BOWER, JOHN WILLIAM “JOHNNY” (8 November 1924-26 December 2017) was a hockey player who spent nine years with the AHL CLEVELAND BARONS before embarking on a Hall of Fame career as a goalie with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Bower, the only son in a family of nine children, was born to Johnny (a Ukranian immigrant) and Lizzie Kiszkan in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. As a child, he played pond hockey, using tree branches as sticks, mattresses as goalie pads – and frozen horse manure as hockey pucks. In 1940, at the age of 16, he lied about his age to join the Canadian Army during World War II. He went overseas to England, but never saw combat and received a medical discharge.
In 1945, he joined the Barons under his real name, changing it to Bower the following year. He joked because it could be spelled more easily by reporters, but it appears to have been following a family separation (Bower was his mother’s maiden name).
He initially shared goalie duties for the Barons, including when they won the 1948 Calder Cup, but by the 1949-50 season, he was the full-time goaltender. The Barons won two more Calder Cups with him in the net in 1951 and 1953, and Bower acquired his nickname, “The China Wall,” in his time in Cleveland.
In 1953, he was traded to the NHL’s New York Rangers, spending a season with them before returning to the AHL. After two seasons in Providence, he ended up back with the Barons for the 1957-58 season. The Toronto Maple Leafs tried to acquire him midseason, but he declined to stay in Cleveland. The Maple Leafs drafted Bower following the season, and he only went to Toronto under pain of suspension.
In Toronto, Bower had won two Vezina Trophies as the best goalie in the NHL and four Stanley Cups with the Leafs: three in a row from 1962-64, and their last one to date in 1967. He retired at the age of 45 in 1970 (he signed a one-game contract as an emergency backup a decade later, but never saw the ice) with 37 career shutouts and a lifetime goals-against average of 2.52, and remains the oldest full-time goalie in NHL history as well as the oldest goalie ever to play in a Stanley Cup Final. He’s also considered the father of the “poke check,” when goalies dive out of the crease and knock the puck away from an attacking player. Bower, who played goalie in the days before they wore masks, received 240 stitches in his face throughout his career.
Bower was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976, and the AHL Hall of Fame in 2006, four years after his number 1 was retired at Quicken Loans Arena. He’s also a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame and the Prince Albert Sports Hall of Fame. He received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2007, and was immortalized on stamps and coins in Canada.
He was an ambassador for the game and a fan favorite in Toronto in his post-playing career. The Maple Leafs retired his number in 2016.
Bower married his wife Nancy at TRINITY CATHEDRAL in Cleveland on 3 November 1948 – during a midseason break for the Barons – and they were married 69 years until his death. With Nancy, he was the father of three children, John, Cynthia and Barbara, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of six.