They came to his table in droves, offering Johnny Bower their photos, pucks, jerseys, miniature Stanley Cups — even a pair of vintage goaltending gloves.cOURTEsy JOhNNy bOwER cOLLEcTiON, FiLE Toronto Maple Leafs goaltenders Terry Sawchuk, left, and Johnny Bower share a happy moment during the mid-1960s.
Sadly, they didn’t bring a single bra. The Toronto Maple Leafs netminding legend still blushes about that one, a lovely 20-something woman having pulled a delicate, lacy number from a bag at a collectibles show a few years ago.
“First, she asked me to autograph a card, which I was happy to do,” Bower said Saturday during his Montreal signing. “And then she pulled a brassiere from a brown paper bag.
“Well, I couldn’t sign it. I asked her, ‘How do I know you’re not a lady of the night? How would it look for me to be signing that?’ ” he added. “I’m telling you, she got pretty mad at me.”
For 90 minutes, beneath an NHL Alumni cap, Bower signed his name, posed for photos, told tales and shook hands, extending a grip with soft, meaty paws of oversized knuckles and fingers that can’t decide the direction they’d like to take. For nearly a dozen seasons in Toronto, from 1958 through a final game in 1969, Bower was both cursed and appreciated by Montreal Canadiens fans, a goaltending robber of remarkable talent who won two Vezina trophies and four Stanley Cups with the archrival Maple Leafs.
He’d spent 10 seasons in the American Hockey League before arriving in the National Hockey League in 1953 as a 29-year-old rookie with the New York Rangers. The Maple Leafs claimed him from the AHL Cleveland Barons in the 1958 interleague draft; so began his Toronto career at age 34, well past the best-before date of many pros.
Bower won his first Vezina 50 years ago this spring, winning 33, losing 15 and tying 10 with two shutouts, a goals-against average of 2.50 and an unofficial save percentage of .923. He brought the lead-weight plaque to Montreal, along with a framed photo of then-NHL president Clarence Campbell presenting him the trophy.
“That was a few million pucks ago,” said a joking Bower, who would share his second Vezina four seasons later with Terry Sawchuk.
“I had a good team in front of me. (Coach) Punch Imlach had told me when I arrived, ‘Work hard in practice and I’ll put you in every game.’ ”
Team owner Harold Ballard was somewhat less generous.
“He wanted to send me to the minors, but Punch wouldn’t let him because of my age,” Bower recalled. “I guess Mr. Ballard was pretty happy with me, though, even if we didn’t speak a word until it was time to negotiate my contract.
“He’d ask, ‘Do you like your job?’ and I’d reply, ‘Yes, sir.’ He’d just say, ‘Well, then, get on the ice!’ “
Bower, then 42, and Sawchuk, 37, would backstop the fossilized 1967 Leafs over the Canadiens in the final pre-expansion Stanley Cup final, ruining Montreal’s plan to use the trophy as a centrepiece at Expo 67.
It is the most recent Leafs championship, and Bower is stunned — and more than a little proud — to learn he’s the only goaler alive to have won the Cup for Toronto.
“Some years back a fella of about 90 stopped me at a show in Toronto and told me, ‘The Leafs aren’t doing too well, are they?’ ” he said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to give ’em a little time,’ and he shot back, ‘It’s been 40 years, how much time do they need?!’ He was pumping me pretty good.
“I find it very flattering that they know me no matter where I go at home,” he said. “I guess the worry is when they don’t ask to talk to you. “These folks paid my salary at one time — maybe they didn’t, but their parents and grandparents did.”