Johnny Bower lied about his age to get into the army (he said he was older) and to play in the NHL (he said he was younger), but today he’s fully prepared to embrace every one of his 90 years on Earth.
At some point today, the Hall of Famer and former Leaf great will blow out 90 candles on his birthday cake, without much of a problem. He still gets around really well, even straps the blades on occasionally, and approaches life with the same vigor he did 50 years ago when he was helping the Toronto Maple Leafs win Stanley Cups. He’ll mark to occasion in a small private party that will include Nancy, his wife of 66 years, and his children and grandchildren. Then, true to form, Bower will head to the Air Canada Centre to watch the only two NHL teams he ever played for when the New York Rangers visit the Maple Leafs.
“I looked at Nancy and said, ‘Can I go?’ “ Bower said enthusiastically. “And she said, ‘Oh yeah, go and see the game.’ “
Bower is the third-oldest living Leaf behind Howie Meeker, who turned 91 last Tuesday, and 95-year-old Wally Stanowski. But there’s little doubt he’s one of the most popular players ever to wear the uniform. Any Leaf who was on the four Stanley Cup teams in the 1960s is still revered in Toronto and Bower is still a regular at Leaf home games and gets out to a good number of charity events and signings. That’s mostly because he can’t seem to sit still.
“If I stayed home and watched television all the time, I’d be dead in a month,” Bower said. “I’ve got to go out and walk and exercise at home. I can still touch my toes. Up and down, up and down.”
Perhaps one of the factors in Bower’s longevity is that the NHL miles didn’t start piling up for him until later in life. Bower toiled in the minors for years and didn’t play an NHL game until he was almost 30 years old. After one season with the Rangers, he bounced around the minors again and didn’t become a full-time NHLer until the Leafs picked him up when he was 35. By that time, Bower preferred to stay in Cleveland because he was secure with his family and had post-hockey job offers, but he also had a childhood dream of getting his name on the Stanley Cup and the only way that could be fulfilled was for him to play in the NHL.
“I finally decided to go when Mr. Hendy (the GM of the Cleveland Barons in the American League) told me, ‘John, I’ll put it in your contract that if you can’t make it in Toronto, you’re coming back to Cleveland,’ “ Bower said. “Hooray! That’s what I said. I guess I made a pretty good decision.”
Indeed. Bower went on to forge a Hall of Fame career with four Cups and make an indelible mark on the franchise. When the organization conceived its Legends Row statues to salute its past greats, Bower joined Ted Kennedy and Darryl Sittler as the first three to be honored. He was the oldest goaltender to win his first Stanley Cup when he did so in 1962 and is the oldest goalie overall to have his name on the Cup, something he achieved five years later. Even after retiring, Bower has remained remarkably healthy, something he attributes to Nancy.
“Thank God I’ve got a wonderful wife. I wouldn’t trade her for all the tea in China,” Bower said. “We have our ups and downs like everyone else, but we always iron them out before we go to bed. I kiss her goodnight and say, ‘I’m sorry Sweetheart. You were right and I was wrong,’ and I always get a smile.”
As for the age thing, well, that’s just a number. After all, Bower lied about his age for years when he played, thinking that if he told people he was born in 1928 he’d have a longer career in the NHL.
“I was almost 45 years old and still playing in the league, but it caught up to me,” Bower said. “Punch (Leafs GM Imlach) said to me I couldn’t see and I said, ‘I can see, but I don’t want to wear a mask He said to me, ‘It doesn’t matter if you can see or not, you’re not stopping anything anyway,’ and that was it.”