TORONTO (June 10) — The news came after a morning visit to the doctor. Delivered by his grandson and name–sake. “I’d gotten a call from Sportsnet while Grandpa was out,” said Johnny Bower III, in town from his home in Montreal. “They told me about Gordie’s passing. When Grandpa and Grandma (Nancy) came back, I delivered the info. Grandma hugged Johnny and she seemed close to tears. Grandpa was a bit more stoic.
“But, the sadness will come out in him later.”
As it has in all of us today.
Mr. Hockey is gone. And, there will never be another.
For Johnny Bower–the–first — monolithic Toronto Maple Leafs goalie of the 1960’s — it is yet another loss… among many in his infinite hockey circle. Just three weeks ago, I sat with John and Nancy Bower in their Mississauga, Ont. home. Johnny waxed nostalgic about former teammates and opponents now in heaven’s cradle. Jean Beliveau. Allan Stanley. Pat Quinn. Andy Bathgate. All gone in the past 19 months. And, all younger than the living legend. Then, today, his life–long friend, Gordie Howe. “Going through this comes with the territory,” Bower, 91, said to me over the phone. “I suppose my time is coming as well. But, it’s sad to see these fellows pass. Thankfully, the younger people keep me going. I got a letter the other day from a 10–year–old kid in Edmonton. He wanted an autographed photo. He said, ‘Mr. Bower, you were a good goalie but not as good as Glenn Hall.’ I couldn’t stop laughing. But, yes, days like today make me sad.”
Johnny Bower and Gordie Howe were province–mates from Saskatchewan — the former, born Nov. 8, 1924 in Prince Albert; the latter, Mar. 31, 1928 in Floral, 17 kilometers southeast of Saskatoon. Never teammates in the National Hockey League, they squared off against once another during Johnny’s career with the New York Rangers (1953–54) and the Maple Leafs (1958–59 to 1969–70). Gordie famously toiled with the Detroit Red Wings between 1946–47 and 1970–71. Twice, they met in the Stanley Cup final — Bower’s Toronto club prevailing in 1963 and 1964. Forever, they were fishing pals; spending hockey summers together at the cottage and Bower’s Big Boy restaurant in Waskaseiu, Sask. — nestled within Prince Albert National Park.
When they last saw one another, I was on hand as well — Dec. 31, 2013 at Comerica Park in Detroit, home of the baseball Tigers. The Maple Leafs and Red Wings alumni played a friendly on a makeshift rink before a sold–out audience of more than 42,000. John and Gordie sat out the game, but huddled together in the New Year’s Eve chill — sharing wisecracks and smiles. “Yup, that was the last time I was with Gordie,” Bower confirmed. “I did speak to him on the phone a few times later — before he had his stroke [in Oct. 2014].
“Even then, it was hard for him to hold a conversation.”
LAST MOMENTS TOGETHER: GORDIE HOWE (LEFT) AND JOHNNY BOWER AT COMERICA PARK IN DETROIT ON THE AFTERNOON OF DEC. 31, 2013. EX–LEAFS GOALIE DOUG FAVELL IS AT FAR–LEFT.
Bower has been well–aware of Howe’s health–quarrel in the past 1½ years; the grace of stem–cell treatment prolonging Mr. Hockey’s life. “I know it wasn’t easy for Gordie, so today is a blessing in a way,” Bower said. “I’m happy he isn’t struggling anymore. He and [his late wife] Colleen are together once again.”
Johnny has a book–full of stories about the summers spent fishing with Howe in Prince Albert National Park. But, one in particular stands out. “He was just as lucky catching fish as scoring goals,” Bower recalled. “Way better at fishing than me. One time, he caught an eight or nine–pound Walleye. Then he cleaned it; filet’d it, and ate the whole darned thing in one sitting. He left me with a piece of the tail. I can still see him devouring that giant fish… and some peas. That’s the only vegetable he ever ate. What an appetite!”
Their kinship extended to the ice.
“After scoring on me, Gord would skate by and say, ‘Way to go, Red Light,'” Bower recalled. “He always called me ‘Red Light’. I’d look at him and say, ‘Don’t worry — I’ll get you yet.’ And, I did. We beat Detroit twice for the Stanley Cup. But, Gord was always graceful in defeat. A true gentleman.”
ICONIC PHOTO (LEFT) OF GORDIE HOWE WITH HIS ARM AROUND JOHNNY BOWER AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, MOMENTS AFTER TORONTO DEFEATED DETROIT FOR THE 1963 STANLEY CUP. FRANK SELKE JR. IS ABOUT TO CONDUCT A LIVE TV INTERVIEW. HOWE AND BOWER FACED ONE ANOTHER (BOTH WEARING PREDOMINANTLY–COLORED UNIFORMS) IN A 1965 EXHIBITION GAME AT THE GARDENS.
IN ONE OF HIS MEMOIRS (BELOW), HOWE SPOKE ABOUT HIS LONG–TIME PAL AND RIVAL.
GORDIE HOWE HOCKEY CARDS
I have 14 in my collection — from 1954–55 to 1979–80:
1954–55 / 1964–65 “Tall Boys”
1965–66 / 1966–67 All–Star
1970–71 (above — last with Detroit) / 1979–80 (below — last hockey card)