Johnny Bower passes at 93, leaves behind generational legacy
On December 26, 2017, the Bower family released a statement.
Johnny Bower, the last living goaltender to win a Stanley Cup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, had passed away at 93-years old.
“It is with great sadness that the Bower family announces the passing of Toronto Maple Leafs legend Johnny Bower earlier today after a short battle with pneumonia,” the official release reads.
It is with great sadness that the Bower family announces the passing of @MapleLeafs legend #JohnnyBower after a short battle with pneumonia. (Photo courtesy of the Toronto Star) pic.twitter.com/FHayp8xE1t
— John Bower (@Ooks_AD) December 27, 2017
Few players in the game of hockey had quite the quiet impact that Bower did.
A native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Bower was born as John Kizskan to Ukranian parents in December of 1924.
He would serve in the Canadian Army for three years during World War II before being discharged for rheumatoid arthritis at age-19. It was at that point that his hockey career began, starting with the Prince Albert Black Hawks in the SJHL.
Despite going down in history as one of the most decorated goaltenders in the history of the game, Bower’s legacy is as illustrious at the AHL level as it is at the NHL level. He spent nearly half his career in the minors, getting his first NHL game in 1953 (when he was 29-years old) and arriving with Toronto after a whopping 13-year career predominantly spent with the Cleveland Barons.
In 1958, though, his entire career would change.
Bower was brought to the Maple Leafs in the 1958 Inter-League Draft, with 592 AHL games under his belt. At that point, he was already 32-years old, and had already dealt with poor eyesight for his career for well over a decade.
Although a veteran even by the standards of those days, though, he would go on to play in 475 regular season games for Toronto and 74 playoff games, posting a career .922 save percentage in both the regular and postseasons during his NHL play.
He would win four Stanley Cups with Toronto, setting a record as the oldest netminder to appear in an NHL Stanley Cup playoff game at 44 years, 4 months, and 29 days old. He took home two Vezina Trophies (at that point, awarded to the goaltender or tandem with the fewest goals allowed through a season), and that’s not to count the numerous AHL awards he boasted, as well. He would retire with three AHL Calder Cup championships, three AHL Les Cunningham MVP Awards, five AHL All-Star Appearances, and three Harry Holmes awards for the best goaltending duo on the AHL, to boot.
Bower was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976, the AHL Hall of Fame in 2006 as a part of the inaugural class, and still holds the record for the most AHL wins all-time with 359.
When I sat down to write this, it took me a moment to even get started. Trying to explain the magnitude of what Bower meant to so many goaltenders – including myself – just seemed… impossible.
Statistically, he’s inarguably one of the best to ever play the game, at any level. His .922 save percentage over the course of his NHL career (given the available data, which starts in 1955) puts him at the top of the league across all eras with data to analyze, even given the excellence currently available in the crease. His three back-to-back championships are remarkable, and his final season – split with fellow league legend Terry Sawchuk – was a testament to just how impressive he was, even as he prepared to hang up his skates.
Looking beyond the statistics, though, few players have had the same level of pure joy for their sport – and, more importantly, their community – that Bower did.
Here’s a quote from him a few years back, talking about running into fans even generations after he won Toronto’s last Stanley Cup to date.
Never upset about stopping to sign an autograph or meet with a fan, Bower was genuine in his appreciation for those that made his career possible.
“These folks paid my salary at one time – maybe they didn’t, but their parents and grandparents did,” he said. “It costs you nothing to stop and smile and say: ‘Nice to meet you.’ In Montreal, I’ve just said a little ‘Bonjour, comment ça va!’ ”
Countless players took to Twitter after the news of his passing broke, all but reaffirming the sentiment that he shared as much passion for the community as he had for the game itself.
Garret Sparks, one of the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltenders currently on payroll (and someone who is making history of his own in the AHL with the Marlies), described it well on Twitter.
“I met Johnny Bower before a game in the away room in Owen Sound,” Sparks tweeted.
“I had no clue what the most legendary goalie in Leafs history was doing there…but when I shared with him how I was fortunate enough to be drafted by the same organization he proudly backed, I could see the excitement he had in his eyes for me, the love he had for this team & it’s fans and the gratitude he had for the game and the opportunities it afforded him…
He personified the spirit of a true competitor, someone fueled by the pure love of representing something bigger than himself, the game and team he loved.”
Saddened to hear of the passing of Leaf legend Johnny Bower!
Loved him as a goalie, loved him as a person! pic.twitter.com/O9cVZviiPA
— Curtis Joseph (@Cujo) December 27, 2017
In my own family, Bower was nothing short of a legend. My great-uncle Henry Bolton was rink manager of Maple Leafs Gardens during that era, and Bower lived with some of his other relatives during some of his tenure with the Leafs.
When I first wrote about him as one of the greatest to wear the Maple Leafs sweater, my older relatives were quick to send me emails and messages of reaffirmation about just how excellent he’d been – and just how humble he’d been off the ice. A legend on, and a genuinely kind human being off, he remained my family’s favorite NHL player generation after generation. He was, in essence, our family’s Gordie Howe.
Maybe you, as the reader, know him only as a member of the NHL’s Top 100 list – where he rightfully belongs.
Maybe you know about him a little more; you remember when he gave the Montreal Canadiens fits year after year alongside Dave Keon and Tim Horton. Maybe you remember him as ‘The China Wall’, nicknamed such as much for his age as for his immensely calm presence in net despite a league-wide trend towards straying beyond the posts.
Maybe, even – if you learned how to play at the right time – you learned the Johnny Bower Poke Check as he was so fond of using it. Maybe you remember his last Stanley Cup; maybe you remember them all.
For the Toronto community, it’s a heartbreaking end to 2017.
Think back, and imagine what would have happened if Bower hadn’t gone to Toronto as their old-timey ‘goaltender of the future’ – with a restaurant and a long career already behind him, Bower hadn’t wanted to move again. Imagine what would have happened if Bower hadn’t changed his name in his first year as a pro, jokingly making things ‘easier’ for the reporters who had to record him making history – although he wouldn’t know it at the time.
The Bower family has requested privacy at this time.