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Going up: Remembering an elevator ride with Johnny Bower and two other Hall of Fame goalies

Canadian Press file photo/Nathan Denette — In this Nov. 10, 2014 file photo, former Toronto Maple Leafs star goaltender Johnny Bower, a Canadian Second World War veteran, takes part in ceremony showing the new exhibit dedicated to First World War and Second World War veterans at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Bower’s service in the army as a teenager is just one of the many fascinating aspects of the life of the Hall of Famer, who died on Dec. 26 at the age of 93.
Canadian Press file photo/Nathan Denette — In this Nov. 10, 2014 file photo, former Toronto Maple Leafs star goaltender Johnny Bower, a Canadian Second World War veteran, takes part in ceremony showing the new exhibit dedicated to First World War and Second World War veterans at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Bower’s service in the army as a teenager is just one of the many fascinating aspects of the life of the Hall of Famer, who died on Dec. 26 at the age of 93. - Canadian Press

You didn't have to spend much time with the late Maple Leafs legend to find out why he was held in such high regard

Have you ever wished you could push a button and have some magic occur?

Well that's what happened for me almost 21 years ago when I pressed ‘up' for an elevator in a Saint John, N.B., hotel.

I was covering the 1997 American Hockey League all-star game and had just attended one of the myriad of receptions associated with the league's showcase event in those days. I was headed back to my room to file a story — The Telegram's deadlines were much later then — and when the elevator's doors finally opened, I found it contained three men.

Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall and Gump Worsley.

They made room for me and when I went to select my floor, I saw it was already lit up. We were all headed for the same altitude.

I congratulated the three as they were in Saint John to be honoured by as the AHL as alumni who had gone all to Hall of Fame careers in the National Hockey League. I was about to remind Bower and Hall that I had met them previously, when Bower glanced at the all-star credentials hanging around my neck and said, "You were the one who talked to me about Cleveland when I was in Newfoundland."

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Bower died on Boxing Day at the age of 93 and there has since been a steady stream of stories that have chronicled accomplishments of Johnny Bower, the hockey player, and a veritable litany of tributes to Johnny Bower, the man.

Statistics and official bios verify the hockey history. An overwhelming amount of personal recollections have supported Bower's reputation as a gentleman and one of the most — if not the most — beloved figures in the long history of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Let me add a small bit of testimony to that evidence.

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A few years earlier, Bower had travelled to St. John's as a goodwill ambassador for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had moved their AHL farm team to Newfoundland in 1991. Chris Read, who handled media relations for the St. John's Maple Leafs the first couple of years, had previously worked in Toronto and told me what a delight it would be for me to meet the Hall of Fame goalie.

He was so correct.

Bower turned out to be like that favourite uncle you can't wait to see again at a family gathering, just for the chance to have a feet-up talk.

He was welcoming, engaging and had no knowledge of what it meant to be pretentious, even when people were lining up to tell him how great he was.

He was, as they say, the finest kind of fellow, something I rediscovered that during my elevator trip at the Delta Saint John.

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If being remembered is flattering, then being remembered by someone like Bower who has been interviewed and/or been chatted up thousands of times during their lifetime is downright humbling.

That intoxicant of recognition was added to presently.

Bower turned to introduce me to Hall and Worsley when the former said, "You interviewed me, too," referring to when Hall had made a trip to St. John's as the goalie coach of the Calgary Flames to watch the Saint John Flames take on the AHL Leafs.

I had never met Worsley before, but the mention of Newfoundland made him prick up his ears.

"Do you know Derek Hancock?" he asked.

"Do you mean Dick Hancock?" I replied, referring to the former St. John's Caps player and well-known bar owner.

"That's him," said Worsley. "Next time you see him, tell him he owes me a @$#!$*# salmon," and related to me a story about a fishing trip involving the two.

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Johnny Bower began his professional hockey career with the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Barons. During 11 seasons in the AHL, Bower won three Calder Cups and was named the league MVP three times. — theahl.com
Johnny Bower began his professional hockey career with the American Hockey League's Cleveland Barons. During 11 seasons in the AHL, Bower won three Calder Cups and was named the league MVP three times. — theahl.com

The hotel we were in was one of those where the reception area, meeting rooms, restaurant and bars are on the lower levels, separated by floors and floors of offices, with the actual hotel rooms at the top. That made for a longer than normal elevator trip, but even then, it wasn't long enough for me.

The door opened to our floor.

But instead of heading directly to wherever he was going — I presume it was his room or one of their rooms — Hall paused and asked Bower, "What about Cleveland did you talk about with him?" nodding in my direction.

And Bower proceeded to relate how a good deal of the on-air interview in St. John's that constituted our first meeting was about his time with the Cleveland Barons of the AHL and how in the early 1950s, when he was Cleveland's star, the Barons came very close to become the NHL's seventh team.

Financial shortfalls meant that the 1950s expansion never happened (although the Cleveland Barons would make a brief appearance in the NHL three decades later).

Bower had been pleased to talk about that bit of hockey history, saying he had rarely been asked about almost entering the big leagues as a Baron and that it was enjoyable to get to dwell on something that didn't normally come up in interviews.

Bower said as much to Hall before asking me "What did you talk to him about?"

I told him I recalled us chatting a good deal about Gordie Howe, Hall's former teammate on the Detroit Red Wings, and specifically about how Hall referred to a "winkin', blinkin'" Howe, complete with eye movements to mimic the all-time great.

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The mention of Howe sparked further conversation. Although Bower and Howe had never been teammates, the two were great friends, spending the off-seasons fishing in their native Saskatchewan or hanging out sharing meals at Bower's restaurant near his hometown of Prince Albert.

That lit another fuse and explosion of words. The fishing part led to Worsley to remind me again about the owed salmon, and the reference to Saskatchewan to him relating how he had played in Saskatoon for a couple of seasons … and not just hockey.

Although he didn't look the part, it turns out Worsley was a very good soccer player and had been a striker for a Saskatoon team that took on the famous English side, Tottenham Hotspur, during a 1950s tour of Canada.

I later learned Worsley was so good on the pitch that he was a starting midfielder on a senior club team in his native Montreal, one that finished as runner-up in the national Challenge Cup in the mid 1950s.

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He may not have looked exactly like an elite athlete, but that’s what Gump Worsley was, both on the rink and the soccer pitch.
He may not have looked exactly like an elite athlete, but that's what Gump Worsley was, both on the rink and the soccer pitch.

Worsley's soccer history is just one fascinating segment of the life story of the goalie who died a decade ago.

He was the 1953 Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year with the New York Rangers, but in a dispute over his pay for the next season — said to be a matter of his asking for a raise from $6,500 to $7,000 annually — he was shipped to the minors and replaced by Bower.

After a year in purgatory, Worsley was back on Broadway (and Bower was out), but another disagreement, this time in 1963 over his involvement in a proposed NHL players union, led to the ‘Gumper' getting dealt from the Rangers to the Montreal Canadiens, where he would find his greatest success. But yet another brouhaha, this time over playing time, resulted in Worsley being sold to the Minnesota North Stars in 1970.

In reality, the Stars had cajoled Worsley into coming out of a self-imposed retirement. Worsley had once played in the minors for a St. Paul, Minn., club and was said to have enjoyed his time there, although there is a version of the story that has Worsley — who had a well-documented fear of flying — choosing the North Stars because they were in the centre of North America and didn't have to make lengthy coast-to-coast flights as did eastern- or western-based clubs.

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There are also plenty of interesting tidbits about Hall, including his own idiosyncrasy — he threw up before up almost every game.

"I was a born worrier," he once said.

Hall spent just one season in the AHL in what was a fairly rough introduction to the pro ranks — he played all 68 games for the 1951-52 Indianapolis Capitols, losing 40 of them — but was called up to Detroit for the playoffs and was the backup to Terry Sawchuck as the Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup. Hall didn't play a single game that spring, but the Wings still saw to it that his name was engraved on the Cup almost a year before he appeared in his first-ever NHL contest.

Associated Press file photo — Glenn Hall backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup win over the Detrot Red Wings in 1971. It was Hall’s second Stanley Cup win, although the first time he had his name etched on the trophy, it was before played a single NHL game.
Associated Press file photo — Glenn Hall backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup win over the Detrot Red Wings in 1961. It was Hall's second Stanley Cup win, although the first time he had his name etched on the trophy, it was before played a single NHL game.

Hall went on to get his name on the Cup twice more — with the 1961 Chicago Blackhawks and the 1989 Flames as goalie coach — and would play over 900 NHL games, including an amazing 502 in a row in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He finished up with St. Louis, famous for being the 37-year-old ‘kid' in a 1969-70 Blues netminding tandem that also included a 40-year-old Jacques Plante.

That was the same season Hall gave up Bobby Orr's famous Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal, but although as a longtime Bruins fan, the image of a celebrating Orr flying through the air after being tripped up by Noel Picard is among my favourites, I didn't make too much of it when I interviewed Hall. Neither did he, although he good-naturedly and impishly pointed out it was tough to remember all the times he had been scored on, having given up more than 2,500 goals in his big-league career.

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But if there was a biographical movie to be made about a goalie, you could not find a better subject than Bower.

You might have already read most of his background — how he grew up in relative poverty as one of a family of nine children in depression-era Prince Albert, using fashioned tree branches as sticks and catalogues or cut-up mattresses as pads during his first days as a netminder.

Not yet 16, he lied about his age to join the Canadian army a year after the outbreak of the Second World War and was eventually shipped to England as an artillery gunner in the Canadian Second Division.

He probably would have been part of the ill-fated 1942 raid on Dieppe, but was sidelined by a respiratory ailment. "I lost a lot of friends in that one," he told me in our first interview. He also didn't participate in the 1944 D-Day landings, having been honorably discharged the year previous because of rheumatoid arthritis, something that would afflict him throughout his life, so much so that he would often need the goalie stick pried from his blocker-glove hand after games.

And here's the thing: after more than three years in the army, including two overseas, he returned to Saskatchewan still young enough to play a year of junior hockey. Then after a brief stint working for Canadian National Railways, he joined the Barons, putting in eight straight years in Cleveland to start a pro career that included 11 seasons in the AHL, where he would win 359 games, more than any other goalie in league history.

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By this time, he had a new name. He had been born John Kiszkan, but started using Bower, his mother's surname, when he came to Cleveland, in part, he said to avoid constant misspelling in the press. He evntually made the change legal.

He was well-known as Johnny Bower and almost 30 when he got his first NHL break with the 1953-54 Rangers, but after playing all 70 games for the Blueshirts that season, he was returned in the minors, bouncing from Vancouver to Providence and back to Cleveland, leading the Barons to a Calder Cup in 1958 and being named AHL MVP that same year.

Bower was about to turn 34 and was happy to finish his career in northern Ohio when the Leafs acquired his rights in the 1958 inter-league draft.

The accepted story is that the veteran-loving Punch Imlach, who had become Toronto's general manager that year and later named himself as head coach, convinced Bower to join the Leafs.

There is also the suggestion Bower wanted to avoid being suspended for refusal to report, but he would also state that his wife, Nancy, had the final say, insisting he should give the NHL one more good shot.

Canadian Press file photo/George Young — In this February, 2013 file photo, Johnny Bower (left) and George Armstrong are paraded around the ice at the 50th anniversary of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 1963 Stanley Cup victory.  After his retirement as a player in 1969, Bower spent decades as a Maple Leafs goodwill ambassador.
Canadian Press file photo/George Young — In this February, 2013 file photo, Johnny Bower (left) and George Armstrong are paraded around the ice at the 50th anniversary of the Toronto Maple Leafs' 1963 Stanley Cup victory. After his retirement as a player in 1969, Bower spent decades as a Maple Leafs goodwill ambassador.

It turned out to be very good shot. Bower played 11 seasons in Toronto, winning four Stanley Cups, including one in 1967, the last time the Leafs took it all. He retired two years later at the age of 45 to enter a post-playing career as an organizational treasure.

———

The area outside the elevator had some furniture, including an armoire with a mirror on top. At one point as I talked with the three goaltending legends, I glanced over, wishing I somehow could take a picture of that reflection, but cellphone cameras were still years away.

Worsley departed first, then Hall. Bower hung around to ask questions about the Leafs' prospects in St. John's, but the time also came for him to say goodbye.

But before he did, he got the jump on me one more time. I was about to tell him how good it was to speak with him, when he grabbed my hand, shook it and said, "Thank-you for talking with me again."

When I insisted it was me who should be pleased, he smiled and told me that one should always be prepared to give others a little bit of time.

"And when you don't have much time to give, you can always give them a smile," he said. "Doesn't cost anything."

And with that, he gave me one that was free but worth a million bucks, then headed down the hallway — he was on the suite side of the floor, my room was on the other — with a bit of bowlegged stride, raising his right hand in a wave of farewell.

But then he turned around, smiled again, and said, "Don't forget about Gump's fish," and continued on his way.

brendan.mccarthy@thetelegram.com

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