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Bower's legacy lives on with Maple Leafs

Babcock, Lamoriello, former players share thoughts of legendary goalie

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- On the day the world said goodbye to her husband, Elise Beliveau paid Johnny Bower the ultimate tribute.

On Dec. 10, 2014, mourners battled through driving snow and ice pellets of a nasty blizzard to attend the funeral of Jean Beliveau at the majestic Mary Queen of the World Cathedral in downtown Montreal. 

Beliveau, 83, had died eight days earlier. With sporting legends and political icons having congregated to pay their respects, Beliveau's coffin, draped in a Montreal Canadiens logo, entered the cathedral with Serge Savard, Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Phil Goyette, Bobby Rousseau and Jean-Guy Talbot.


[RELATED: Bower dies at age 93 | NHL legends remember BowerBower remembered by Maple Leafs, hockey community]


Those six men were Beliveau's former teammates with the Canadiens. All wore red boutonnieres on their lapels signifying their roles as pallbearers. 

At the request of Elise Beliveau, Jean's widow, one other person in the cathedral was given a red boutonniere to wear instead of the white ones everybody else had.

It went to Johnny Bower, the former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie who spent a chunk of his career trying to beat Beliveau and the Habs. 

At that moment, though, Bower was a coveted friend, not a hated foe. It showed how much respect Elise had for him.

Among the countless Hockey Hall of Fame players sitting in the cathedral pews were former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler. For decades, Toronto and Montreal had been heated NHL enemies. But no matter how bitter the rivalry, no one could hate Johnny Bower.

And now, as they bid one of their legends adieu, the only non-Canadien they embraced into their special Habs family was Bower.

"That just shows you how much class Johnny had," Sittler said Tuesday. "And how much people appreciated that. Even his opponents."

Sittler's voice was cracking with emotion. He had just arrived at his Florida residence from Canada when he learned Bower, 93, died earlier in the day after a brief battle with pneumonia. Like the rest of the hockey world, he was trying to come to grip with the news, trying to find the right words on a day when they were so hard to come by.

Video: Johnny Bower led Leafs to four Stanley Cup titles

After pausing for several seconds to collect his thoughts, Sittler recalled a number of occasions during the mid-1970s when he would bring his young son, Ryan, to skate at Maple Leaf Gardens, where Ryan would experience the thrill of a lifetime.

"He'd be out on the ice and there would be Johnny between the pipes, having fun," Sittler said. "I was captain at the time. It was such a thrill for Ryan. It was unbelievable.

"That was Johnny. He was such a great person. He touched so many lives, and all in such a positive way."

The impact Bower had on the Maple Leafs' family has never been more evident.

Lou Lamoriello doesn't remember exactly how old he was. Three? Four? "Really young" is how he describes it.

What he does recall, however, is the hockey player who was sitting at the table across from him at the family home in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Johnny Bower.

"My mom and dad were very involved with the Rhode Island Reds American Hockey League professional team," Lamoriello said. "They were friends of players that became acquaintances. I couldn't tell you how that came about. I just grew up in it.

"When I was extremely young, Johnny Bower's wife, Nancy, lived with my family prior to them getting a place when Johnny played there."

One particular night, Bower, a goalie with the 1945-46 Reds, hadn't quite finished his dinner when he excused himself. He got up from the table and went to bed.

"He said he needed his sleep because he had a game the next day," Lamoriello said. "I was just a kid, but I still remember that. I had so much respect for him for that, even to this day."

Seven decades later, on July 23, 2015, Lamoriello was introduced as the 16th general manager in Maple Leafs history. The first call he received congratulating him on the new gig was a familiar voice.

It was Johnny Bower.

"I'll tell you what Johnny Bower was," Lamoriello said. "He was the Yogi Berra of Canada."

How so?

"In terms of the fact that there wasn't anyone who didn't like either one of them," Lamoriello said. "They were both special, positive people."

During his time as general manager of the New Jersey Devils, Lamoriello got to know Berra quite well. Berra was close friends with Dr. John McMullen, the former owner of the Devils and the Houston Astros, and became a big New Jersey fan.

Video: Remembering Johnny Bower's life and career

"Yogi was a great person," Lamoriello said. "And so was Johnny."

Not all of Bower's tricks of the trade came on the ice.

As he sifted through all the experiences he shared with Bower during their countless appearances as Maple Leafs ambassadors, former captain Wendel Clark recalled one tip he learned from the Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender.

It involved autographs.

And hairspray.

"Hey, you can't make this stuff up," Clark chuckled.

According to Clark, Bower was very meticulous when signing his name for fans. He liked to press the marker down very hard, especially when he was scribbling on the numbers of a jersey. Such a technique was conducive to smudging.

"So in order to stop the autograph from smearing on the number, he would spritz hairspray on the number before signing it," Clark said. "It worked too."

Such was the magic of Bower.

"He was the greatest Maple Leafs player on and off the ice of all-time," Clark said. "He was such a great person, treated everyone so well."

Clark and Bower have statues outside Air Canada Centre in an area known as Legends Row.

"He was amazing," Clark said. "He had 40 years on me and still had more energy than I did."

Curtis Joseph was "invisible."

At least it seemed that way.

The former Maple Leafs goalie recalled a recent incident in which he was contacted by a member of their alumni association. The request: Could you accompany Johnny Bower to Alexander Steen's charity golf tournament in Winnipeg?

"It was a couple of years ago," Joseph said, "and I can tell you it didn't take me long to answer. I mean, it's Johnny Bower. A legend. I couldn't wait."

Joseph picked up Bower at his west-end Toronto home and brought him to Pearson Airport. There, as the two former goalies strolled through the terminal, one of them attracted a frenzied crowd.

It wasn't Joseph.

"No one even knew who I was," Joseph said. "It was like I wasn't even there. They just swarmed Johnny, and rightly so.

"He's a legend. He's so beloved. And it was on display that day."

Growing up about 40 miles north of Toronto in Sharon, Ontario, Joseph had never been to a hockey school by the time he reached his mid-teens. 

"Then, one day, a guy in town named Paul Saunders decided to help me out and sent me to Johnny Bower's Hockey School," Joseph said. "I learned so much, especially about different techniques to stop the puck.

"Oh, and about poke-checks too. He was great at that."

Decades later, when he watched fans at the airport go bonkers at the sight of Bower, Joseph was reminded of all the things he learned from the former Maple Leafs great.

"He always had time for everyone," Joseph said. "He was a class act through and through.

"He'll be missed."

Having been away with his family for Christmas, coach Mike Babcock was waiting for a flight back to Toronto on Tuesday when he learned of Bower's death. With time on his hands prior to departure, he began surfing the web for info about the Maple Leafs' legend.

"I've read a bunch of stuff on him in the airport tonight and it occurs to me that he was just a gentleman," Babcock said.

So much so, one of the priorities Babcock had after taking over as Maple Leafs coach on May 20, 2015, was to "have my picture taken with him."

"Johnny was a spectacular, spectacular man, that's what jumps out at you right away," Babcock said. "Even at his age, he lived large. He had an infectious personality and he made people feel great. It was fun to have him around." 

Babcock has been privileged to be around some of the game's greats. During his time as Detroit Red Wings coach from 2005-15, there were numerous visits from Hockey Hall of Fame players, including Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

Babcock puts Bower in that same class.

"There are lots of people who know him way better than me, but there's no question about it: When he walked by you, introduced himself, or you just saw him, you were impressed by him, by the gentleness and the kindness of him," Babcock said. "He was around the team. It was fun to see him."

And to be impacted by him.

"We're proud to be able to call him a Leaf," Babcock said. "He gives us a great role model, someone to aspire to be like."

Sittler, Lamoriello, Clark and Joseph couldn't agree more.

Rest in peace, Johnny. 

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