June 30, 2017

Ukrainian pro hockey update

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Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower in a photo illustration released by the NHL as it honors its 100 greatest players.


Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower in a photo illustration released by the NHL as it honors its 100 greatest players.

Ukrainian hockey hero: Johnny Bower

Johnny Bower was named one of The NHL’s 100, the top 100 players in the history of the National Hockey League’s 100 years of existence. This is the second in a series featuring the six Ukrainian hockey stars selected to this elite group.

The National Hockey League recently selected him as one of the game’s top-15 goaltenders of all time, yet he didn’t make it in the world’s top circuit until he was 35 years old, as a rookie with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1959. This was after a brief stint with the New York Rangers in which he failed to impress.

Back in those olden days of the “Original Six” there were only six full-time goaltending positions in the NHL as clubs did not yet carry back-up netminders. It was not simply being good enough to stop pucks at an elite level – opportunities were quite scarce.

Bower’s chance finally came about when the Punch Imlach regime took over in Toronto. The combination of Imlach’s shrewd management and Bower’s prowess in net propelled the Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cup championships. During his career, Johnny posted a goals against average of 2.52, winning 251 of 552 games. He was selected an NHL All-Star five times and shared the Vezina Trophy (top goalie) in 1965.

It was a decade-long struggle in Toronto during the 1950s until Bower came aboard in 1959. Suddenly the team became a winning force, going to the Stanley Cup finals in his first season, where a near-perfect Montreal squad bested the Leafs. Two years later came Bower’s career year: 33 victories and a 2.50 goals against average. A personally rewarding year resulted in team disappointment when Toronto was quickly bounced from the 1961 playoffs.

The setback proved temporary as Bower’s play in goal helped carry the Maple Leafs to three successive Stanley Cup championships in 1962, 1963 and 1964. By then he was the toast of the town, famously admired as the crazy goalie that regularly would dive head first into the skates of an opposing forward in an attempt to poke-check the puck away. Of course, back then, goaltenders did not wear protective masks, which made Bower’s diving even more dangerous and illogical.

His popularity grew by leaps and bounds thanks to Hockey Night in Canada, a weekly national television broadcast featuring an NHL contest, usually involving Toronto. At the time, an entire country could acquaint itself with the wily wonder tending goal for the Leafs.

The Bower-Sawchuk tandem

Bower’s tenure in Toronto lasted another five years, through 1969. After the three Cup-winning years, a graying Bower was relegated to sharing netminding chores with a compatriot, the venerable Terry Sawchuk, himself enjoying the twilight years of a superb career. The 1964-1965 season was Bower’s 20th pro campaign, but was recounted as a career highlight because he got to share time with Sawchuk. At age 40, Johnny was not too old to learn some new tricks of the trade that he picked up watching and practicing with perhaps the greatest goalie of all time.

Goalie Terry Sawchuk, when he played for the Maple Leafs.

Goalie Terry Sawchuk, when he played for the Maple Leafs.

The duo shocked the hockey world by going all the way to the 1967 Stanley Cup final. In the year that Canada celebrated 100 years of nationhood, Toronto and Montreal were matched up in an all-Canadian final series. The Maple Leafs squad, comprising mostly old veterans, was a huge underdog against the powerhouse Canadiens outfit, only to prove the experts wrong by willing its way to one final title. Ironically, this was the franchise’s last Cup triumph and is held in very high esteem to this very day by diehard Leafs fans.

Toronto’s Stanley Cup final win over Montreal featured a squad full of 30-somethings who had survived a heated battle despite a slew of serious injuries. Playing one more game in the series would have probably resulted in a Leafs loss.

Retirement finally came for Bower in 1969 with a dutiful enshrinement into Hockey’s Hall of Fame seven years later. A true fan favorite, Bower continues to be one of the most popular Maple Leafs ever.

The early days

The young man born as John Kishkan almost encountered tragedy after lying about his age because of a desire to fight for his country in World War II. Johnny was originally listed as part of the 6,000 soldier mission to invade Normandy at the port of Dieppe. The end result of this disaster saw some 3,400 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Johnny was spared from the mission because of a respiratory infection that had infected his company of infantrymen. Eighteen at the time, he was spared his freedom and life along with some eight others in his company.

During his lengthy military commitment, Johnny’s hands degenerated from severe arthritis, eventually leading to a release from the army. The fact that he was able to hold a goalie stick, let alone play any level of a sport like hockey, was nearly beyond belief. Later in his career Bower admitted his stick hand would swell up to the point it would take him an hour to open it up again and regain full feeling.

Arthritis aside, Bower went on to be one of hockey’s most efficient and smooth goalies after persevering and paying his dues for a long time. It took 13 seasons of proving himself in the minor leagues before he earned a spot in the NHL. The American Hockey League anointed him its MVP and top goaltender three times. His sole season with the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver organization also saw him earn top net-minder honors.

In essence, Johnny Bower enjoyed a pair of superlative careers stopping pucks. First came the minor league circuit with some 13 years of riding buses, followed by 11 seasons of trains and planes with the NHL’s Leafs. His pro hockey career of defending his net against opposing skaters’ shots followed his military stretch, where he defended his allies against enemy artillery. He survived both with much proficiency and some serious luck.

Bower bits: Johnny played his junior hockey in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (also his birthplace), having paid his dues with the AHL’s Cleveland Barons and Providence Reds. In January 2004, he was featured on a postage stamp as part of an NHL All-Stars collection. In 2005, the Royal Canadian Mint featured Bower on a non-circulating 50-cent coin as part of a four-coin Leafs legend set. In 2007, Bower received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. His statue, along with 11 other great Leafs players, sits outside Air Canada Center. He holds the Toronto franchise record for most community appearances by a Leafs alumnus. Born November 8, 1924, he is 92 years young. He changed his name from Kishkan to Bower when he first turned pro to make it easier for sportswriters.

Ihor Stelmach may be reached at iman@sfgsports.com

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