Although Johnny Bower's nickname was "the China Wall," it might better have been "Perseverance," for although he had a Hall of Fame career in the NHL, it certainly didn't adhere to the traditional notion of what a life in pro hockey should be about.
Bower grew up in rural Saskatchewan, the only boy in a family of nine children. He was dirt poor and never had the proper equipment. He made his goalie pads from an old mattress; he made pucks, "cow pies," from horse manure; his dad would look for suitably crooked tree branches to shave into sticks; a friend gave him his first pair of skates because his father couldn't afford to buy him a pair; and still he refined his game to become one of the best goalies of all time. In 1940, when he was 15 years old, Bower lied about his age for the first time, though not the last, in order to enlist in the army. He was sent to a training camp in British Columbia and was eventually called up by the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders and shipped to England. Four years later, he became sick during his service and was discharged in 1944, at which time he resumed his junior career with Prince Albert.
From there he began a career in the American Hockey League, which is where most goalies start out. The difference was that Bower played for Providence and Cleveland for an incredible eight full seasons before playing a single NHL game. In 1953-54, he played the entire season for the Rangers, but then spent most of the next four seasons right back in the minors, having lost the starting job in New York to Gump Worsley. During his 14 years in the minors, he won the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL's best player three times and the Hap Holmes Award for top goaltender another three times.
Bower's big break came in the summer of 1958 when the Leafs, for whatever reason, claimed him from Cleveland at the Intra-League Draft. Bower was at first reluctant to join the Leafs, even though they had finished in last place the previous season, telling them he could be of no help to the team. It was only after being threatened with suspension that he showed up for training camp that fall, and within days he had established himself as the team's number one goalie at age 34. He was to play a total of 12 years with the Leafs.
Bower, like his other five Original Six brethren, became famous for his fearless play. Maskless, he never shied away from an attacking player and in fact patented the most dangerous move a goalie can make - the poke-check. Diving head-first into the skates of an attacking player at full speed, Bower would routinely flick the puck off that player's stick and out of harm's way. One time he got a skate in his cheek, knocking a tooth out through his cheek. He suffered innumerable cuts to his mouth and lips and lost virtually every tooth in his mouth from sticks and pucks, but almost to his last game, he never wore a mask. And under the confident eye of coach Punch Imlach, Bower got better and better. He led the Leafs into the playoffs his first season with a miracle comeback ending to the schedule, and then lost two finals in a row before winning three consecutive Stanley Cup championships - 1962 to 1964.
At this time, Bower's career seemed precarious. Imlach noticed that Bower was having trouble with long shots and ordered his keeper to undergo an eye exam. Sure enough, he was short-sighted. But Bower refused to retire and kept right on going, teaming with Terry Sawchuk to win the memorable 1967 Cup with Toronto's Over-the-Hill Gang of players, led by the 43-year-old Bower himself.
After he retired in 1970 as the oldest goalie ever to play in the NHL, Bower remained with the Leafs for many years as a scout and then goalie coach, putting the pads on and helping Leaf goalies in practice. At one injury-riddled time during the 1979-1980 season, he came within a whisker, at age 56, of dressing as the team's backup. A member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Bower is one of only a select few to have his number honored by the Leafs.