Wednesday, 27 December 2017


Johnny Bower with the Maple Leafs. Glenn Hall in Chicago. Terry Sawchuk of the Red Wings. Eddie Johnston in Boston. Gump Worsley in New York. And Jacques Plante with les Habitants in Montreal.

Six names, six teams, and a rush of memories. It was a simpler time. When I read that Johnny Bower had died aged 93, I almost immediately recited those six names, like some shamanistic incantation. I can't say for sure when all six of those guys played on those teams, but I am assuming they were all together in that alignment for a least a few of my youthful years.

Beyond that, I remember Sawchuk wound up in Toronto splitting time with Bower, an innovation which went against conventional wisdom that one goalie had to play every game to stay sharp. After all, goalies were supposed to wear number 1, and two guys couldn't do that. It was, of course, a move both goalies hated, though it likely helped both immensely. Of course every team was quickly using two goalies, if only to rest their better one occasionally.

I recall too the shock trade when the Canadiens sent Plante to the Rangers for Worsley (there were other players involved—Dave Balon and Phil Goyette among others) Plante who had come up with the goalie's mask, which was originally seen as a sign of weakness, if not fear, was perceived as the sport's mercurial genius, but at odds variously with coach Toe Blake and GM Frank Selke, who would soon be gone himself. Worsley, a native Montrealer, was seen as a steady plugger (despite being one of North American sport's most prodigious drinking men).

But Johnny Bower's was probably the most interesting career of them all. He was born John Kiszkan, and at 15 enlisted in the Army, serving in England during the war until he was discharged because of arthritis in his hands. When his parents divorced he took his mother's name, though later he claimed it was easier for sportswriters to spell.He was already 20 when he played a year of junior hockey in Prince Albert in 1944, then turned pro in the minor league AHL. He played eight seasons for the Cleveland Barons, and was generally considered the league's best goalie, before he got a shot in 1953 with the New York Rangers, where he replaced Worsley, who'd been the NHL Rookie of the Year in 1952. For the next three years he was in effect Worsley's backup, playing most of the time in Vancouver of the WHL or Providence of the AHL. When the Rangers let him go he returned to Cleveland for a year, before Punch Imlach talked him into giving the NHL one more chance.

Bower was 34 when he finally settled into the nets for the Maple Leafs, where he would play for 11 more seasons, his career no doubt extended by sharing time with his fellow Ukranian Sawchuk. He backstopped the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, the first three in a row in 1962-4. After playing just one game in the 1969-70 season, he retired, and at age 45 he was at the time the oldest player to have played in an NHL game.

Nobody looked less like an athlete than Gump Worsley (well, maybe baseball's Smokey Burgess) but Bower was another guy who you would pass in the street never thinking you'd seen a great. Six decades later, most of those six names still appear regularly in arguments about the best goaltenders ever.

Ssx decades on, thinking of Johnny Bower made me nostalgic for those days when you knew the names, and the faces (no masks, no helmets) of all the goalies (if not all the players) in the six-team NHL. Even though you didn't see them much on TV (though I was lucky, being able to pick up Rangers' games out of New York—and falling in love with Montreal as a result). My dad played hockey, so we followed it a bit. I saw the Providence Reds (post-Bower) play in New Haven when the city finally got an AHL team--I had seen the AHL's Baltimore Clippers play the EHL Blades in the old New Haven Arena). Hockey was what first drew me to Montreal; Evelyne, whom I met on the beach in Woodmont, may have been another factor). In many ways my life has balanced itself on the fulcrum of Montreal; had I not wanted to live there I would not have gone to McGill; had I not gone to McGill I would not have met Theresa; had I not met her I would never have moved to Britain. 

Perhaps it was the Christmas season, or the snow that fell this morning, that helped me spin a hockey player's death into un petit coup de nostalgie, but these were very pleasant memories. RIP Johnny Bower.

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