Johnny Bower: '...I was shaking in my boots.'

Minor Memories: Johnny Bower
Johnny Bower's first goalie stick was a tree branch. It was so heavy -- "solid oak" -- he says it's how he learned to keep his stick on the ice. (Pictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Johnny Bower grew up in rural Saskatchewan in a poor family of nine children.  He made his goalie pads from an old mattress, and for a stick, his dad found crooked tree branches and shaved them down for him to use. Despite these circumstances, he became one of the best goalies of all time.  

Throughout his career, which took off with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958, he was twice awarded the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender, was a First Team All-Star, was picked by fans in 1995 as goalie on the All-Time Great Leaf Team, and he helped lead Toronto to four Stanley Cup victories. 

CBC How did you get into hockey?

Bower: "Like every other boy who wants to be a hockey player someday, of course, I was born and raised in Saskatchewan, we had a lot of ice there. We had rivers, we had ponds, and behind schools, the city put ice there for us. That's where I learned my hockey really, when it was around 35, 40 below zero. And we had no problems but we didn't have the equipment or the sticks that they really have today, and we couldn't afford it.

"And I can recall, once, my dad went across the river, or bridge, to find a tree that was shaped like a hockey stick and shaved it down for me. And he got me that and I used that as a goaltender. And I could hardly lift it, honest to God was it heavy, it was solid oak. And I used it for quite a bit, and it helped me to keep my stick down on the ice. And that's how it all started, you know, just like today, when you get a group of kids who are all on the ice…you know, every opportunity you get to go out and skate or play hockey, they'll do it, to improve themselves."

CBC What was the first game you can remember playing?

Bower: "The first game, in junior hockey in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, we played against, I think it was against Saskatoon, and who would be on there? A young guy named Gordie Howe. Can you imagine that? And I was shaking in my boots.

"And believe me, we lost about -- of course, it wasn't fair because Saskatoon at that time had a population of about, around 80,000 people, and where I came from we had about 30,000, and it wasn't fair -- but they had the best players, and we got hammered really bad by them. I think we lost around 8-1 or something like that.

And I met Gordie after, and we got to be very, very good friends. But that's the only game I can remember being so shaky."

CBC Who was the funniest teammate you ever had?

Bower: "The funniest teammate I ever played with was Eddie Shack. He was comical, not only with me but comical no matter where he went -- and a good hockey player in his old days. You know, he averaged over 20 goals a year when he played.

"But Shack, he was a good guy in the dressing room too, I mean he used to get those guys -- some of those guys maybe would be falling asleep until Shack got up there and starting saying, 'Come on guys, let's go, let's beat this team'.

"You know, but he was funny and he'd do a lot of stupid things, like in the airport, sometimes when we were coming off the plane waiting for our luggage, we all bet 50 cents whose bag would first come out, and we'd all put 50 cents in, and Shack might win sometimes. But somebody bet Shack $5 that he would be too afraid to lay on the luggage [turnstile], and he got on there, he laid down and went all the way around like this here. The cops basically would come in there and tell him he couldn't do that anymore, and he knew where we were and all that but he had to play Shack. Eddie was the funniest guy, oh, a lot of the things that he did I can't tell you, but oh my."

CBC Sports: Where was the most memorable tournament ever played and why?

Bower : "Back home there's the juniors, as a kid we played some great tournaments. We played like individual little towns here or there, but there wasn't one individual team we played really hard against, we just went along our way and did the best we could. And did pretty good too."

CBC Is there a game or tournament in your professional career that's most memorable?

Bower: "Oh gosh, the one that really stands out, the game that really stands out, it was against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal. And it's not too often you shut out Montreal on their home ice, and I shut 'em out -- well I didn't, my team did -- we shut 'em out, I think it was 3-0 or something like that. So that was really a game and a half, that one there. Because everybody wanted to beat Montreal, you know."

CBC Sports: Where was the worst arena you've ever played at? What was it like?

Bower: "I think New York. I couldn't play my best in New York. They had fans in New York that had to be educated a little bit at that time. They were hard fans to get along with. They'd throw anything that wasn't nailed on the ground. Honestly, they'd throw chairs at you, they'd throw everything at you.

"Andy Bathgate told me that when he was there, 'Boy, Johnny, you'd better play good.' He said, 'You better be careful....because if you don't you're going to get booed and everything else.' And I said, 'Well, that's part of the game,' and he said, 'Yeah, well, you'll see'. But he's right too, he's really right."

CBC Sports: Where was the coldest game of hockey you ever played? What was it like?

Bower: "It was back home when I was a little guy, I think it was about 45 below zero, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Forty-five below zero, yeah, we had ear muffs on, oh we froze our feet, we froze our ears, we froze our toes, we froze everything you can think of, but we still played on there on the ice, and it was about 45 below zero. They still get cold weather up there."

CBC Sports: Who was the most memorable hockey parent you ever met? Why?

Bower: "I think probably Colleen Howe, Gordie Howe, his wife, that Colleen, we got together, we got to know her real well. She ran everything for Gordie Howe, she was more or less his manager and she was really something to talk to and everything. She negotiated contracts and everything, a wonderful lady and we got along really well."