As It Happens

Maple Leafs legend Johnny Bower remembered as 'fearless' on the ice, 'generous' in life

Dick Duff talks to As It Happens about his lifelong friendship with his former Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Johnny Bower.
Canadian Second World War veteran and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Johnny Bower died on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)
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Story transcript

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower was tough as nails in front of the net, but kind and gracious off the ice, says former teammate and lifelong friend Dick Duff.

Bower died Tuesday after a short battle with pneumonia. He was 93.

The Hockey Hall of Famer and two-time Vezina Trophy winner toiled in the American Hockey League for 13 seasons before earning a permanent spot in 1958 as the Leafs' goaltender, where he won four Stanley Cups alongside good friends like Duff.

Duff reminisced with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about those days in the NHL with Bower. Here is part of that conversation.

What was it like playing hockey with Johnny Bower?

He was a very intense competitor. 

In those days, there was only one goalie in each team, and six in the league. There was only 96 players in the NHL in those days. Six-team league, eh? So it was a grind and he stuck it out and then he helped his guys.

He was also well-liked in the room. We had a lot of fun with him because of his age. He was like our father.

Bower leaves a team practice in Toronto in this 1970 file photo. The legendary goalie got his start in the NHL at an age when many players would be considering retirement. (Canadian Press)

Well, he was 34 when he came to the Leafs.

At that time, NHL guys were retiring or they were retiring you, because they could start another kid. They had an endless supply of talent coming through the system.

He had this nickname, The China Wall. How did he earn that?

They gave it to him in the American Hockey League, I think. I think it was a symbol of The Great Wall in China. Somebody came up with a nickname and goes, "Hey, he was hard to put the puck by." I mean, he was a damn good goalie. Worked hard at it. 

Bower, right, was lifelong friends with Dick Duff, left. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

This was an era where goalies didn't wear masks, so what did he look like during hockey season?

It always surprised me that they would even play in there. They would never get me in there. There wouldn't be enough money. We used to kid the chiefs and say, "Chief, would you be a goalie?" "No. Are you kidding?"

But those guys ... the leg and arm, they would be yellow, green, black from stopping the pucks. 

When they were 30, these guys were 60 — and they were mentally strung out and everything else. It wasn't a very easy job, you know?

When Bower was in the NHL, goalies didn't wear protective masks. (Canadian Press)

And you know, we talk about him being this China Wall as if the solidness of him in that net was all of it, but there was more to it, right? He actually kept a lot of goals going in with some special moves he had of his own.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, with throwing his stick out there and sweeping it away in front of the net. He was fearless. These guys were fearless

They also had the pressure of the winning/losing all the time. A lot of the games could be decided by one goal and if they let in a bad goal it kind of stayed with them, you know?

At least in the Toronto system ... we were kind of a defensive-oriented system, so I'd kid him all the time. I'd say, "John, every time I see a damn picture of you, there's three of the Leafs guys, fighters, they're within five feet of you. Sometimes I think I could have put the pads on."

He'd say, "Yeah, do you want to?"

I'd say, "No, I don't think so. No, no, no. I take it back! I take it back, I don't want to. No."

CBC's On the Scene sends Al Boliska to check out the Leafs at the start of the 1960 season. 23:56

The two of you were friends for life. What was he like to his family, to friends like you? What kind of person was he after he left the game?

John was generous with people, and I think he was concerned about his family. I mean, we weren't the greatest-paid guys, you know. So, I mean, he had to make sure there was income coming. And then when he was finished playing, then what?

On top of being this excellent goalie, he was a musician of sorts. Do you remember Honky, The Christmas Goose?

No, but I heard them play it today. It was great. I said, "John, I didn't know you could have had a second career, for crying out loud!" Not as many stitches involved and not as many headaches.

Is there one thing that you think that people should know about John Bower that they don't? Something that they should remember about him today?

No, I just think that he had a generous spirit in our midst and he respected people. He liked people. And anything that he could do to make the situation a bit better, he was quite willing to be involved.

— With files from CBC Sports

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