Johnny Bower became the poster boy for perseverance during his storied professional career, reaching legendary status in the AHL before finally getting a chance to star in the National Hockey League.
Born Nov. 8, 1924, Bower grew up in rural Saskatchewan, the only boy in a family of nine children. A friend gave him his first pair of skates, his dad shaved hockey sticks out of crooked tree branches, and he made goalie pads from an old mattress and pucks out of horse manure. But he still became one of the greatest goaltenders in hockey history.
Bower served four years in the Canadian Army during World War II, lying about his age and enlisting at 15. He soon began his professional hockey career, making his debut with the Cleveland Barons on opening night of the 1945-46 season.
Bower would share the goaltending duties in Cleveland during his first four seasons, in 1947-48 joining Roger Bessette to form one of the most formidable duos in AHL history. With Bower and Bessette manning the crease, Cleveland reeled off a 27-game unbeaten streak to end the regular season, then cruised to a Calder Cup championship, although Bower did not appear in the postseason.
In 1949-50, Bower became the Barons’ number-one goaltender, and he would go on to backstop Cleveland to two more titles in 1951 and 1953 before finally getting his first taste of the National Hockey League. He spent the entire 1953-54 season with the New York Rangers, but returned to the AHL and continued his dominance, winning three consecutive Les Cunningham Awards as the AHL’s most valuable player in 1956, 1957 and 1958.
Bower won another Calder Cup with the Providence Reds in 1956, led the AHL in wins a total of five times, and was named to six postseason AHL All-Star Teams, including five first-team selections. He also won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Award (then given to the goaltender with the lowest goals-against average in the league) on three occasions. On Oct. 23, 1956, in his first of two career All-Star Game appearances, Bower made 47 saves as the Reds shut out a team of AHL All-Stars, 4-0.
After the 1957-58 season, when he made a triumphant return to Cleveland and established career bests with a 2.17 GAA and eight shutouts, Bower was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the inter-league draft, and his AHL days were over. He would play an amazing 11 seasons with the Leafs, leading the team to three consecutive Stanley Cups from 1962-64 and a fourth in 1967 – at the age of 42.
Bower remains the winningest goaltender in American Hockey League history, with a remarkable record of 359-174-57 to his credit. His 45 career shutouts stood as the AHL record until 2016, and his league mark for longest streak without allowing a goal, shutting out his opponents for a span of 249:51, stood for 55 years until it was surpassed in 2012.
Bower’s number 1 was retired by the Cleveland Barons, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.
|Career AHL Statistics – Johnny Bower