Johnny Bower, the Toronto Maple Leaf net minder, was a kind man. Kind enough to spend time visiting with me on the phone these past 6 months. Of course there is the Inevitable Kimberley connection which i will get to shortly. My story with Johnny Bower actually began two years ago. The stick boy for the 1957 Vancouver Canucks of the old Western Hockey League was a 13 year old named Harvey Greenwood. Being the kind of fellow he is, Johnny and his wife Nancy would pick up young Harvey in their old Green Ford on their way to the Vancouver Forum hockey rink. They even exchanged Christmas presents that year of ’57, ( both got pajamas funny enough). Bower only played that one season in Vancouver, where he was voted Most Valuable Goalie in the Western Hockey League, then it was onto the New York Rangers for one season.
Fast forward 60 years to the summer of 2017. I was over visiting Harvey Greenwood and said to him, “this is the day we are calling Johnny Bower to say Hello”. I looked up the Toronto phone directory and there it was, John Bower. His wife Nancy answered the phone (Nancy, by the way is as youthful, warm and upbeat as her husband).
Harvey introduced himself on the telephone, the first thing I heard Bower say to Harvey was “I always wondered what happened to you, Kid”. Too funny. I got on the phone call later on and mentioned to Johnny that i was friends with Kimberley Dynamiter goalie Earl Betker, who was from Prince Albert himself. Turned out Earl gave John Bower his first set of pads when Earl got new ones. (Bower had been using a set of pads cut out of a bed mattress). Earl Betker could have easily played pro hockey himself, Bower said, but abstained due to the fact he would not play hockey on the Sabbath.
Earl and Bower stayed in touch for many years after they both departed Prince Albert. I mentioned to Johnny in a subsequent phone call a few weeks later if he knew Frank ” Sully ” Sullivan, a phenom in Saskatchewan who played Senior Hockey there at age 16. Sully Sullivan came to the Kimberley Dynamiters from the Montreal Maroons (a better financial offer). Johnny Bower as it turned out was a bit of a Hockey historian himself, especially the Saskatchewan players. He knew all about Sullivan and had seen him play quite a bit. I told Johnny that Sully Sullivan’s son Sully Jr, was a goalie himself in Pro Hockey in the Eastern League and Philly in the 1970s. I suggested a visit on the phone in the New Year. Sadly Johnny passed away just before Christmas, so we could not make that connection.
So Johnny Bower played with Bobby Baun on the Toronto Maple Leafs for many seasons. In fact defenseman Baun scored the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final playing on a broken ankle (as time has passed this has become a broken leg in the media).
Bobby Baun chummed around with a friend of mine Jim, who has lived in Toronto for many years. Jim was at a Leaf practice back in the day with his friend Baun. Johnny Bower was the undisputed Ping Pong Champ on the Maple Leaf team, a real whiz. Jim remembered Bower playing table tennis ambidextrously ( both hands )
I mentioned this to Nancy Bower on one of our phone calls and she said yes John loves his Ping Pong.
The late Jean Beliveau once said of Bower “You cannot “deke” him, he just waits you out, he gives me more trouble than any goaltender in the League.”
Johnny and Nancy have a huge pond behind their house. John has fed many many generations of Canada Geese during the 40 years they have lived there. Johnny is very loyal to his feathered friends. Last week the Canada Geese held their own private service for Johnny at the pond, while the Celebration of Life for Johnny Bower was going on at the Air Canada Centre.
A very kind man ,Johnny Bower learned his life lessons from his father John Senior, who worked at Swifts Packers in Prince Albert for 45 years. John Sr. once told him, “Son it does not cost you anything for a smile. Be nice to people, help them out and they will help you”. Nancy Bower mentioned to me recently that when Gordie Howe passed away last year, it hit Johnny really hard. They had been best friends for many decades and spent their summers together in Saskatchewan where John and Nancy ran a restaurant in Prince Albert called Big Boy Burgers (secret ingredient Johnny used bread crumbs). Now Nancy actually knew Gordie Howe in Saskatoon going to grade school with him, before meeting Johnny at a golf course where he worked.The current Vice President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a man named Lou Lamoriello, was a six year old boy playing in his parents Pizza restaurant in Providence. Rhode Island when he first met Johnny and Nancy Bower. The eatery was popular with the Pro hockey team, the Providence Reds that had a goalie named Johnny Bower. Remarkably, 65 years later Lou and Johnny reunited in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre for the hometown Leafs. That is how hockey is eh, a game of cycles.
Johnny Bower played 8 seasons for the Cleveland Barons in the American hockey League where he perfected the poke check, which was to serve him well later on in the NHL George “Punch ” Imlach called up the veteran Bower to attend Leafs training camp.
Johnny was reticent to go to Toronto, he liked Cleveland , but his partner Nancy “talked me into it ” as John reflected in our last phone talk. When Bower was named one of the three Stars on Hockey Night in Canada, he would wave his blocker glove (a kind of secret wave to his mother in law out in Saskatoon). As a boy I remember that glove wave.
Bower never ever played with a mask, to my knowledge. Recently Harvey, the stick boy of the 57 Canucks, and Bower’s buddy from 60 years ago, introduced me to a fellow rink rat. Lin Kelly. Johnny Bower would rent out the Vancouver Forum ice so the Vancouver East End kids could play shinny. Kelly said Bower did this frequently , and came out himself once in a while, much to the delight of the boys.
THE PRINCE ALBERT CONNECTION Lin Kelly said to me in June “you should meet my cousin Mildred Garson. She lives upstairs and went to elementary school with Johnny Bower, and was best pals with Rose, John’s sister. I gave Millie the Bowers phone number. Turned out Nancy’s sister used to visit Millie at her cabin at Whatcom Lake in Washington State. Small World eh…
Bower came out to Vancouver three years ago for an autograph thing and got together with Millie for a reunion supper. These Prairie roots run deep.
Last but not least, a relative of Millie’s, a man named Carter Stanley is a die hard Toronto Maple Leaf fan. He rang up Johnny Bower last month for a 30 minute chat. I spoke to Nancy a few days later and she told me how excited Johnny was for that call from Carter, a relative of his friend Mildred. By the way Carter Stanley, who hails from Prince Albert, flew his entire family down to Toronto when they closed Maple Leaf Gardens, and purchased 4 of the old seats. That is dedication.
I would like to say I have greatly enjoyed my phone calls with Nancy Bower as much as I did with her husband John.
Johnny Bower was busy till the end, half of the time I phoned he was just getting back from Leaf practice. Mr. Bower just loved to be at the rink in the Maple Leaf dressing room with the boys.
I wanted to share with you, the readers, my time with Johnny Bower of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a Prince from Prince Albert.