If you ask any Maple Leafs fan who the best player has been for their franchise over the last 100 years, the answer will most likely be dominated by the great China Wall himself, Johnny Bower. The 11 year Toronto veteran passed away December 26th after succumbing to the effects of pneumonia. Today, the Maple Leafs are paying tribute to the late goaltender in a ceremony celebrating his life at the Air Canada Centre.
I'm not old enough to have seen Bower play but of the tons of videos I've watched, I don't recall watching a player with as much grit and guts. Frank Mahavolich called him a "workhorse" and that is exactly what you got with Johnny Bower. Punch Imlach said that Bower was the best athlete he had ever coached or seen in his life. His athletic ability and toughness was unparalleled, especially when you consider the time that he played in.
Johnny became the master of the poke check, developing the ability to launch his stick toward a streaking opponent, sometimes taking them out along with the puck. The great Jean Beliveau even once said that Johnny was the toughest goalie to deke against due to his signature move. His talents helped the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, led him to the All Star team in 1961, and helped him win the Vezina in 1961 and 1965. In 1969, he retired at the age of 45 (the oldest goalie in hockey history) after a knee injury took him out of the lineup. In 1976 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2014, he was selected #7 all time for the Maple Leafs and is also now a member of the NHL's 100 Greatest Players of all time. In 2016 his sweater number #1 was retired and put into the rafters of the Air Canada Centre.
Johnny Bower is not only considered one of the best to play the game but also one of the best people to be around and one of the best ambassadors of the game. He not only served the great game of hockey, but also his country (by lying about his age during WWII...he was only 15), his community, and his family. He was a very humble man who never could understand why people liked him so much. Those reasons most certainly include that smile he always carried and the kindness he showed to everyone he met. Very few players that have taken the ice over the years have been as well liked, well respected and spoken as highly of as Johnny Bower.
Lynn Patrick, former New York Ranger and long time Leafs executive once said , "if you don't like Johnny Bower, there's not much hope for you."
I don't have a ton of Bower cards (which I should change) although there have been many produced in the last 30 years as part of tribute sets, retro sets, or legends. I just wanted to pull out a few and showcase in tribute to the late, great netminder.