'There may not be a more loved Toronto Maple Leaf': City mourns hockey legend Johnny Bower

An outpouring of love and sympathy was tangible Tuesday night as friends and fans alike commented the retired Leafs' goaltender's legacy.

Goaltender remembered for his kindness, humour and lifelong devotion to the Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending legend Johnny Bower, shown here watching Leafs practice in 2009, passed away after a short battle with pneumonia, his family said on Tuesday evening. (File/Canadian Press)

Johnny Bower, it seems, touched a lot of hearts in 93 years.

An outpouring of love and sympathy was tangible Tuesday night as friends and fans alike commented on the retired Leafs' goaltender's legacy.

Bower's grandson, John Bower III, carries the late Leaf's legacy both in name and in worldview. Bower taught his grandchildren "to always look out for those who are less fortunate than us," his grandson told CBC News in an interview Tuesday night, drawing from his brass-tacks upbringing in rural Saskatchewan. 

"My grandfather comes from a very modest, if not poor background, growing up in the depression," he said.

"He always felt that it was important, as he gained notoriety and financial stability, to give back to others and help other people along the way," by giving time, money or even just a kind word.

"He gave me a couple of words of wisdom: Be proud of yourself and your accomplishments, and always strive to be the best that you can," Bower III said. "I will never forget that, because my grandfather — in 252 games with the National Hockey League — he only achieved perfection 37 times with a shutout." 

Outpouring of support from hockey fans

While the family is grieving the loss, his grandson said, the "outpouring of support from around the world" makes Bower's death more bearable.

"We were out ice fishing today when we learned Grandpa passed away," Bower's grandson said. "A few days ago he was responding well to the treatment of antibiotics. We thought he would pull through like he has in the past.

"This was just a little too much for him at 93 years of age."

Bower died with his children near to him, his grandson said, though some of the family didn't get to say a final goodbye.

"We did what Grandpa wanted. We celebrated Christmas, his favourite holiday, with family. That's what he wanted us all to do when he went in to the hospital."

A city in mourning

Toronto Mayor John Tory commented on Bower's death shortly after his family released a statement. 

"He was a boyhood hero of mine, as he was for many across Canada. And long after his retirement he was a great ambassador for the Leafs and for Toronto. He will be missed by all Leafs fans and by a grateful city," Tory said on Tuesday.

Former Liberal MP Bob Rae told CBC Toronto that he got to know Bower in the '90s on the charity golf circuit.

"Like every Leafs fan in the '60s, I idolized Johnny," Rae said. "He was a delightful guy, very open, funny, and humble. I came to admire him more as I saw how warm and patient he was with fans, and how much he enjoyed being with people and making them feel good about themselves.

"He had a natural quality with people that was quite remarkable and I shall always remember."

Bower was a lifelong Leaf 

On Legend's Row outside the Air Canada Centre, an immortalized Bower stands eternally at the ready, the Maple Leaf etched onto his chest. Bower remained a Leafs fan throughout his life, even making regular appearances at farm-team games, according to one passer-by, who noted Bower's propensity for a good-natured ribbing of rival fans.

"Here's Johnny's sense of humour," recalled Leafs fan Neil Townsend, who met the goaltender several times. At one of those meetings, he brought a friend, who wore "a Habs jersey because she's a lifelong fan," Townsend said. 

When Bower caught a glimpse of the offending jersey, "The first thing Johnny said was, 'Oh look, a dartboard,'" Townsend laughed.

Townsend echoes other mourners in recounting Bower's kind nature. "He was like everyone's favourite grandpa. He was a Canadian icon." 

Ex-Leafs pay their respects

Leafs past and current chimed in on Bower's legacy. Ex-goaltender James Reimer, through his partner's Twitter account, called Bower "one of the most genuine people" he'd ever met. 

Ex-forward and tough guy Darcy Tucker, meanwhile, remembered Bower as kind and humble.

Bower's Christmas comes early

9 years ago
Johnny Bower gets an early Christmas gift, filled with memories and meaning. 2:08

But Bower's old teammate, Dick Duff, knew the late netminder more intimately and described Bower's dedication in an interview with CBC Toronto.

"He'd stay on the ice forever," Duff said, noting that Bower would stop dozens of shots in a typical practice without even so much as a mask. "These guys had blue, black and yellow marks on them from September until next August, and then it would start again."

Duff says it was partially Bower's arrival on the Leafs' roster than led to four Stanley Cup wins in his 11-year stint in blue and white.

"John was one of the additions who made our team really strong," Duff said. "We're trying to catch up with Montreal and we're trying to catch up with Detroit. They were the best teams in those days."

Leafs' president Brendan Shanahan also issued a statement shortly after Bower's death was announced.

"Johnny was beloved by so many for much more than his Hall of Fame credentials as a player," Shanahan wrote. "It was his generosity of spirit, kindness and passion for people that made him a legend at life. 

"Our deepest sympathies and gratitude go to Nancy, their children and the entire Bower family for sharing their husband, father and grandfather with us for so many years," he continued.

"There may not be a more loved Toronto Maple Leaf nor a former player who loved them as much back."

With files from Salma Ibrahim and Greg Ross