(April 1, 2002) -- From 1945 to 1958, Johnny Bower played in the AHL for either Cleveland or Providence with the exception of the '53-'54 season when he appeared in all 70 games for the New York Rangers, the only goalie to play every minute of that season. Despite missing the playoffs, he had a record of 29-31-10 and a goals against of just 2.60. "I was depressed at camp the next year," Bower said, "because the previous year we were a last place team and I had a fine average. But there was a lot of dissension in management and they decided to go with youth the next year. I beat Gump Worsley in '53 but I came to camp ten pounds overweight and they took him over me the year after. I learned a lesson that year, that's for sure."
Was the AHL far removed from the National League of six teams? Not in Bower's opinion. "I feel we were very close at that time. The NHL had sponsorship with teams in the American league and they often sent top-notch players down to the minors. At one time Cleveland tried to get into the NHL and no one said anything about not being good enough."
It was in the minors that Bower learned he could play with the big boys. "We played Pittsburgh all the time, and they were the Leafs' farm team. They had guys like Armstrong and Tod Sloan, and I felt that if I could play against these guys, I could certainly play in the NHL. That was my ambition, and it never changed--to play in the National Hockey League."
That ambition was held in check, though, by the fact that all six regular puckstoppers in the NHL seemed to be future Hall of Famers. "When you played in the American league," he explained, "you just had to be patient, wait your turn for a rebuilding team. A lot of good goalies came out of our league, too."
Although the AHL stocked fine players in its own right, Bower knew there was still a difference between the two leagues, as he experienced it going from the Barons to the Rangers and back to the Barons. "I think the NHL shooters were a lot better. The American league had some good shooters, but not like in the National Hockey League. In the American league, they used mostly the wrist shot and half the time they didn't know where the puck was going. In the National league, they used the slapshot and they could really fire that thing."
It was in the AHL that Bower started to use a mask in practise, though he didn't use one in games until his second-last NHL season, 1968-69. "I used an old, clear welder's mask," he said. "That's where most of the injuries occurred, in practise when you had guys coming into the league trying to make their mark. And, as a goalie, practise is when you'd let up a bit and maybe not feel as sharp. But I never used it in games until near the end because it got in the way."
Bower's connection to the American Hockey League became even more solidified just a couple of weeks ago when the Cleveland Barons retired his number 1 into the rafters of their building. "It was a very nice tribute," Bower acknowledged with due humility.
- Andrew Podnieks is the author of numerous books on hockey including the current The Essential Blue & White Book. He is also a regular contributor to Leafs.com and managing editor of A Day In The Life of the Leafs to be published in the fall of 2002.