January 21, 2012

Johnny Bower: A Goalie For All Ages


Johnny Bower, "The Grandfather of all Maple Leafs fans," needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest goaltenders of all time, and, even though he last starred with the Leafs 40 years ago, one of the most popular players ever.

But one thing no one was ever sure of was his age.

Bower did not make the NHL on a full time basis until he was in his mid 30s, largely because he played back in the Original Six era where back up goalies were not common and there was only 6 NHL goaltending jobs. Bower toiled in the minor leagues for 12 seasons, finally making the Leafs at age 34. Once he finally made the big leagues, he did not retire until he was past 44!

Maurice "Moe" Roberts is the only goalie to play in the NHL at an older age, appearing in a game just shy of his 46th birthday. Bower almost beat that, too, as on January 9th, 1980, he signed a one game contract to back up in an emergency situation. He never had to play, and in fact was never needed. Vincent Tremblay, the minor league call up, made it to the game in time despite a harried travel schedule. At that time Bower was 55 years old.

Oh but his exact age was always a mystery. Legend always had it he was actually a few years older than he actually was. He always looked older than he was, even as a young man. He was nicknamed the China Wall not because of his brick wall-like goaltending but his ancient age. When he made the NHL customs guards along the US-Canada border believed he was too old to be a hockey player, and sometimes tried to refuse giving him the complimentary rubber stamp pass most hockey players got when crossing the line.

Bower first began lying about his age when he enlisted to join the Canadian military in World War II. He was just 15 when he enlisted. He served 4 years, never seeing combat action, and when he came back he was still eligible to play one more year of junior hockey!

It's a good thing the Prince Albert hockey authorities had record of his age, because nobody else did. Not even Bower. Well into adulthood he never had a birth certificate to prove his actual age. The jovial goalie always found the questions over his age amusing and he played along, often contradicting his actual age so often that occasionally he actually forgot his own real age!

It was not until late in his career that Bower finally secured his birth certificate. The reason? If he could prove he was 45 years old, his NHL pension would kick in. But without proof, the NHL would not pay up. Bower finally relented, and revealed his actual birth date.

In his autobiography The China Wall he includes a photograph of his re-issued birth certificate. You will notice the birth certificate is of course issued to John William Bower. But that was not his birth name. No, he was born as John William Kiszkan. In fact, when he first turned pro with Cleveland of the AHL, he was still known as Kiszkan. He changed his name because "there was a separation in the family later on in my youth, and I eventually decided to choose my own name, which was Bower."

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