Without the outstanding goaltending of Johnny “The China Wall” Bower, the Toronto Maple Leafs would not have won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s: 1962-1964 inclusive, and again in 1967, the Canadian Centennial year. This was back in the barefaced days for most goalies, including Bower. Of course, the Leafs have yet to win another championship since. And to think, Bower didn’t want to play in Toronto at first. He thought he was too old at the time to make the jump. Besides, he had an earlier shot at the NHL that didn’t work out that well. He preferred to play out his hockey career in the nice, cozy confines of the minors where the local fans held him in the highest regard.
Born John Kizkan in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on November 8, 1924, Bower lied about his age to join the Canadian Army in 1940 in the midst of World War II. After being sent overseas for further training in England with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, he was discharged due to illness--rheumatoid arthritis--in 1944, then returned to Canada still young enough to play junior hockey for the Prince Albert Black Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
The following year, he turned pro with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League as a free agent. He also changed his last name to Bower to make it easy for the fans and sportswriters to pronounce and spell. He then spent eight straight seasons in Cleveland where he became a celebrity on a powerhouse team, leading the league in goalie wins three times and shutouts twice. In the last season there, 1952-53, he helped lead the Barons to the Calder Cup championship by shutting out the opposition four times in the team’s 11-game playoff run. In two other seasons, he backstopped the Barons to two more league titles. In those eight seasons, the Barons finished first five times, and Bower was named to three All-Star teams.
Bower quickly established a reputation for being his own man. No one could ever touch his equipment and he preferred to pick out his own sticks, not let the team do it. He also worked as hard in practice as he did during the games, something his teammates respected him for.
In July 1952, Bower was traded to the New York Rangers in a four-player deal plus cash. He then went to training camp and outplayed Gump Worsley, the 1952-53 NHL Rookie-of-the-Year, sending the latter to the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. Worsley also asked for a $500 raise, a no-no in a time when the owners ran the show. Bower stood between the pipes for all 70 games in 1953-54 (when each of the six teams dressed only one goalie per game), recorded 5 shutouts and a 2.60 goals-against average, the best average for a Ranger goalie in 12 years. The team finished only six points out of a playoff spot, the closest they had been in four years, and Bower was voted the most popular Ranger by the fans.
However, because the Rangers had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight time, they brought back the much-younger Worsley for 1954-55, thus sending Bower to Vancouver (which would be his only season in the Western Hockey League) after five games as a Ranger. It’s interesting to note that with Worsley in net in 1952-53, the Rangers were 17-37-16: His goals-against average stood at 3.06. With Bower and his 2.60 average, the Rangers were a much-improved 29-31-10 in 1953-54. With Worsley returning for 1954-55, the team fell back to a dismal 17-35-18, and Worsley averaged 3.03 goals per game. Sometimes it makes you wonder who makes the decisions for some teams.
As a Vancouver Canuck, Bower’s 2.71 goals-against average and seven shutouts led the Western Hockey League. For the next three straight seasons, from 1955-56 to 1957-58, he was a First Team All-Star and the overall MVP winner in the American Hockey League, two seasons with Providence and one with Cleveland, winning a third championship with the latter, while recording stingy goals-against averages of 2.37 and 2.17 in the last two seasons. By then, Bower had turned 33 years of age and, as stated earlier, content to live out his last few years as a minor leaguer. But someone unbeknownst to the goaltender thought otherwise. His name: George “Punch” Imlach.
Imlach had coached the AHL Springfield Indians in 1957-58 and remembered how well Bower had played against the Indians all season, especially in the first round of the playoffs in which Imlach’s team won in seven games. When Imlach was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as their coach-GM in 1958, he claimed Bower in the Inter-League Draft that June. But it took Imlach’s pressure on Bower for him to head to Toronto. The Leafs were never sorry. Either was Bower because he embarked on the second round of his professional career.
Bower was more than ready for the NHL this time. A flopper earlier in the minors, he had converted to a stand-up style by the mid-1950s. He now played the angles, something that Imlach looked for in goalies. Noted for his puck-handling and stick work, Bower learned such skills from goalie Chuck Rayner during early-1950s New York Ranger training camps. And everything showed in spades later on when Bower was a Leaf.
I remember well a particular game that I saw on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a kid where the opposition pulled their goalie late in the game for an extra attacker. During a scramble in front of the net, Bower got hold of a loose puck and quickly fired it off the center-ice boards. I watched in awe as the puck missed the other net by a foot or two. He was that close to getting the first goal by an NHL netminder.
Bower was also the master of the pokecheck, a maneuver definitely not for the faint of heart, especially in the days of no goalie masks. To perform the pokecheck, Bower would surprise a puck carrier bearing down on him by diving to the ice headfirst with his goalie stick extended. If successful, the player had the puck knocked off his stick before he could get a shot away.
It seemed the older Bower got, the better he performed. In the 1960s, he won a Vezina Trophy--for the least amount of goals against--with a goals-against average of 2.50 in 1960-61, then shared another with teammate Terry Sawchuk in 1964-65, when Imlach had incorporated the two-goalie system. Imlach continued with the Bower-Sawchuk tandem until the last Leaf Cup-winning season in 1966-67. By then, Sawchuk was 37; Bower was 42.
A money goaltender in the playoffs, Bower had the reflexes, ability and agility to shut down sharpshooters like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and Jean Beliveau when the Leafs needed him most. Bower retired in 1969 at the age of 45, after finally donning a mask for games, although he had been using one in practice for several years. By then, the scars on his face took on the appearance of eight miles of road.
Combining his years in the minors and the NHL (regular season and playoffs included), Bower had held the record for decades for most wins by a netminder in professional hockey until broken by Martin Brodeur. But Bower still holds the record for most games played overall with 1,446, spread over a remarkable 25 years in the game. He also shut out the opposition an amazing 98 times.
Something I remember vividly about Bower was how he was criticized by hockey fans--including some Leaf fans--when I was growing up on the prairies. They always said he was too old. But season after season, Punch Imlach kept playing him, and the Leafs kept winning. If not for Imlach taking a chance on a 33-year-old minor leaguer, Bower could have easily been known today only for his many years in the American Hockey League as a star goaltender who couldn’t quite cut it in the NHL after one, half-decent shot at it. Instead, Bower saw his ship coming in, and jump aboard.
Bower’s NHL stats alone were worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976: 2.52 goals-against average, 37 shutouts, and 250-195-90 won-loss-tie record, in 552 regular-season games. Deep into his time coaching the Leafs, Punch Imlach called Bower: “The most remarkable hockey player I’ve ever seen.”