Bower was called the China Wall because it was hard to get the puck past him.
“Johnny was the toughest goalie to deke I ever played against,” Jean Beliveau, the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer who died in 2014, once said, according to The Toronto Star. “He wouldn’t go for a fake. Never. He just stood in there and waited for you to make the play.”
John William Bower was born on Nov. 8, 1924, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the only boy in a family of nine children. His original surname was Kiszkan, which was of Ukranian derivation, but he changed it to Bower when he began playing minor league hockey. Some news media accounts said he felt his surname might be misspelled in the press. But the website Greatest Hockey Legends quoted him as saying that “there was a separation in the family later on in my youth, and I eventually decided to choose my own name.”
He played hockey as a child on frozen ponds with a goalie stick his father shaped out of a tree branch, pads made from an old mattress and pucks carved out of horse manure.
He once told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that he had played as a boy in temperatures of 45 degrees below zero: “We had our ear muffs on, oh we froze our feet, we froze our ears, we froze our toes, we froze everything you can think of.”
After eight seasons in the American Hockey League, mostly with the Cleveland Barons, Bower joined the Rangers in 1953, when he replaced Gump Worsley, the N.H.L.’s rookie of the year the previous season.
Bower played well for a fifth-place team, but the Rangers brought Worsley back to start the 1954-55 season. Except for two more brief stints with the Rangers, Bower was a minor leaguer until the Maple Leafs obtained him in 1958.
Bower was one of the Leafs’ most popular players on teams that included stars like George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich and Sawchuk. He became something of a pop culture figure in 1965 when he recorded a holiday children’s song, “Honky the Christmas Goose,” with proceeds going to charity.
Bower was 45 years, 1 month and 2 days old when he played in his last N.H.L. game, in December 1969. He was the oldest goalie in N.H.L. history except for Moe Roberts, a Chicago Black Hawks trainer, who was just short of his 46th birthday when he replaced the injured goaltender Harry Lumley in a game against the Detroit Red Wings in November 1951.
Bower was a four-time All-Star, recorded 37 N.H.L. shutouts and had a 2.51 goals-against average, leading the league in that category three times. After retiring, he was a goaltending coach and scout for the Maple Leafs.
Bower’s survivors include his wife, Nancy; his son, John Jr.; his daughters, Cindy and Barbara; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
A decade after his last game, Bower almost made a comeback. When the Maple Leafs’ No. 1 goalie, Mike Palmateer, was hurt and his backup, Paul Harrison, had the flu, Coach Punch Imlach asked Bower to suit up in case the minor league goalie Vincent Tremblay did not arrive in time for a game with the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 9, 1980.
Bower signed a one-game contract, although, as he told The Montreal Gazette long afterward, his wife told him, “You’re 55 and you’re out of your mind.”
As Bower recalled it, “all of a sudden, Palmateer and Harrison are thinking, ‘If this old crock is coming back, one of us should get better.’” Bower remained in the locker room, in uniform, when Tremblay started the game. Tremblay yielded four early goals, then was replaced by Harrison in a 5-3 loss.
“I thought that had I gotten into the game I’d have been bombarded,” Bower recalled. “Or maybe not. I think my teammates would have tried hard for me.”