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Johnny Bower's Long, Strange Trip

By Arnold Bailey
Providence Journal Collector's Corner
Published Sunday, July 23, 2006

Johnny Bower took some unusual turns during his trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame, including a detour that brought a championship to Rhode Island and a pair of vintage pads to a young goaltender here.

At the beginning of his trip, Bower seemed an unlikely future Hall of Famer. As a kid in rural Saskatchewan in Canada, his first goalie pads were made from a mattress, and his stick was fashioned from a crooked tree branch. Later, he got bogged down in the minors, spending eight seasons there before playing his first National Hockey League game. Then, he found himself back to the minors for four more years.

But the fearless, and mask-less, goaltender finally made it big, winning four Stanley Cups (symbolizing the league champion) and two Vezina Trophies (as the league?s top goalie) during a 15-season NHL career that led to his Hall of Fame induction. 

And, along the way, he made a huge impact in Rhode Island, leading the 1955-56 Providence Reds to that franchise?s last American Hockey League championship. During that exciting season, Bower was named the league?s most-valuable player and led a Reds? team that also featured Zellio Toppazzini as the AHL?s scoring champ with 113 points and linemate Camille Henry as the top goal scorer with 50. 

The 50th anniversary of that Calder Cup season will be commemorated on August 5 and 6 during the 6th annual reunion festivities of the R. I. Reds Heritage Society. In a message indicating his plans to attend, Bower singled out the fans of the old Reds franchise for praise, writing: ?I am looking forward to seeing everyone in August, especially the fans who were so supportive of us when we last won the Calder Cup. I can?t believe it?s been 50 years since we last won the Cup. My goodness, you?d think they?re the Leafs.?

His reference was to Toronto's Maple Leafs, the NHL team that claimed him from Cleveland of the AHL in 1958 in the inter-league draft. At first, Bower was reluctant to join the Leafs who had finished last in the NHL the year before. Facing suspension, he relented and became the team?s top goalie at the age of 34.
Bower led Toronto to the playoffs in his first full season, then to consecutive Stanley Cups from 1962 through ?64. Three years later, Bower shared goaltending duties with another veteran, Terry Sawchuk, on an aging team dubbed the ?over the hill gang? which surprised everyone to win the1967 Stanley Cup.

The great goaltender retired in 1970 as the oldest goalie (age 46) ever to play in the NHL. He remained with Toronto as a scout and goalie coach.

Bower?s stay in Providence was relatively brief, but it was magical. In 61 games, Bower?s goaltending was a major factor in the team?s Calder Cup year. The Reds finished in first place during the AHL?s regular season, then beat Buffalo and Cleveland in the playoffs. Ironically, Bower had spent eight previous seasons in the Cleveland net, and would rejoin the Barons after the second and last of his two years in Providence. (Bower also played one game in goal for Providence back in 1946. He was with Cleveland at the time, but the Providence goalie was hurt for the season?s final game which did not affect the league standings. Bower wasn?t scheduled to play for Cleveland that night, so he volunteered to play for the Reds.) 

When Bower joins several of his teammates at the heritage society's reunion, he?ll also be reunited with a pair of vintage goalie pads he wore in Providence in the mid-?50s. They were passed along to friends over the years, and ultimately in the mid-?70s to Paul Goldenberg, then playing PeeWee hockey. Recently, Paul (now of Mansfield, Mass.,) and his father, Mal (now of Narragansett), donated Bower?s old pads to the heritage society. They?ll be on display during the main reunion event at Goddard State Park. Then they?ll likely become part of a permanent exhibit the society is planning for the future.

Also on display at the reunion will be a pair of skates worn in the 1950s by Jack Crawford who was the coach of the Reds? 1955-56 Calder Cup champions. Those also were recently donated to the heritage society.

Bower with the Reds.

Johnny Bower's pads, now part of the Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society collection.

R. I. Reds Heritage Society
1 Penrod Avenue, Suite 1111, Riverside, RI 02915
Telephone and Fax: 401-270-0035