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The Wall of China in Prince Albert

I often wear a Toronto Maple Leafs’ ball cap, and I have taken a lot of ribbing about it. People have said, “You must be the only Maple Leafs fan left.” Or they have said, “Were you even alive when the Leafs won their last Stanley Cup? If you were, boy you must be really old.”

Well lately, with Austin Matthews on a tear and the Leafs looking like a championship team, more and more people are saying they like my cap! So here’s hoping!

Yes I have been a Leafs’ fan for as long as I can remember. How many of you remember – Turk Broda, George Armstrong, Red Kelly, Bobby Baun, Tim Horton (and I don’t mean the coffee), Davy Keon, Kent Douglas, Eddie Shack, and so many more. Well I remember them. So, I may be old, but I treasure some special ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ moments of the past – such as when Bobby Baun scored the winning goal while skating on a broken foot.

But there is one of the greats that I have not listed above, and he deserves special recognition:

THE CHINA WALL
JOHNNY BOWER

Verne Hodgins, a friend of mine, knows that I am a Leafs’ fan, and this led him to lend me Dan Robson’s biography - “Bower, A Legendary Life.”  It is from this book along with bits and pieces from Internet searches and my own  memories that I draw much of what is in this - ‘Whale of a Tale.’

Johnny Bower was not born Johnny Bower. He was born November 8, 1924, and was named John William Kiszkan. The family lived at 526 16th Street West in Prince Albert. There, as a preteen, Johnny played street hockey using ‘road apples – frozen horse droppings’ as pucks. Johnny was reported saying, “When I played goal, I caught a few of those ‘pucks’ with my teeth.”

Soon Johnny’s skills as a street hockey goalie found their way to the real ice surface, and he was in demand with local hockey teams.

His remarkable ability eventually brought him to professional hockey. That is when the name ‘Johnny Bower’ came into existence. It is reported that Bower related a variety of stories about why he changed his name – Internal family strife - Bower was his mother’s maiden name - He was adopted - He wanted to avoid post World War 11 discrimination shown to those of eastern European heritage - The name Johnny Bower was easier for sportswriters to spell and remember. Whatever the reason, soon after joining the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, John William Kiszkan officially changed his name to John William Bower. The legendary name – Johnny Bower  - was born.

So it was, that the little boy from Prince Albert, as Robson reports, ‘strapping a cut–up mattress to his legs,’ went on to a famed career in real goalie pads. 

That fame took many forms:

 Early in his professional career Johnny, with shutout after shutout, so amazed one sports writer, Geoffrey Fisher, that he likened Johnny to the Great Wall of China, built to keep out all intruders, dubbing the remarkable goalie with the nick name ‘China Wall.’ The fans loved it – the nickname stuck.

Johnny joined the professional ranks at the age of 21, but this was, as mentioned above with the AHL. It wasn’t till he was 29 years of age, a fairly late start, that he made the NHL, and that was with the New York Rangers, not the Leafs. Johnny was shifted back and forth to the minors, spending very little time in the ‘big time.’ It was not until he was 33 years of age that he became a permanent member of the NHL. This time it was with the Leafs. People marvelled at this, for hockey, a senior citizen breaking into the NHL. To many he was an ‘ageless’ wonder;  his stellar performance in the net proved them right. In 1961, at age 34, Johnny won the NHL Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the top goalie. 

Through most of his years with the Leafs, Johnny’s coach was George ‘Punch’ Imlach. Punch was noted as a colourful, and quite controversial, character. He and Johnny’s relationship, at times, was rocky, to say the least. But Imlach, too, marvelled at Johnny’s ageless ability, and once said, “Johnny Bower is the most remarkable and maybe the best athlete in the world.” 

Johnny’s playing time with the Leafs in the 1960’s became the team’s ‘golden years,’ winning the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963. 1964, and 1967.  Thank you Johnny and your most memorable teammates. (Those critics of my Leafs’ ball cap are quick to remind me that the Leafs have not raised the cup since then.) (So how can they get that ageless wonder - Johnny Bower – back?)

Space does not allow me to elaborate on Johnny’s many other accomplishments – Two time Vezina Trophy Winner - NHL All Star – Inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, the Prince Albert Sports Hall of Fame, along with innumerable minor league awards.

Johnny, the ageless wonder, retired at the age of 44, becoming the oldest full time goalie to ever play in the NHL.  He remained affiliated with the Leafs, in one role or another, until his death. He became ‘the Grandpa of Hockey.’

Johnny said “To wear the Maple Leaf Jersey – is not a right – but a privilege.”

 

So I will continue to wear my Maple Leafs’ ball cap as a privilege, and celebrate with you Johnny and all the Leaf greats when they do raise the Stanley Cup again.  

 

AND when they do, you too can mark the occasion by going to the Art Hauser Centre here in Prince Albert, stand in the appropriately named ‘Johnny Bower Lobby’ look at his picture and say, “Hey Johnny- THEY DID IT!”

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Wednesday March 13, 2024