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Remembering Old-Time Hockey’s Great Ambassador

Johnny Bower’s legendary career started with an army team in war-time Vernon and included a stint with the original Canucks.

Tom Hawthorn 5 Jan

Tom Hawthorn is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. His most recent book is The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country: The Centennial of 1967 (Douglas and McIntyre).

Johnny Bower has been cast in bronze, depicted on postage stamps, enshrined in halls of fame. The Royal Canadian Mint depicted the hockey goaltender on a silver coin. He has had his name embedded into a Toronto sidewalk as part of Canada’s Walk of Fame. Most famously, he has had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup four times, all with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s. They have not won another since he retired.

The hockey world bid adieu to Bower Wednesday in a celebration of life at the Air Canada Centre. He performed his greatest feats a few kilometres north at Maple Leaf Gardens, part of which is now a grocery store. Fame may be fleeting; myth endures.

Bower’s death on Boxing Day from pneumonia at age 93 felt like the end of an era, though many of his teammates and rivals are still with us. In retirement, Bower, with his round, open face, eyes pinched by a broad and easy smile, potato nose reddened by age, was an affable, avuncular figure. He readily accepted invitations to appear at public events, receiving accolades and teasing with aplomb. I once spent an afternoon with him in a Victoria shopping mall as a stream of strangers brought relics to be blessed by his signature — cards and books and pennants and photographs and even a grey seat from the old Gardens. The old goalie laughed at lame jokes, pretended to remember distant events. He was a delight.

Bower came to represent hockey from an age before salary caps and drug testing, when the stars of the game supposedly played for the fun of it and the journeymen were grateful to have escaped the mines and factories that had been their birthright. In recent years, a video snippet of 1960s action around the Toronto goal has come to represent the virtue of old-time hockey — a barefaced Bower is flat on his stomach with a defenceman and a rival Montreal Canadiens forward on his legs, while another Canadiens forward grabs a rebound to shovel a backhand shot at the net. Bower deliberately moves his head to block the shot with his face, grimacing as the frozen, vulcanized rubber strikes him in his unprotected forehead. Punch Imlach, his fedora-wearing coach, promised Bower he would always have a job, as long as he could stop the puck.

Bower was ancient, by hockey standards, by the time he retired at age 44 in 1969. He seemed old even as a young man. In the era of six teams, now known (inaccurately) as the Original Six, before teams paid for a backup goalie, there were only six National Hockey League goaltending jobs. Bower spent a career in the minor leagues, most notably with the Cleveland Barons, where he was a fan favourite, waiting for his chance for so long, he balked when the Leafs claimed him. He had made a comfortable life in Cleveland. Early in the 1962-63 season, the Associated Press moved on the wires an article about Imlach replacing Bower with young Don Simmons to successfully end a slump. “Bower may be washed up as Toronto goalie,” read the headline in one newspaper. The article was published on the venerable netminder’s 38th birthday. The four Stanley Cups were yet to come.

One short chapter often overlooked in his long journey to hockey immortality is the time he spent in British Columbia. He was an outstanding goalie with the original Vancouver Canucks of the old Western Hockey League in 1954-55, but he played his first serious competition as an adult in Vernon during his wartime service with the Canadian Army. In those days, he still went by his birth name, which was not Bower.

John William Kiszkan was born on Nov. 8, 1924, in Prince Albert, Sask., to Betty and John Kiszkan, who worked at the Burns meatpacking plant. He was one of nine children, only two of them boys. In the hardscrabble Depression years, Johnny played hockey outdoors on the frozen streets or in a makeshift rink on a flooded field behind the school. They used pucks carved from wood and covered in black tape. His father planed a branch from a poplar tree for his son to use as a goalie stick. His too-large skates were second hand, of course, and he fit into them by wearing sock over sock over sock. Even the poorest goalie needs protection and Bower’s goalie pads were crafted from a discarded baby mattress.

In 1939, war broke out. Bower enlisted. Several local men were sent off to British Columbia for training, but Bower had to stay behind because it was discovered he was only 15 years old. Some of those early recruits would die in action in 1942 in Operation Jubilee, the failed raid on occupied France at Dieppe. One of the LSI (landing ship, infantry) landing craft was even named Prince Albert. Bower was sent for training to Vernon with a second group. He spent two years in the British Columbia Interior, chafing to go to Europe to see action, but held back because of age.

In winter, he played goal for a team called the Vernon Military All-Stars, getting his first experience of serious competitive hockey. Hockey’s governing body agreed to allow enlisted men to play for amateur teams wherever they were posted, upsetting organized leagues across the land. In the Okanagan, the All-Stars instantly became the dominant local intermediate team. With a teenaged Bower in goal, they claimed the provincial title in 1942-43 before facing the Saskatchewan champion Notre Dame Hounds of Wilcox, the winner to play the Alberta champions.

Young Bower gave up just eight goals in three games, as Vernon eliminated the Hounds by 2-1. After the Calgary Buffaloes dispatched Edmonton RCAF No. 3 manning depot, the Alberta champs came to Vernon for a best-of-three series at Vernon Civic Arena. (The rink, built in 1938, is to be demolished. Vernon city council decided in November the old arena was too expensive to refurbish.) After three games, the series was tied (the second game ended at 4-4). Bower had outplayed his opponent in goal, having surrendered just 10 goals to his rival’s 13. The deciding game turned out to be a blowout, as the Buffaloes claimed the Western Canadian title with a 9-2 victory. Bower kept a photograph of his Vernon army company team on the wall of his basement.

He soon after got his wish, as he was posted overseas in preparation for battle. He was stationed in Guildford, England, as a gunner with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he spent months in a series of hospitals, even being promoted to lance corporal, which he later rejected as he did not care for ordering other men around. Unable to fight because of his illness, he was made a hospital orderly and sent back to Regina. Tired of cleaning bed pans, he asked for and got a medical discharge. In 1944, he joined the Prince Albert Black Hawks, a junior team.

At the start of the 1945-46 season, the first in six years with the world not at war, Bower signed a professional contract with the Cleveland Barons. He was designated as a replacement for Harvey Teno, who had briefly played in the NHL before the war. When Teno wrenched his knee in practice, Bower got his opportunity. The Barons played a fast, up-tempo hockey in which defence was an afterthought. Bower saw a shower of rubber in the nets, yet managed to record a couple of early shutouts and much praise for his spectacular style.

In the offseason after his rookie debut, he legally changed his name to Bower from Kiszkan with help from a sister who worked in a law office in Saskatchewan. He quipped that he did so to help sports writers spell his name right. A family dispute and separation led to the decision, he said later.

He spent eight seasons in Cleveland, three times leading the American Hockey League in victories and twice in shutouts. A flopping, fearless goalie, the fans loved him. In the 1953 playoffs, he managed to record four shutouts in 11 games as the Barons won their third Calder Cup title with Bower in the net.

At last, the National Hockey League came calling and he was named the starting goalie for the New York Rangers. Despite the years in Cleveland, he was still something of the prairie rube, as described in his 2008 as-told-to autobiography, The China Wall. He left his Manhattan hotel, hopped into a Yellow Cab and told the driver to take him to Madison Square Garden. “Sure, Mac,” the driver replied. He drove around the block and accepted a $1.50 fare. Bower’s hotel was across the street from the rink.

The goalie, a 29-year-old NHL rookie, played every game for the New York Rangers that season. The team decided to go with Lorne (Gump) Worsley the following season, dispatching Bower to its Vancouver farm club. The demotion stung. He rented a space in a rooming house at 1036 Cardero St. in the West End. He played 63 games with the Canucks that season, going 30-15-8, leading all Western Hockey League goalies with a 2.71 average and tying the league record for shut outs with seven.

“He’s been the guts of our hockey club,” coach Art Chapman said.

The following three seasons were spent back in the AHL with the Barons and the Providence Reds until the NHL Leafs claimed his contract in June 1958. It was a promotion he wanted to turn down. The money he was likely to make was not much better than he was getting in Cleveland, where the hockey job also came with guaranteed summer work with a manufacturer of auto parts. He went north only after he was convinced a job with the Leafs would help promote his other summertime concern, Bower’s Big Boy, a hamburger stand in the northern Saskatchewan resort village of Waskesiu. He turned 35 in his first full season with the Leafs.

“When I went up to the Leafs from Cleveland, I used to flop all over the ice,” he said in a 1965 interview. “Punch made me a stand-up goalkeeper. He told me he didn’t care how many goals were scored against me on the open side, just so long as I came out and cut off the angle and protected the short side.”

He was better known for his poke-checking, a daring, dangerous move in which he would attack an onrushing forward, using his stick as a lance to poke the puck. Bower was known for not succumbing to a shooter’s dekes and feints, earning the nickname The China Wall for his impermeability. (Others said he got the nickname for being as old as the Great Wall.)

The Leafs went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963 and 1964. One of the players, Red Kelly, got elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal. They appeared in advertisements and commercials. In 1965, Bower recorded a novelty song written by a CBC producer named Chip Young. The goalie’s namesake son and a few neighbourhood children attended a recording session. A 45-rpm single, attributed to Bower with Little John and the Rinky-Dinks, became a seasonal phenomenon that Yuletide, as “Honky, the Christmas Goose” became a regional hit, selling an astounding 40,000 copies. Promoted by radio Station CHUM, the Christmas tune even briefly knocked aside the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” backed with “We Can Work It Out” from the slot as the most requested record.

His final triumph as a player came in the Centennial Year of 1967 when the Imlach’s old gang managed to upset the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals. Sharing goaltending duties with Terry Sawchuk, a fellow Ukrainian-Canadian, Bower and the Leafs stymied a younger, faster Montreal team, interrupting what could have been a five-Cup dynasty. Worse, the Quebec pavilion at Expo 67 had planned to display the Stanley Cup during the World’s Fair. Instead, it was exhibited in the Ontario pavilion, guarded by two members of the Ontario Provincial Police in formal uniform.

During the celebration of the 1967 Stanley Cup, Bower grabbed two bottles of champagne on his way out the door. He vowed to not crack them until the Leafs won their next championship. On their 50th wedding anniversary, he shared a bottle with his beloved wife, the former Nancy Brain, the daughter of a sergeant-major. The second bottle remains unopened. He never did get to savour it.  [Tyee]

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