TORONTO (May 18) — I felt extraordinarily privileged on Tuesday afternoon.
Not only did I spend time with the most popular and beloved figure in Toronto Maple Leafs history (pretty cool for a decades–long hockey fan; radio–reporter and writer), but I sat in the living–room of a Mississauga, Ont. home with a man and a woman — each in their 92nd year; each of sound body and mind.
The China Wall and his forever–doll.
It taught me about the leverage of an unconditional zeal for life… and, yes, a bit of luck.
Not that John and Nancy Bower haven’t undergone struggle. The goaltender of all four Stanley Cup teams under Punch Imlach in the 1960’s shuffles about today in mild–to–moderate discomfort — unable to straighten his once–agile body while recovering from a recent spill at his daughter’s home in Atlanta. Johnny’s soulmate of more than 68 years is a chiropractor’s dream, with a chronically–tender back that is soothed by the aid of a walker, and a sliding–chair mechanism — newly installed — adjacent to the stairwell of the couple’s home near Highway 407 and Britannia Rd. “I’ll use the darned thing, too,” admitted Nancy’s husband, after some arm–twisting. “But, first, I want to spray–paint it. I don’t like the [hospital–grey] color.”
And that’s roughly the extent of complaining you’ll hear from either Nancy or John.
She was born in Saskatoon on Jan. 3, 1924. He came around on Nov. 8 of that year, 80 miles northeast, in Prince Albert (“Dad likes older women,” joked daughter Cindy). They were married Nov. 3, 1948 in Cleveland, where John tended goal for the American Hockey League Barons (a banner depicting the Hall–of–Famer is strung, today, from the girders of Quicken Loans Arena, home of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers). She followed him from Saskatchewan through all of his pre–Toronto stops: Cleveland, New York, Vancouver and Providence, Rhode Island. Once in our town, they settled… and rejoiced together in the Stanley Cup dynasty of the 1960’s — Johnny sharing it with fellow goalkeepers Don Simmons and Terry Sawchuk.
NANCY AND JOHNNY BOWER — TUESDAY AFTERNOON — AT THEIR MISSISSAUGA, ONT. HOME.
What topic does a pair of 91–year–olds discuss today on a pleasant spring afternoon?
Well, for one, dentures.
“Nancy, I gotta go see that surgeon–guy again; this is no good,” John says, fumbling with his lower palate. The hockey legend hasn’t possessed his original teeth since Louis St. Laurent was prime minister of Canada; Harry Truman president of the United States. It was sometime toward the end of World War II that John’s chicklets were forever scrambled. As of late, he’s had difficulty keeping the bottom–falsies in place. It effects his speech and, occasionally, his ability to chomp on food. A dental–surgeon recently tried to install a pair of “clamps”, but they didn’t hold. “We’ll have another consult, John, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” Nancy warns. “He tried before and [the clamps] came apart.” I suggested Poli–Grip, but to no avail.
On Tuesday afternoon, I arrived at the Bowers as they were entertaining their adorable, but cranky four–month old great–granddaughter. Harper Switch is the first child born to Staci and Brad Switch. Staci is John and Nancy’s granddaughter; her husband, the son–in–law of Cindy Bower–Sudeyko, who now lives in Atlanta. As I entered the Bower home, I followed the baby–wailing into the living–room. After a quick kiss–and–hug with Nancy, I flopped to the floor and tried to settle the agitated infant. My goofiness worked and the child began to coo. With that accomplished, Johnny and I walked half–a–block to the entrance of a park named in his honor two years ago. The old goalie moves about today at roughly a 30–degree angle to the ground. “I was in that darned crouch on the ice for so many years, I haven’t been able to come out of it.”
Seconds later, he posed next to the big “JOHNNY BOWER PARK” sign and then carefully studied the accompanying photo–plaque. “Nice to see that no Montreal fans have pored gunk over my picture,” he said, half–jokingly. Johnny is still haunted by the Canadiens, nearly 60 years after last encountering a Maurice Richard slap–shot. “Oh, I was happy to see the end of the Rocket; he gave me bloody fits.”
NANCY STRAIGHTENS HER HUSBAND’S COLLAR AS LITTLE HARPER SWITCH LAYS CONTENTEDLY ON THE FLOOR. GREAT–GRANDPA THEN HAPPILY POSES (BELOW) WITH THE FOUR–MONTH–OLD BABY.
Back in the house, Staci and Brad soon packed up and were on their way with Harper, who was having another tirade. “She must need a nap, or some food,” I offered. Nancy saw her grandchildren out and for the next half–hour or so, it was just me and the goalie. There were ten million topics I could have raised during that time in the living–room, but John wanted to talk about former hockey teammates and rivals. Which was perfectly okay by me. I brought along a bound collection of a dozen Maple Leaf Gardens programs from the 1966–67 season, when the Leafs were last champion. John was on the cover of a special playoff edition from Apr. 27, 1967: Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final against Montreal. In the blank upper–right corner, he scrawled a personalized autograph to yours truly — one that I shall always cherish:
Bower has just recently recovered from a physical set–back that worried Nancy and his children. While visiting daughter Cindy in Atlanta, he fell and dislocated a shoulder. Once home in Toronto, the pain intensified and doctors placed the 91–year–old on a regiment of the powerful narcotic, Oxycontin. “No one knew whether it helped my father’s pain because he was mostly unresponsive,” Cindy recalled. “That drug turned him into a vegetable. He couldn’t stand up, walk or eat much. I figured I’d better come up to Toronto.” Stubborn mule that he is, however, Johnny tapered off the medication and soon recovered his appetite and strength. Cindy stayed for a week and returned to Dixie. She’ll be back in June for the summer.
“Yeah, I was feeling pretty rough for awhile,” John confessed. “Now, Eddie Shack is mad at me because I gave my [scheduled] appearances to Bobby Baun. Eddie called and said, ‘John, you and I went through all those Stanley Cup battles. We’ve been great friends forever. Why couldn’t you give me your appearances?’ I said, ‘Well, Eddie, I’m also close with Boomer [Baun’s nickname] and, besides, he doesn’t swear at events. You come out with those four and five–letter words. My wife is there, and other women; Jeez, I want to crawl away and hide.’ So, we’re not speaking right now. But, Eddie will get over it. He always does.”
While looking through the programs, we came upon the advertisement for Elmer’s Glue-All that Johnny endorsed throughout the 1960’s. “Did you get any money for that?” I wondered. “Are you kidding?” he replied, “I think they once gave us a box of the stuff. It was all over the place… we were sticking to furniture; the car; you name it.” Overhearing our conversation from the dining room, Nancy interjected. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, John, they never gave us a thing,” she said. “We had to buy it. Players weren’t allowed to accept any money or products back then. That’s how one–sided it was for the owners.”
THE UBIQUITOUS ELMER’S GLUE–ALL AD IN THE MAPLE LEAF GARDENS PROGRAM OF THE 1960’s.
JOHNNY HAS APPEARED ON THE COVER OF SEVERAL HOCKEY BOOKS. HERE, HE IS PICTURED FACING THREE OF HIS MOST–FORMIDABLE OPPONENTS: GORDIE HOWE OF DETROIT; BOBBY HULL OF CHICAGO AND JEAN BELIVEAU OF THE CANADIENS. THAT’S AB McDONALD OF PITTSBURGH (BOTTOM–RIGHT) IN FRONT OF JOHN AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS DURING THE EXPANSION SEASON OF 1967–68.
At one point in our conversation, I asked John if he could name his best friend from a lifetime of hockey. “I’d have to say Bobby Baun,” he replied. “We’re still close to this day and he sure blocked a lot of shots for me during our games together. I saw him recently and he wasn’t walking so good. He said, ‘See what I did for you? All those blocked shots and look at me now.’ Boomer has always been a great friend. So has George Armstrong. We roomed together on the road for nearly 10 years and I’ll never forgive him for some of the stunts he pulled. But, the Chief is top–notch — a great captain and wonderful person to this day.”
Part of 1960’s Maple Leafs lore is the afternoon in which Armstrong sneaked into the dressing room during practice and switched Bower’s dentures. “I remember putting in the teeth later on and they were floating around in my mouth,” John has often recalled. “Turns out George got a pair of dentures from a cadaver at a funeral home. Oh, I nearly fainted when I realized what he had done.” I asked Johnny for another Armstrong tale. “We were in our hotel room in New York one day watching a Hopalong Cassidy movie,” he remembered. “The white men were really having their way with the Indians. So, George got out of bed; walked over to the TV, and turned it off. Just like that. I said, ‘Chief, what are you doing? I’m enjoying the movie.’ He got back into bed without saying a word. I had to go to the bathroom a few minutes later and when I came out, the movie was on again. George was sitting at the foot of his bed with a big smile on his face. I looked at the TV and realized the Indians had turned the table and were beating up on the white men. No wonder he was happy.” Armstrong was born to an Ojibwa mother and Scottish–Canadian father.
BEST BUDS: ONE OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR IMAGES TO EVER COME FROM MY TRUSTY NIKON. BOB BAUN AND JOHNNY BOWER EMBRACING AT AN ALUMNI LUNCH IN MARKHAM ONT., DEC. 1, 2014.
At another point during the discussion on Tuesday, Johnny grew introspective. Part of being 91 years old is out–living friends — many of whom were younger. “I suppose my time is coming, but a lot of former teammates and opponents have died in the past few years,” he said. “Guys like Jean Beliveau, Pat Quinn, Murray Oliver, Andy Bathgate, Bert Olmstead. And, I heard that Charlie Hodge recently passed as well.
“It’s sad for me to see these people go. But, I guess that comes with living to a ripe, old age.”
The 1967 Stanley Cup team has been remarkably resilient.
Only six of 21 players in the Maple Leafs team–photo from that year have died — a couple of them as a result of accidents: Terry Sawchuk, unintentionally, from an altercation with New York Rangers teammate Ron Stewart in 1970 and Tim Horton in a single–car crash on the Queen Elizabeth Way near St. Catharines, Ont. in February 1974. Allan Stanley, Marcel Pronovost, Aut Erickson and Milan Marcetta died of natural causes. Among those still with us are Bower; Red Kelly, 88; Armstrong, 86; Bob Pulford, 80; Baun, Red Kelly and Larry Hillman (all 79); Frank Mahovlich, 78 and Dave Keon, 76. “We had a really good group — a lot of truly nice fellows who loved to be together and win Stanley Cups,” Bower smiled.
SNAPPING AND POSING WITH THE LEAFS GOALTENDING LEGEND AT THE ENTRANCE TO HIS PARK.
Beyond those with and against whom he played during his career… there is Nancy. Together for nearly seven decades and as close and loving today as when they were teenagers. Left unsaid as I sat among them on Tuesday was the curiosity of how one could possibly go on without the other. Their children think about it often. “I know the time is coming,” said Cindy. “But, I try not to dwell on it. I just feel fortunate to still have them at their age. And, for each to be relatively well. It’s a blessing that I count every day.”
Nancy is a proponent of the simple and understated.
“It’s about enjoying life; coping with the inevitable ups and downs — especially at our age — and not worrying about what will be,” she said. “We love nothing more than sitting in our back–yard and watching nature. And, of course, spending time with our children and grandchildren.
“If that won’t keep you young, nothing will.”
JOHN, FOREVER SIGNING. AND NANCY, FOREVER SQUEEZING.
JOHN, AT FAR LEFT IN SECOND ROW, WILL ALWAYS BE HAILED FOR HIS LEADING ROLE WITH THE FOUR–TIME STANLEY CUP–CHAMPION MAPLE LEAFS — IN 1962, 1963, 1964 (ABOVE) AND 1967 (BELOW).