Goaltenders all grow up with heroes; for me, the American in my mom’s family, there’s a soft spot for Jimmy Craig that will probably never go away.
For Toronto goaltenders, though, Johnny Bower – born as John Kiszkan – is a hard name to top. Nicknamed ‘The China Wall’ for being both impenetrable in net and old as dirt, Bower would kind of be the Andrew Hammond of the 1960’s – only he’d do it for over a decade, winning Toronto four Stanley Cups in the process. He didn’t singlehandedly take the Leafs from last place in the NHL to those four Cup championships in under ten years, but he was certainly a big part of the reason why that was possible.
Now, his number (1) has been honored up in the rafters at Air Canada Centre; he’s a Hall of Fame goaltender at both the AHL and NHL levels, ranks 87th on the Hockey News’ 100 Best Players in NHL History, and once suited up for a game at the ripe age of 55 as a one-day emergency backup.
Let’s take a look back at the man, the legend, the originator of the poke check:
- Despite winning four Stanley Cups and two Vezina Trophies during his NHL career – which also saw him appear as the oldest goaltender in NHL History to stand in net during a Stanley Cup playoff game, beating out Lester Patrick by a full one month and 20 days for the record (Patrick still holds the record for oldest SCF netminder, although Bower sits just two years behind him in that respect) – Bower actually had a far more illustrious AHL career. To this day, he holds the record for AHL wins (359) and shutouts (45). He didn’t even become a regular NHL netminder until the Leafs took him in an Intra-League draft in 1958, when he was 34.
- Although Bower would win three of his Stanley Cups with Toronto as their predominant goaltender, his final victory – which would, coincidentally, be Toronto’s last cup victory as well – came while he played tandem goaltending with Terry Sawchuk. Can only assume that was too much greatness for one net, and the gods are punishing Toronto accordingly for too much of a good thing.
Most memorable Leafs moment:
Since all but a handful of Bower’s career NHL games are with the Leafs (and he managed to pull off four cup championships with them – did I mention he won four cups?) it’s hard to pick just one moment. I was also alive for exactly zero of his NHL games played, so I can just go off of hearsay, Youtube, and the number of times I’ve trolled Leafs history books to pull out my family’s name from Maple Leafs Gardens employee rosters.
Probably the most memorable moment of Bower’s career, though, is when he hopped in net for Sawchuk during the 1967 Cup Finals.
First, let’s take a moment to appreciate the quality of filming in 1967. (We’re lucky we can even get this, by the way, since games being recorded was still a fairly novel concept and it’s hard to find a lot of them).
By the time Bower actually hit the NHL, goaltenders were no longer staying planted in their crease as if there was an electric fence surrounding them – but Bower, who was born in 1924, still played a very in-net style of game. His most aggressive move was his iconic poke check – which is a far cry from the buffoonery we’d see out of netminders like Patrick Roy, Tim Thomas, and Ben Bishop in the most recent NHL era. Seeing Bower leave his net to play the puck was a rare and not very beautiful thing – he didn’t like doing it, and it showed.
For someone who literally never strayed beyond his posts, though, Bower was easily one of the most calm goaltenders in NHL history. As seen in the clip above, he’s not just able to win the game – he does it with all the confidence of someone who came into the game knowing that it was his to win. There’s a reason that nearly a third of Toronto’s Stanley Cup victories came with him in net – and it’s not just that he was both fierce and stupid enough to play a shot-blocking style of goaltending without a mask.
Bower was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976, the AHL Hall of Fame in 2006, and he’s one of the first players to be cast in bronze for the Toronto Legends Row outside the Air Canada Centre, after Ted Kennedy and Darryl Sittler.
We still call it the ‘Johnny Bower poke check’, and – although many goaltenders don’t use his style any longer – Bower made a very good case for why athletic, attack-first goaltending may not be the style that’s either the most effective or able to hold up with the most longevity.
He was once voted the best goaltender to ever wear a Leafs jersey, coming in above Curtis Joseph, Felix Potvin (sorry, Steve Dangle), and Ed Belfour – and he made Montreal Canadiens fans as angry in his day as Carey Price makes fans league-wide now. He’s currently the only goaltender alive to have won a Stanley Cup for the Leafs,
When asked why he’s so friendly with fans, Bower once laughed.
“These folks paid my salary at one time – maybe they didn’t, but their parents and grandparents did. It costs you nothing to stop and smile and say: ‘Nice to meet you.’ In Montreal, I’ve just said a little ‘Bonjour, comment ça va!’ ”
Hard to find players like him nowadays.