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Johnny Bower: The pioneer of hockey toughness

Johnny Bower

In honor of the passing of Johnny “The China Wall” Bower over the holiday break, I thought it would only be right to dedicate this article to one of the original “tough guys” of hockey.

A Brief History of Johnny Bower

Bower grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to a poor, working class family. Growing up in a family of nine children meant his family couldn’t even afford hockey equipment. So Bower created his own using an old mattress for pads and a tree branch for a stick.

At the age of 15, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Canadian Army during World War II. In 1943, he was discharged due to rheumatoid arthritis.

That didn’t stop Bower from being active. Less than two years later, Bower made his professional hockey debut with the Cleveland Barons of the AHL.

Bower bounced between the AHL and NHL for many years before finally getting claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958.

The Toughness of Johnny Bower

If joining the Army at 15 years old and then playing professional hockey with rheumatoid arthritis isn’t evidence enough of how tough he was, then let his teammates, the statistics and the nature of his position convince you.

Being a goalie in this era of hockey was absolutely brutal. With no masks and minimal padding, injuries were an expectation, not an inconvenience.

Johnny Bower
Johnny Bower played most of his career in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo from AZ Quotes)

Dick Duff, one of Bower’s former teammates, said in an interview with CBC Radio, “[goalies] … the leg and arm, they would be yellow, green, black from stopping the pucks.”

Not only was Bower tough, but he was also talented. He won the Vezina Trophy two times. His name appears on the Stanley Cup four times (three of which were in consecutive years). He also remains the career leader in wins in the AHL.

When speaking of Bower specifically, Duff called him “fearless.”  Others refer to Bower as a “legend.” One thing for sure is that Johnny “The China Wall” Bower will live on in hockey history forever.

Hockey Toughness Through the Years

Bill Meltzer hit the nail on the head when he said,

“‘Hockey toughness’ is not about an individual player’s physical strength or fighting prowess. It’s about teammates protecting and defending one another, preserving together through adversity and pain. It’s not about a lack of fear but, rather, a willingness to face it head on.”

On Nov. 18, 2016, halfway through the second period during a game between division rivals Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, Blue Jackets’ left-winger, Matt Calvert, took a nasty slap shot to the face courtesy of the Rangers’ Nick Holden. (Video is bloody, be advised) (YouTube link from jguth95)

He was quickly helped off the ice and taken to the dressing room where he received 36 stitches.

One would assume that he would not see the ice again that night, but after passing a concussion test, he took to the ice again midway through the third period. Not only did he come back to play in the same game, but he also scored a short-handed goal, which proved to be the game winner.

Calvert’s return to the ice that night after what should’ve been a game-ending injury serves as only one example of why hockey players are some of the most physically impressive athletes in professional sports. On top of the physical toughness, they also possess great amounts of mental toughness. Having to insert themselves into such a physically demanding situation when already injured takes insane amounts of courage.

Calvert isn’t the only hockey player to have displayed this kind of perseverance. Here’s some ‘tough’ hockey history.

In the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals, Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Bobby Baun injured his leg badly enough that he had to leave the ice on a stretcher. He returned for overtime where he scored the game winner. It was later revealed that he did indeed have a broken leg. (YouTube link from NHL)

Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers returned to the ice after breaking his jaw in a 2014 playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens.

Boston Bruins’ Gregory Campbell blocked a shot during the 2013 playoffs, which resulted in a broken fibula.  Campbell got up and finished killing the penalty before leaving the ice. (YouTube link from Fred Murtz)

The list goes on and on. Endless amounts of lost teeth, stitches, breaks and sprains. Injuries that would often force the best of athletes to sit from anywhere between one game and a few months show us why hockey is a sport that demands respect, if for no other reason than the unmatched toughness of the players.

 

Feature image from Pictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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