Reading everyone’s memories of Johnny Bower has been overwhelming.
Truly saddening because the legendary goalie, who was ten times the Hall of Fame player off the ice as he was on it, is no longer among us. Yet at the same time heartwarming, knowing that the four-time Stanley Cup champion and most beloved Leaf of all-time touched so many lives with his endearing, jovial personality.
My personal favourite memory of Mr. Bower isn’t from my first time meeting him, when he was signing autographs with some Leafs alumni at Metro Hall in downtown Toronto. Or from when I interviewed him when his book “The China Wall” – co-written with Bob Duff – was launched at Brian McFarlane’s Total Hockey museum. Or from the last time I would hear his voice in person, prior to the Centennial Classic when he posed with Wayne Gretzky and five other hockey greats named to the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players list.
Rather, it’s a simplistic moment in time that I’m not expecting will generate a multitude of page views by sharing. But it’s forever special to me.
I was leaving one of the Sports Card Expo shows held semi-annually at Mississauga’s International Centre. As I was heading southbound on Airport Road, about to make a stop at a red light, I approached a Ford Lincoln (I think) in the lane to my right, with a Maple Leaf license plate that read “1BOWER.”
You would have to have been living under a cave to not realize who might be behind the wheel.
Sure enough, I saw the grandfatherly face of the man who wore Number One in the Leafs’ net for eleven seasons ending in 1969, winning two Vezina Trophies along the way. I gently tapped my horn, drew his attention, said “Hey Johnny!” and gave him a quick wave. Of course he couldn’t hear me, but in his genuine, welcoming manner, he waved back.
Moments later, I had made my away further ahead as we stayed in our respective lanes , and I waited to turn left while he was proceeding to continue straight. As the Lincoln came up beside me I quickly glanced to my right to see if he would do one final wave, and – in the instant that it took for his vehicle to pass mine – there he was looking back at me, smiling and waving.
That’s it. Simplicity in its purest form.
I never had a chance to play on a minor hockey team that received a pep talk from him, or (thankfully) was never the sick kid in a prolonged hospital stay that got a morale boost when The China Wall walked through the door.
But, that was Johnny. The circumstances under which you met didn’t matter. Whether you were at a celebrity hockey or golf tournament, or whether you’re just a pair of guys passing each other in your cars, he made you feel like you were special.
At the time of writing this story, the memorial details for Mr. Bower have yet to be announced. There is speculation that fittingly, Air Canada Centre will host a public tribute. You can bet that I’ll be there if the plans come to fruition.
Long-time NHL executive Lynn Patrick said it best. “If you didn’t like Johnny Bower, there’s not much hope for you.”
(photo credit: Kevin Shea, 2006)
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.