Tuesday, 26 December 2017

An Icon Gone

It's always a sad day when one of the genuinely nicest people representing a team or sport passes away. Today, on Boxing Day, we lost Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Johnny Bower at the age of 93, and there may not have been a more likable Maple Leaf in the history of that team. He was born November 8, 1924 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the son of Ukrainian parents in Johnny and Betty Kiszkan and the brother to eight sisters. It wasn't until his parents divorced in 1946 that he adopted the name "Bower", his mother's maiden name, and began to catch the eye of hockey scouts. He wasn't always a Maple Leaf, though, as he spent considerable time in the AHL and was a small note in the history of the New York Rangers. Not bad for a kid who made his own goalie pads out of an old mattress and used a tree branch for a stick on the ponds of Prince Albert!

I never had the pleasure of meeting Johnny Bower in my travels with hockey, but he seems like the kind of guy that you'd enjoy chatting with thanks to his extensive involvement in the game. Bower, who made his Maple Leafs debut at the age of 34(!) in 1958-59, went on to play twelve seasons with Toronto's team. Prior to that, he spent time with the New York Rangers before becoming a fixture in the AHL with Providence, Vancouver, and Cleveland. Bower was outstanding in the American League where he played a total of thirteen seasons, winning the Calder Cup three times, the Hap Holmes Memorial Trophy three times for having the lowest goals-against average, was the first goalie to named as the AHL's Most Valuable Player in 1956, and he'd be named MVP two additional times after winning his first award. On top of all that, Johnny Bower is still the AHL career leader in wins with 250 wins in 552 AHL games.

It should be noted that his time in New York wasn't without recognition. In 1953, Bower was awarded the Frank Boucher Trophy, given to a New York Rangers player that is regarded as "the most popular player on and off the ice". Bower played 70 of his 77 total games as a Ranger in 1953-54 at the age of 27, and his career numbers as a Ranger showed a 2.73 GAA and five shutouts on a 31-35-11 record. With the younger Worsley keeping Bower from playing full-time, it's pretty clear why the Rangers made him available in the 1958 Inter-League Draft.

All of this information above, however, can be found by combing through the internet's various websites dedicated to hockey. I wanted to find proof of just how great of an individual that Johnny Bower was. One such clip is with Lindsay Dunn from January 2017.
While he shows he still has the pipes at age 92 in that clip, his outgoing personality and exuberance in the clip can't not be noticed. In a clip from CBC's The National, you can see just how proud he is of his hockey legacy while still letting that friendly, playful demeanor shine.
The China Wall, named because of his wall-like play during the four Stanley Cup-dynasty he backstopped in Toronto, was also an innovator as he was the first goaltender to start using the poke-check as a tool in his arsenal of goaltending techniques. Here he is teaching the poke-check, and he's the kind of teacher I think we'd all like to have!

Johnny Bower truly was an icon in the hockey world. He often came across as a wise and kind grandfather rather than one of the most famous men to ever wear the Maple Leaf, and that's entirely why he'll be missed. He's a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, a Cleveland Hall of Fame inductee, a Rhode Island Hall of Fame inductee, and a Saskatchewan Hall of Fame inductee. He will be missed because of all the lives he touched in his 93 years of life. Rest in peace, Mr. Bower, and my thoughts are with the Bower family tonight.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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