Originally published in the Prince Albert Daily Herald on January 4, 2018.
As you pass through the main lobby of Prince Albert’s Art Hauser Centre, you can’t help but be impressed by the large copper statue of the NHL’s legendary goalie, Johnny Bower. This statue was unveiled when Bower was named an honourary citizen of the city in November of 2007.
The pride of Prince Albert and one of the greatest goalies in hockey history, Johnny Bower, passed away at the age of 93 on December 26, 2017. Born into a family of Ukrainian heritage in Prince Albert on November 8, 1924, John Kiszkan was the only boy of nine children. When he started playing professional hockey, Johnny changed his last name to Bower, saying he changed it so the sportscasters would pronounce it correctly.
In the many interviews that Bower gave over the years, he always talked about playing hockey on Prince Albert’s outdoor rinks and ponds when he was a boy. “That’s where I learned my hockey really, when it was around 35, 40, 45 below zero,” Bower recalled. “Forty-five below zero, yeah, we had ear muffs on, and oh we froze our feet, we froze our ears, we froze our toes, we froze everything you can think of, but we still played there on the ice.”
Many kids back then didn’t have hockey equipment because, like some kids today, they couldn’t afford it. Legend has it that Bower’s dad went across the river and found a tree that was shaped like a hockey stick and shaved it down for him. Bower used that hand-carved stick in his position as goaltender. “I could hardly lift it, honest to God was it heavy,” Bower said. “And I used it for quite a bit, and it helped me to keep my stick down on the ice. And that’s how it all started.” Soon, he was playing in goal for the Prince Albert Black Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
In 1940, when he was 15 years old, Bower lied about his age to enlist in the army. He was sent to a training camp in British Columbia and was eventually sent overseas. He was discharged in 1944 due to rheumatoid arthritis, and returned to Prince Albert where he resumed his Junior hockey career with the Black Hawks.
Bower’s first game back in the PA net was against a Saskatoon team that included a young guy named Gordie Howe. Bower’s team lost badly to the boys from Saskatoon, but something good happened. At that game, Bower was seen by a scout for the New York Rangers who asked him if he’d like to try out for the American Hockey League (AHL). Bower asked his father, who let him go even though he thought hockey was too rough of a game. When Bower returned home to Prince Albert after his first AHL season, his father took one look at all the scars on Bower’s face and asked, “Don’t you know how to duck?” Bower played without fear – and without a mask.
Johnny Bower played 25 professional seasons, 12 of them for Toronto Maple Leafs. He was 36 years old when he started as a goalie for the Leafs in 1958-59, but despite his age, Bower’s great skills helped the Leafs to win four Stanley Cups during the 1960s.
On November 14, 2007, Bower attended a Raiders game – his first public appearance in PA in over 30 years. That night, the lobby of the Art Hauser Centre was named for Johnny Bower, complete with that spectacular statue of Bower in full goalie stance. The following evening, Johnny Bower was made an honorary citizen of Prince Albert.