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Bower made history with Maple Leafs 52 years ago

Shut out Detroit in Game 7 of Final to give Toronto third straight Stanley Cup title

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

History remembers Johnny Bower's landmark performance of April 25, 1964, as only the second-most newsworthy event of that season's Stanley Cup Final.

Bower's perfect night of goaltending in the Toronto Maple Leafs' 4-0 Cup-clinching victory against the Detroit Red Wings was the first shutout in a Game 7 of the Final.

The spotlight in that postseason, in which the Maple Leafs won the Cup for the third straight year, fell mostly on Toronto defenseman Bobby Baun, who left Game 6 with a fractured leg after blocking a shot, then returned with his leg frozen and taped and scored the winner in overtime.

Bower's mastery came in a game that was a blowout, compared to how the rest of the series had gone. Games 2 and 6 went into overtime. Game 1, won by Toronto, and Game 3, a Detroit victory, were decided by goals that came at 19:58 and 19:43 of the third period respectively. Before the Game 7 rout, only Game 4, a 4-2 victory by the Maple Leafs, was decided by a margin of more than one goal.

It wasn't only Baun who skated into Game 7 on a limb as frozen as the rink. Teammate Red Kelly, a former Red Wings great, had his severely wrenched knee from Game 6 numbed with an injection, and Maple Leafs defenseman Carl Brewer had pregame needles pushed into his ribs and leg.

Toronto captain George Armstrong probably had no business playing either; his shoulder was a mess. But he still managed to score the final goal that night.

Fittingly, it would be Andy Bathgate who would score what proved to be the Stanley Cup-clinching goal. A 12-year star with the New York Rangers, the richly talented Bathgate had arrived in Toronto on Feb. 22, a month before the start of the playoffs, as the centerpiece of a seven-player trade.

"It's not only the first time I've ever been on a Stanley Cup winner, it's the first time I've ever been in the Final," Bathgate said in the dressing room uproar. "It's an accomplishment I can't quite realize. In two months, up from the struggle in the valley to the top of the world."

Among those crowded into the rowdy Toronto celebration was Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, a huge Maple Leafs fan who had flown in from political meetings in Montreal to be among the 14,571 spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Pearson had a special interest in Kelly, who combined his hockey career with work as an elected Member of Parliament for Toronto's York West riding.

Kelly wasn't around after the game to accept his political leader's congratulations. The silky center, in horrible pain from a knee he'd played on that was taped from mid-thigh to mid-calf, fainted in the showers. He was carried to a training table by teammates, then loaded onto a stretcher and taken to hospital for overnight treatment.

"If there was such a thing as a medal of merit in hockey," Pearson said, "Bob Baun and Red Kelly would deserve one."

"They acted like champions and they played like champions. Three of them went out there with their legs frozen. What more can I say? What more could I ask for?" Maple Leafs general manager and coach Punch Imlach said. "Baun, Brewer and Kelly all had needles to deaden the pain of their injuries, and then they told me they all wanted to play. That's the difference between a hockey team and a baseball team. Did you ever hear of baseball guys going like that?"

The Maple Leafs stormed around their dressing room guzzling champagne out of the Stanley Cup -- except for right wing Ed Litzenberger, who sat on the floor opening beer bottles with his skate.

Litzenberger had won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1961, and now had won his third straight with Toronto.

"If I were you, I'd sign me up for life," he told team management.

Evidently, Maple Leafs brass didn't hear him. Litzenberger played the next three seasons in the minors before retiring.

Quietly absorbing the joy was Bower, the affable 39-year-old goaltender who had played all 14 of his team's playoff games; seven against the Montreal Canadiens, including a 3-0 shutout in Game 6, and seven against the Red Wings.

Game 7 was Toronto's 101st of the season, counting 17 preseason exhibitions, 70 on the regular-season schedule and 14 more in the playoffs. Bower appeared in 51 regular-season games, with backup Don Simmons playing the rest.

Bower had addressed the fans before leaving the ice, savoring the third of his four career Stanley Cup victories.

"I'd like to thank the people of Toronto for having so much patience with us," said Bower, the only living goaltender to have won a Stanley Cup for the Maple Leafs. "I know we did have a few bad games. It's certainly wonderful to win the Stanley Cup, and I give a lot of credit to Detroit, who played so well."

Bower had engaged in a remarkable duel throughout the series with Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk. The two men would form a goaltending tandem with the Maple Leafs the following season and together backstopped the team's improbable 1967 Stanley Cup triumph, Toronto's most recent championship.

In the Detroit dressing room, an exhausted Gordie Howe said he couldn't recall fatigue like that.

"I can't remember the last time I was this tired. These playoffs were really tough, especially on an old guy like me," said Howe, a few weeks past his 36th birthday. He led all playoff scorers with 19 points. "That fluke goal by [Bobby] Baun Thursday night [in Game 6 overtime] is what killed us. It gave the Leafs the momentum they needed for this game and seemed to take a lot out of us."

An enduring memory, if one tinted in sepia hues, came in the moments after the Maple Leafs' Game 7 victory.

In the handshake line, old friends Bower and Howe exchanged sticks, though the goalie suggested the Detroit superstar's gift was a little late; Howe had scored four goals against Bower in the Final.

"I should have taken your stick off you seven games ago," joked Bower, the game's first star, who gave Howe a bottle of bubbly when the Red Wings legend popped into the Toronto dressing room to offer his good wishes.

Only 8,000 fans would turn out for the Maple Leafs' curiously late 5 p.m. downtown parade on April 27, perhaps the city also a little blasé about three civic celebrations in as many years (if only they knew).

Kelly wasn't part of it; he was back in Ottawa sitting in the House of Commons dealing with the business of government and a throbbing knee. Baun further injured his fractured leg when he slipped while climbing into a convertible for the parade.

Two fellow Hockey Hall of Fame members have joined Bower in his Game 7 Perfection Club, 16 final series since 1942 now having gone the seven-game limit. The Montreal Canadiens' Lorne "Gump" Worsley, with a 4-0 shutout in the final game of the 1965 Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, and the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur, who in 2003 beat the Anaheim Ducks 3-0.

As for Bower, the perfect goalie of Game 7? He would be back in the Toronto net come the fall, on the eve of his 40th birthday, and that season he and Sawchuk would win the Vezina Trophy.

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