at the casket and then bowed his head, choked with emotion.

"I'm here because John is my friend," he said following the service. "I valued that friendship. John was forever a gentleman. I'm here today because I want to be and because I need to be."

Seven years earlier, Bower was among a galaxy of NHL stars joining Beliveau at Bell Centre for a black-tie charity gala. More than $1 million was raised in Beliveau's name that March 2007 night to benefit children's hospitals in Quebec.

Bower took great joy on that occasion reacquainting himself with many he'd not seen in decades, beaming to pose for a photo with Bobby Rousseau and Dollard St. Laurent, two great old rivals with the Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks.

"I have a beautiful autographed photo of John (Beliveau) in my rec room, signed: 'To a great competitor,'" Bower said that evening, slipping from his reverential "Mr. Beliveau" five minutes into conversation.

"What a gentleman he is. It's real, real nice to have that on my wall. It's just too bad John didn't play in Toronto. We'd have won a few more Stanley Cups.

"He'd pull me way over, leaving the Rocket open on the power play," he said of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Montreal's captain during Bower's first two seasons (1958-59 and 1959-60) in Toronto. "I'd have no choice but to play the puck, then John would pass it nice and easy, perfect, and boom, the red light is on. I can still hear Rocket skating away, saying with his French accent, 'Tank you, Johnny.'

"I'd go to the church and light candles," Bower said with a smile, "but the Rocket would still score on me."

Bower retired from the NHL after appearing in one game during the 1969-70 season to end an NHL career that began in 1953, hanging up his skates a year before Beliveau did likewise. The friendship and mutual admiration between the two men grew steadily for more than four decades at memorabilia shows, charity events and League and Hall of Fame functions, and Bower would not miss this historic Bell Centre gala or his opportunity to pay his final respects to Beliveau at the latter's funeral.

The rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens was as ferocious as there was during the Original Six days, when the half-dozen teams played one another 14 times in a 70-game regular season, the heat rising until it was at full boil by the time the Stanley Cup Playoffs rolled around.

Ferguson, in particular, took no prisoners and it seemed that he was magnetically attracted to Bower. He ran at, over and through the goalie, a high-speed CH-crested bowling ball aimed at the kingpin wearing a Maple Leafs sweater, flimsy pads and a grimace that foretold the inevitable collision.

Their relationship could be traced to the 1954-55 season, when Bower played for the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks and Ferguson was the team's stick boy. Legend has it that Bower failed (or forgot) at season's end to offer Ferguson, then 16, the tip that was traditionally given by players to meagerly paid minor-pro dressing-room attendants.

Video: Johnny Bower led Leafs to four Stanley Cup titles

The lore has it that Ferguson spent his entire NHL career crashing Bower's crease as a receipt for a gratuity not given.

"But I tipped him," Bower pleaded at Beliveau's 2007 gala. "Fergy had me confused with someone else."

Despite Ferguson's rugged, linebacker-like approach to hockey in which his stick was often head-high around maskless goaltenders, Bower never held a grudge.

"Johnny Ferguson was a great guy off the ice, a great competitor," he said. "Yes, he played for Montreal, but if he came sliding toward the post and the puck had gone in, I'd put my body in front of him. I didn't want to see him get hurt or break his leg."

In a tuxedo with a rose in his lapel, Bower then turned just in time for Henri Richard to slap a headlock on him, the 11-time Stanley Cup champion with the Canadiens yet another thorn in his side for more years than he wanted to count.

"I hated him, I wouldn't even look at him when we played," Richard said with a grin, hugging his old friend who more than once dove to separate him from the puck with his trademark poke check.

"And yet when it was all over, we took our wives on a cruise together and it's turned out pretty good for us," Bower replied. "You make friends later, no matter whether you've won or lost. You have a bit of heart and you say, 'Hi, how are you?'"

Bower played 626 regular-season and playoff games from 1953-70, twice winning the Vezina Trophy, finishing with a goals-against average of 2.51 (2.47 in the playoffs) and earning a total of 42 shutouts. He won his fourth and final Stanley Cup title in 1967, sharing the net with Terry Sawchuk for the Maple Leafs' most recent championship.
The 1967 Stanley Cup Final against the Canadiens went six games, a typically fierce battle with Montreal. And through the years, no player gave Bower more trouble than Beliveau, whom he called the greatest center he ever faced.

Gordie Howe, another formidable foe, dear friend and fellow Saskatchewan native, recalled Bower robbing him blind, but also the occasions when, like the Rocket, he'd skate past the goalie to say thanks after having scored.

"One time I came in and Johnny made a heck of a save but it was on the wrong leg. He kicked out the right leg and the puck hit the left pad," Howe wrote in the foreward of Bower's 2004 autobiography, "The China Wall: The Timeless Legend of Johnny Bower."

"I said to him, 'At least kick out the right pad. Don't make me feel bad and think you can stop it without even trying.' Another time I shot it and he just robbed me with his glove hand. I said, 'If you look in the other hand, I bet you'll find my watch.'"

In the hours and days following Bower's death, a common theme spoken to was the gentlemanly quality of a goalie and big-hearted friend of all about whom no one could say a bad word.

A little more than a year before his death, Bower himself wasn't so sure about this universal affection. We spoke then about his reluctantly preparing to surrender his driver's license and get out from behind the wheel of his car. It wasn't going to be easy, even in his 90s, since he'd been driving for more than seven decades.

"But it's time," he said. "I must be driving pretty badly. So many drivers go by me honking and waving their fists at me."

"Just out of curiosity, John," I asked him, "do you have a license plate that's more than just letters or numbers?"

"I do," he replied. "It says BOWER1."

"Do you think there's a chance," I said, "that these people aren't honking and shaking a fist at you in anger, but recognizing you from your plate and just tooting their horns and waving to say hi?"

Bower paused for a moment, looking puzzled.

"Do you really think so?"

And this wonderful man, who will be celebrated Wednesday as a great champion and the humblest of gentlemen, meant every word of that with a sincerity that was a hallmark of his life.

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