A day after his former teammate and long-time friend Johnny Bower passed away, former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ron Ellis spoke fondly of the man dubbed the China Wall.
Born in Prince Albert on Nov. 8, 1924, Bower died of pneumonia on Dec. 26 at 93 years old.
Players bestowed the moniker on him, because of his age (he made his debut with the Maples Leafs at 33 years old) and his skills in backstopping the team as its goalie.
Ellis and Bower played with the fabled 1960s Toronto club of the NHL, growing close during Bower’s playing years and after his retirement, too.
“We all knew this day was coming, but now that it has arrived, it’s kind of hard to believe that he’s gone,” Ellis said while speaking with the Daily Herald on Dec. 27.
“Johnny and I are quite close,” he said while pausing to consider the passing of his friend.
Ellis started playing with the Maple Leafs in the 1964-65 season, a few months after the club won its third consecutive Stanley Cup in the previous season.
Despite the 21 years separating the two players (Ellis was born on Jan. 8, 1945), Ellis said they quickly grew close, thanks in part to Bower’s strong mentorship abilities.
“(He) was one of the first guys to welcome me onto the team when I made it,” he said.
“Johnny and his wife sort of adopted me when I turned pro at the age of 19. Johnny was 39 at the time.
“My wife and I were just dating at the time, and of course now we’ve been married for many years. But Johnny’s wife, Nancy, took my girlfriend then, Jan, under her wing and took good care of her – in the wives’ room and all that sort of stuff,” Ellis said.
“And for all those reasons I think a lot of them both.”
Toronto lost in the league semi-finals for Ellis’ first two years with the club.
During the 1964-65 season Toronto lost by four games to two to Montreal; the Canadiens swept the Maple Leafs the following season in the semi-finals four games to none.
Then in 1966-67 seasons the Maple Leafs returned to greatness by beating the Montreal Canadiens four games to two to win the Stanley Cup again, the last time the team has done so.
It was Bower’s fourth and final Cup appearance and victory; it was Ellis’ first.
At 42 years old, Bower was the team’s oldest player. Ellis was just 22 years old.
The Prince Albert native retired from the NHL soon after, in 1970. However that hardly meant he stepped away from the team, which allowed Ellis and Bower to keep growing their relationship.
“He was the goalie coach for a little while, and then he became a scout. He and George Armstrong were Leafs scouts for many years.
“Johnny proudly officially retired when he was about 80,” Ellis said with a chuckle. “He’s been around, with the Leafs for a long time.”
Asked about Bower’s connection to Prince Albert, Ellis said it was obvious that the netminder “was proud to be from Prince Albert.
“When I was out there (in March 2017 for a commemorative banner ceremony) I noticed the lovely action statue they have of him in the lobby of (the Art Hauser Centre). When we lowered his banner, the fans sort of went wild, and gave him a thunderous ovation,” Ellis said.
“I could tell pretty quickly he was much beloved in Prince Albert.”
At a recent Prince Albert Raiders Western Hockey League game on Dec. 28, the team honoured the late goalie with a commemorative video and a moment of silence.
Every spectator in the arena was silent. Each player, coach and staff member on both teams bowed their heads during the silence.
Ellis emphasized that Bower won’t be remembered for a single trait or quality, but he pointed out a few that are important to him.
“He became a mentor of mine, really. He showed me how, what you had to do, to be a pro, and how you conducted yourself on the ice and off the ice.”
Ellis described Bower’s work ethic as unbelievable.
“When he practiced, he practiced just like he played the games: He hated to have the puck go behind when in practice. He was not a young man, and that’s what kept him sharp. And I totally respected him for that.”
The late goalie’s humility is another point that sticks out for Ellis.
“He always felt it was a privilege to be a Maple Leaf and not a right. And he played his career that way … he was so humble.
“That’s something that just stands out. He never talked about being the key – and he was a very key person – in those four Stanley Cups. He was just so humble and never talked about his achievements. But everybody knew what he had accomplished.”
Bower won the NHL’s Vezina trophy – awarded to the league’s top goalie – two times, the 1960-61 season and the 1964-65 season.