TORONTO — Don Cherry still finds it hard to understand why it took Johnny Bower so long to become an NHL regular.
Bower spent 13 seasons in the American Hockey League before earning a permanent spot with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958. He went on to play 11 full seasons with Toronto, twice capturing the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie and winning four Stanley Cups, including the franchise’s last in 1967.
The legendary former goaltender died Tuesday night after a short battle with pneumonia at the age of 93. Cherry, 83, the colourful hockey commentator on Hockey Night in Canada, spent nearly 20 years in hockey’s minor leagues, often facing off against Bower when the two were toiling in the AHL.
“I don’t think you’re going to talk to anyone who played against him further back than me,” said Cherry. “Boy, what a goaltender he was in the minors.
“We in the American League couldn’t figure out how come he’d never made the National Hockey League because some guys that went up weren’t half as good. He got buried in the minors and in those days you got the stigma of, ‘Well, he’s a good minor-leaguer, he’s not a good National Hockey Leaguer.’ I think he proved he was pretty good when he went up with Toronto … I don’t think you could’ve done much more than he did.”
Bower, a native of Prince Albert, Sask., was picked up by the New York Rangers for the 1953-54 season but was sent back to the minors the following season. He earned a permanent spot with Toronto in 1958, playing 475 of his career 552 NHL regular-season games with the Leafs.
Despite playing the majority of his pro career without a mask, Bower pioneered the poke-check. He’d dive head first at opposing players to knock the puck off their sticks, often earning cuts or lost teeth along the way.
“Not too many people in sports have a name where it almost becomes a verb,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told reporters Wednesday from Legends Row at the Air Canada Centre, which features Bower and other former Leaf greats. “If you’re playing street hockey and you poke-checked somebody, you’d yell, ‘Johnny Bower. I just Johnny Bowered you.’
“I’d never seen Johnny play as a young kid but I knew this was the man that invented the poke check growing up here in Toronto.”
Bower usually wore a mask in practice but didn’t use one in games until his second-last NHL season, 1968-69. That spring, he became the oldest goaltender to appear in a Stanley Cup playoff game at 44 years four months 28 days.
Bower retired March 19, 1970 at age 45. He worked in various capacities with the Leafs, including as a scout, goalie coach and assistant coach, before stepping away in 1990. He continued making public appearances on behalf of the franchise pretty much up to his death.
And Cherry said Bower, with his warm smile and down-to-earth demeanour, was the perfect goodwill ambassador for the Leafs.
“You could go to the banquets and see everybody loved him,” Cherry said. “He was one of those guys that everybody loved.
“You couldn’t have picked a better goodwill ambassador than him. I honestly think he was an American Hockey Leaguer playing in the National Hockey League. He was very humble and just a great guy.”
Bower was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976. Toronto paid tribute to him with a commemorative banner in 1995 that’s still present at the ACC. Bower’s former AHL team in Cleveland retired his No. 1 in 2002.
“For a generation of Maple Leafs fans they remember him for his play on the ice,” Shanahan said. “There’s a whole new generation of kids and young fans that don’t really know him for (being) the goalie but just know him for charity and generosity, good-naturedness and warmth.
“Any young athlete, whatever the sport he plays, can look at a player like John Bower and say regardless of his success it never went to his head. He was more than just a hockey player. He was an ambassador to every community he ever lived in. Any time anyone saw Johnny Bower they came away with a great experience. He’s a great lesson for all of us.”
Dick Duff, who played on two Cup-winning teams with Bower in Toronto, said his former teammate had the unique ability to appeal to both his peers and hockey supporters. Bower’s knack for winning on the ice garnered respect from players while his pleasant demeanour away from the game made him a fan favourite.
“That’s the gift he had,” Duff said. “He could deal with people of different age groups and backgrounds.
“He had that quality, a lot of people don’t, and he never hesitated. Whatever it was, he was part of it … he was always a down-to-earth kind of guy.”
“The first thing the players of today look at and respect are his accomplishments on the ice,” he said. “Then to see him off the ice and his generosity, his warmth, his humour. I think for a lot of players today they look at somebody like that and think this is a great example of what we all aspire to be.”
There’s been no announcement regarding funeral arrangements for Bower. Shanahan said the Leafs will discuss how to honour Bower at the appropriate time.
“It’s a sad day that goes beyond just the city of Toronto and the hockey world,” Shanahan said. “Johnny led an incredible life and touched the lives of so many and will be deeply missed.”