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Johnny Bower, 93, oldest fulltime NHL goalie

Mr. Bower, who was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2007, played until he was 45 years old.WARREN TODA/EPA/Shutterstock/file 2007

Johnny Bower, the Hall of Fame goaltender who helped take the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cup championships in the 1960s and became the oldest full-time goalie in National Hockey League history, playing until he was 45, died Tuesday. He was 93.

The cause was pneumonia, his family said in a statement. He had been living in suburban Toronto.

Breaking into pro hockey when the NHL had only six teams, each generally carrying a single goaltender, Mr. Bower played for eight seasons in the minors before making his NHL debut with the New York Rangers at age 29. After playing with them for one full season, he spent four more seasons in the minors before finally arriving in the NHL to stay with the Maple Leafs.


Mr. Bower was one of hockey’s most talented and durable goalies. Facing flying pucks without donning a mask until his final full season, he lost almost all his teeth and needed at least 200 stitches in his face. He came out of his net to dive at opposing players on breakaways, exposing his face to their sharpened skates as he wielded his stick to poke-check the puck away.

Mr. Bower played for Maple Leaf teams that won three consecutive Stanley Cups, from 1962 to 1964, and then captured the NHL championship again in 1967, the last time Toronto won the title. He received the league’s Vezina Trophy for outstanding goaltending in the 1960-1961 season and shared the trophy with Terry Sawchuk for 1964-1965, when they split the Leafs’ goaltending duties. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.

“Glenn Hall, Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante, Johnny Bower — they were the heroes of my childhood,” Ken Dryden, the Montreal Canadiens’ Hall of Fame goalie, wrote in his book “The Game” (1983). “Performing before my adolescent eyes, they did unimaginable things in magical places. Everything they did was braver and better than I had ever seen before.”


John William Bower was born on Nov. 8, 1924, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the only boy in a family of nine children. He played hockey as a child on frozen ponds with a goalie stick his father shaped out of a tree branch, pads made from an old mattress, and pucks carved out of horse manure.

He once told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that he had played as a boy in temperatures of 45 degrees below zero: “We had our ear muffs on, oh we froze our feet, we froze our ears, we froze our toes, we froze everything you can think of.”

After eight seasons in the American Hockey League, mostly with the Cleveland Barons, Mr. Bower joined the Rangers in 1953, when he replaced Gump Worsley, the NHL’s rookie of the year the previous season.

Mr. Bower played well for a fifth-place team, but the Rangers brought Worsley back to start the 1954-1955 season. Except for two more brief stints with the Rangers, Mr. Bower was a minor leaguer until the Maple Leafs obtained him in 1958.

Mr. Bower was one of the Leafs’ most popular players on teams that included stars like George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich, and Sawchuk. He became something of a pop culture figure in 1965 when he recorded a holiday children’s song, “Honky the Christmas Goose,” with proceeds going to charity.


Mr. Bower was 45 years, 1 month, and 2 days old when he played in his last NHL game, in December 1969. He was the oldest goalie in NHL history except for Moe Roberts, a Chicago Black Hawks trainer, who was just short of his 46th birthday when he replaced injured goaltender Harry Lumley in a game against the Detroit Red Wings in November 1951.

Mr. Bower was a four-time All-Star, recorded 37 NHL shutouts and had a 2.51 goals-against average, leading the league in that category three times. After retiring, he was a goaltending coach and scout for the Maple Leafs.

Mr. Bower leaves his wife, Nancy; his son, John Jr.; his daughters, Cindy and Barbara; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. A decade after his last game, Mr. Bower almost made a comeback. When the Maple Leafs’ number one goalie, Mike Palmateer, was hurt and his backup, Paul Harrison, had the flu, coach Punch Imlach asked Mr. Bower to suit up in case minor-league goalie Vincent Tremblay did not arrive in time for a game with the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 9, 1980.

Mr. Bower signed a one-game contract, although, as he told The Montreal Gazette long afterward, his wife told him, “You’re 55 and you’re out of your mind.”

As Mr. Bower recalled it, “All of a sudden, Palmateer and Harrison are thinking, ‘If this old crock is coming back, one of us should get better.’ ” Mr. Bower remained in the locker room, in uniform, when Tremblay started the game. Tremblay yielded four early goals, then was replaced by Harrison in a 5-3 loss.


“I thought that had I gotten into the game I’d have been bombarded,” Mr. Bower recalled. “Or maybe not. I think my teammates would have tried hard for me.”