Wednesday, December 27, 2017

RIP Johnny Bower (obituary by Poor Len Canayen)

So farewell then, Johnny Bower. You were the greatest goaltender to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the modern (post-WWII) era. You helped the Leafs win their last Stanley Cup, over half a century ago. You hoped you would live to see them win another... but you didn't.

Poor Len Canayen here. Regular readers of WWW will know that I am a lifelong fan of the Montréal Canadiens. I call the Habs "Canada's team" but there are many, especially in Ontario, who take issue with that appellation, claiming "Canada's team" is really the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What I can say is that there is no greater hockey rivalry than the Habs vs the Leafs, and no team I would rather see le Canadien beat than the Leafs. And if les Glorieux can't carry off Lord Stanley's silverware, then let the victors be the Leafs, and I will congratulate them and be happy.

That's what happened in the spring of 1967 -- I remember it well -- when Johnny Bower, along with the estimable Terry Sawchuk, backstopped the Mapleos to a surprise win over a strong Montréal club. Bower was the old man of the team, officially 43, although there were those who said he was five or ten years older. During his long hockey career, his age seemed "flexible", but his family confirmed his age following his death from pneumonia yesterday. He was 93.

I can now reveal that Johnny Bower was a Ukrainian-Canadian. His real family name was Kiszkan. He grew up, with eight sisters, on a farm outside of Prince Albert SK, where I had the displeasure of living at one time. He taught himself how to play hockey, using a branch as a stick, and made goalie pads for himself out of old mattresses.

In 1940, when he was 16 (or perhaps 15), he lied about his age (not for the last time) and enlisted in the Canadian Army during World War II, where he served in England from 1940 to 1943. His service ended when he was discharged due to rheumatoid arthritis in his hands. "It's a good thing I didn't [see action]", he told an interviewer, "because the Germans were right there waiting. A lot of guys there were killed on the beaches. I know four or five good hockey players from Prince Albert who were killed. They never came back."

Upon his return, Bower played junior hockey with his hometown Prince Albert Black Hawks. When he turned pro with the AHL Cleveland Barons in 1945, he changed his name to Bower because he felt Kiszkan was too difficult to pronounce. He played eight seasons in the AHL, earning MVP honours three times, before getting a chance in the NHL.

Bower played all 70 games for the New York Rangers in 1953-54, but for the following year the team chose to go another of my old-tyme all-time favourites, Gump Worsley, and Bower was sent down to the minors for another four years, before being traded to Toronto in 1958. "I didn't even want to come to Toronto, to be honest with you," he said, "because I was 35 years of age at that particular time and I didn't know I could help them." (Let's see. 1958 minus 35 would make his birth year 1923.) "I had the experience, mind you. But I was happy in Cleveland, I enjoyed myself there and had a good job. When they picked me up, I didn't want to go. And [Cleveland GM James] Hendy said, if you don't go, they'll suspend you."

Johnny Bower went on to become a fixture with the Maple Leafs, finally retiring after playing just one game in the 1970-71 season, four months past his 45th birthday, or so he said. 1971 minus 45 is 1926! He was always coy about his age. When asked about it upon his retirement, he said, "If you don't know by now, you never will."

He played 552 regular-season NHL games with 250 wins, 195 losses and 90 ties. He posted 37 regular-season shutouts and had a goals-against average of 2.52. Combining his AHL and NHL appearances, he appeared in a total of 1207 regular-season games. He won the Vezina trophy twice and had his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup that one time, with the 1966-67 Maple Leafs. After his retirement, he stayed in the Toronto organization, working as a goalie coach and a scout.

In his later years, he was involved in numerous charity causes and made numerous appearances for the Leafs on special occasions, including his (supposed) 90th birthday, always to warm applause. Right up until his death yesterday, Johnny Bower remained one of the most beloved Leafs. He will be missed by his former teammates, Toronto fans, and all those who love the greatest winter sport of all, including... Yours very truly, Poor Len Canayen.

Footnote: The defenceman shown in the picture, No. 7, is Tim Horton. Canadians will know what that means.

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