Hockey milestones stir memories

The death of Johnny Bower has stirred up many fond memories.

I did not expect to be starting off the new year with a column about NHL hockey. But the death on Boxing Day of Johnny Bower in the 50th year since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won a Stanley Cup stirred up many fond memories.

I grew up in an age when most Canadian kids worshipped at the temple of either the Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens. My dad was a Leafs’ fan, so I was too. The 1960s were heady days for a young Toronto fan. I was yet to turn 8 when the Maple Leafs won their first of four Stanley Cups in the decade, and winning seemed pretty normal as they went on to win three straight league championships before I was 10.

It was the fourth and most improbable win in 1967 that I remember best, though. It was my first year of junior high and not many of even the most diehard Toronto fans gave our heroes much of a chance against the vaunted Canadiens. With an average age of 31, the Leafs were an old team. Stalwart defenceman Allan Stanley was 41 at the time. Johnny Bower was 42, not that anyone was really sure at the time.

The legend of one of the great goaltenders of all time was bolstered by confusion about Bower’s age. He had lied about his age to get into the Canadian Army at the age of 15 during World War II. At the ripe old age of 19 he was discharged due to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in his hands.

Johnny Bower had resigned himself to being a career minor leaguer until he was drafted by the Maple Leafs as a 34-year-old. It seems miraculous now that this 5-foot 9-inch, 170-pound man would be one of the league’s best goalies and win four Stanley Cups. He was an older player in a young man’s game and was known to have poor eyesight. But he was durable and tough as nails. Just watching some film clips from those days makes me shudder—how did any goaltender survive for any length of time playing without head and face protection?

After my favourite team hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1967 I wrote my first ever sports column for our class newspaper, The Ink Spot. I still remember the joy I felt to see it in print.

Another hockey anniversary of note came on December 30, as sports reports reminded me of Wayne Gretzky’s amazing 50th goal in only 39 games. I pretty much abandoned the usually woeful Leafs after they traded Lanny McDonald, who had become my favourite player as a rookie. And it was much more fun to be an Edmonton Oiler fan in the high-scoring 1980s.

Our log house on Phillips Road sat on the west side of a hill and we didn’t get much in the way of either television or radio reception. A pair of antennas brought in CBC and CTV and three Spokane TV stations. Another helped me get shortwave signals from around the world. And it was only late in the evening when a radio signal from Edmonton grew strong enough for me tune into to Oilers’ games.

I remember clearly that evening on December 30, 1981 when Gretzky obliterated one of the NHL’s most venerated scoring marks. Earlier in the week he had reached the 41-goal mark after only 37 games, and seemed destined to shatter the 50 goals in 50 games mark set by Maurice Richard in 1945 and tied in 1980 by the New York Islanders’ Mike Bossy.

Gretzky had scored four goals in his 38th game, pushing his total to 45, and I sat close to my radio, valiantly trying to hear what was going on as the Oilers hosted the Philadelphia Flyers on December 30. It was about 10 pm when I turned the dial to where I expected to find the Edmonton station, but at first I thought the signal was not coming through. Then a voice game in over a roar that at first sounded like loud static. Gretzky had just scored into an empty net. It was his fifth goal of the game and he had obliterated the Richard-Bossy mark by scoring 50 goals in a ridiculous 39 games.

The Christmas holidays are a time for remembering, and those two hockey memories, mulled over in the company of two hockey-mad grandsons (ages 2 and 5) enhanced those very fond memories. One cold day in Calgary we returned to our youngest son’s home after a shopping expedition, only to learn that Ryan and his son Wilson were out skating on Auburn Lake in about -23 C temperatures. A day earlier we had watched 23-month-old Griffin using a small plastic hockey stick to fire plastic balls around the basement. Video from last weekend shows him directing his dad to play goal in one newly acquired miniature hockey net, while the very clever Wilson shoots ball after ball into the empty net across the room.

Both prototypically Canadian boys are well on their way to creating happy hockey memories that will serve them well 60 years from now, I hope.

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