Monday, 17 April 2017


Without the outstanding goaltending of Johnny “The China Wall” Bower, the Toronto Maple Leafs would not have won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s: 1962-1964 inclusive, and again in 1967, the Canadian Centennial year. This was back in the barefaced days for most goalies, including Bower. Of course, the Leafs have yet to win another championship since. And to think, Bower didn’t want to play in Toronto at first. He thought he was too old at the time to make the jump. Besides, he had an earlier shot at the NHL that didn’t work out that well. He preferred to play out his hockey career in the nice, cozy confines of the minors where the local fans held him in the highest regard.

Born John Kizkan in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on November 8, 1924, Bower lied about his age to join the Canadian Army in 1940 in the midst of World War II. After being sent overseas for further training in England with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, he was discharged due to illness--rheumatoid arthritis--in 1944, then returned to Canada still young enough to play junior hockey for the Prince Albert Black Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

St Lawrence Starch Co photo of Johnny
Bower (Canadian Public Domain)

The following year, he turned pro with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League as a free agent. He also changed his last name to Bower to make it easy for the fans and sportswriters to pronounce and spell. He then spent eight straight seasons in Cleveland where he became a celebrity on a powerhouse team, leading the league in goalie wins three times and shutouts twice. In the last season there, 1952-53, he helped lead the Barons to the Calder Cup championship by shutting out the opposition four times in the team’s 11-game playoff run. In two other seasons, he backstopped the Barons to two more league titles. In those eight seasons, the Barons finished first five times, and Bower was named to three All-Star teams.

Bower quickly established a reputation for being his own man. No one could ever touch his equipment and he preferred to pick out his own sticks, not let the team do it. He also worked as hard in practice as he did during the games, something his teammates respected him for.

In July 1952, Bower was traded to the New York Rangers in a four-player deal plus cash. He then went to training camp and outplayed Gump Worsley, the 1952-53 NHL Rookie-of-the-Year, sending the latter to the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. Worsley also asked for a $500 raise, a no-no in a time when the owners ran the show. Bower stood between the pipes for all 70 games in 1953-54 (when each of the six teams dressed only one goalie per game), recorded 5 shutouts and a 2.60 goals-against average, the best average for a Ranger goalie in 12 years. The team finished only six points out of a playoff spot, the closest they had been in four years, and Bower was voted the most popular Ranger by the fans.

However, because the Rangers had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight time, they brought back the much-younger Worsley for 1954-55, thus sending Bower to Vancouver (which would be his only season in the Western Hockey League) after five games as a Ranger.  It’s interesting to note that with Worsley in net in 1952-53, the Rangers were 17-37-16: His goals-against average stood at 3.06. With Bower and his 2.60 average, the Rangers were a much-improved 29-31-10 in 1953-54. With Worsley returning for 1954-55, the team fell back to a dismal 17-35-18, and Worsley averaged 3.03 goals per game. Sometimes it makes you wonder who makes the decisions for some teams.
1959-60 Parkhurst gum card of
Leaf coach-GM Punch Imlach
(Canadian Public Domain)

As a Vancouver Canuck, Bower’s 2.71 goals-against average and seven shutouts led the Western Hockey League. For the next three straight seasons, from 1955-56 to 1957-58, he was a First Team All-Star and the overall MVP winner in the American Hockey League, two seasons with Providence and one with Cleveland, winning a third championship with the latter, while recording stingy goals-against averages of 2.37 and 2.17 in the last two seasons. By then, Bower had turned 33 years of age and, as stated earlier, content to live out his last few years as a minor leaguer. But someone unbeknownst to the goaltender thought otherwise. His name: George “Punch” Imlach.

Imlach had coached the AHL Springfield Indians in 1957-58 and remembered how well Bower had played against the Indians all season, especially in the first round of the playoffs in which Imlach’s team won in seven games. When Imlach was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as their coach-GM in 1958, he claimed Bower in the Inter-League Draft that June.  But it took Imlach’s pressure on Bower for him to head to Toronto. The Leafs were never sorry. Either was Bower because he embarked on the second round of his professional career.

Bower was more than ready for the NHL this time. A flopper earlier in the minors, he had converted to a stand-up style by the mid-1950s. He now played the angles, something that Imlach looked for in goalies. Noted for his puck-handling and stick work, Bower learned such skills from goalie Chuck Rayner during early-1950s New York Ranger training camps. And everything showed in spades later on when Bower was a Leaf.

I remember well a particular game that I saw on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a kid where the opposition pulled their goalie late in the game for an extra attacker. During a scramble in front of the net, Bower got hold of a loose puck and quickly fired it off the center-ice boards. I watched in awe as the puck missed the other net by a foot or two. He was that close to getting the first goal by an NHL  netminder.

Bower was also the master of the pokecheck, a maneuver definitely not for the faint of heart, especially in the days of no goalie masks. To perform the pokecheck, Bower would surprise a puck carrier bearing down on him by diving to the ice headfirst with his goalie stick extended. If successful, the player had the puck knocked off his stick before he could get a shot away.

It seemed the older Bower got, the better he performed. In the 1960s, he won a Vezina Trophy--for the least amount of goals against--with a goals-against average of 2.50 in 1960-61, then shared another with teammate Terry Sawchuk in 1964-65, when Imlach had incorporated the two-goalie system. Imlach continued with the Bower-Sawchuk tandem until the last Leaf Cup-winning season in 1966-67. By then, Sawchuk was 37; Bower was 42.

A money goaltender in the playoffs, Bower had the reflexes, ability and agility to shut down sharpshooters like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and Jean Beliveau when the Leafs needed him most. Bower retired in 1969 at the age of 45, after finally donning a mask for games, although he had been using one in practice for several years. By then, the scars on his face took on the appearance of eight miles of road.

Combining his years in the minors and the NHL (regular season and playoffs included), Bower had held the record for decades for most wins by a netminder in professional hockey until broken by Martin Brodeur.  But Bower still holds the record for most games played overall with 1,446, spread over a remarkable 25 years in the game. He also shut out the opposition an amazing 98 times.

1959-60 Parkhurst gum card of Johnny Bower (Canadian Public Domain)

Something I remember vividly about Bower was how he was criticized by hockey fans--including some Leaf fans--when I was growing up on the prairies. They always said he was too old. But season after season, Punch Imlach kept playing him, and the Leafs kept winning. If not for Imlach taking a chance on a 33-year-old minor leaguer, Bower could have easily been known today only for his many years in the American Hockey League as a star goaltender who couldn’t quite cut it in the NHL after one, half-decent shot at it. Instead, Bower saw his ship coming in, and jump aboard.

Bower’s NHL stats alone were worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976: 2.52 goals-against average, 37 shutouts, and 250-195-90 won-loss-tie record, in 552 regular-season games. Deep into his time coaching the Leafs, Punch Imlach called Bower: “The most remarkable hockey player I’ve ever seen.”

Monday, 3 April 2017


Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1942, looking south towards downtown (US Public Domain)

When we hear the name
Detroit, we think of cars. We think of ingenuity, inventions, automation, mass production, industry, and manufacturing; as well as a city on the move with connecting multi-lane freeways. We also think of prosperity. And how could we forget the 1960s music trend known as Motown.  

Unfortunately, times change. Detroit, Michigan has been in a steady decline for decades. Parts of it have reached ghost town status: unlit streets, boarded-up buildings, and weeded lots. Case in point, the old Packard auto plant built on East Grand Boulevard, the largest abandoned factory in the world. Closed to production since 1958, it’s a half-mile length of crumbling bricks and concrete, neglected and defaced by looters and vandals from nearby slums. More about Packard later.

Although the metro area has 4.3 million people, Detroit has slipped down to twenty-first in population among major US cities: a mere 677,000, a far cry from its glory days. Despite its shortcomings, Detroit is a city close to my heart. I feel for it. My in-laws reside minutes away in Windsor, across the Detroit River on the Canadian side. I’ve been to Detroit dozens of times for hockey and baseball games, sports memorabilia meets, shopping, and a couple car shows at Cobo Hall. I’ve also seen the downtown and outlying neighborhoods up close since my first visit there May 1976. Yes, it can be scary. But the city is making an effort to rise up through urban development brought on by the private sector and politicians who still believe the city can be revived to its former charm.

Just a little over a hundred years ago, Detroit was known as the “Paris of the West.” Detroiters were proud of their mansions, and grand tree-lined streets, avenues and boulevards along upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Detroit was the transportation hub of the Mid-West and a major Great Lakes port, a haven for industries such as shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing, including the lucrative carriage trade before autos made the scene.

That changed in a flash by 1903, with Henry Ford along with fellow automotive tycoons William C Durant, Packard, Walter Chrysler, and the Dodge Brothers, who all quickly turned Detroit into the Motor City. Packard, for example, began manufacturing automobiles from inside their 3.5 million square-foot plant. On a 40-acre site, this state-of-the-art, first-ever reinforced concrete building in Detroit housed the most modern car manufacturing site in the world, handling 80 different trades.

By 1920, Detroit was booming, the fourth largest city in America with a population of 995,000. Only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia were bigger. With a slew of jobs available in the car industry and feeder companies, rural blacks and southern whites migrated north for work, changing the culture of the area. Always expanding, Ford built the massive River Rouge plant in nearby Dearborn. Finished in 1928, the complex employed over 100,000 people at any given time. The Rouge was the largest factory in the world, 1.5 miles by one mile with 16 million square feet of factory floor space. It had 93 buildings on the property, its own docks, electricity plant and steel mill, and 100 miles of interior rail track.

About this same time, Detroit became a “port of call” for the sinister Ku Klux Klan, whose hatred for Catholics, Jews, and blacks was legendary. Racial tensions began to build. Also, during Prohibition, the year from 1920-1933, the nearby waterways of the Detroit River and Lake St Clair were used for smuggling elicit Canadian liquor from Canada, in particular our highly prized rye whiskey.

Between 1941-1943, over 400,000 people migrated to Detroit for jobs, including 50,000 Southern blacks. More racial strife emerged, climaxing with the 1943 Detroit Race Riot in June brought on by competition for jobs, a shortage of housing, and alleged police brutality towards the blacks.  Following three days of violence, 34 people were killed and 600 were injured, of which most were black. In addition, nearly $2 million worth of property was destroyed.

The Renaissance Center, Detroit, with the 73-story Marriott Hotel in the middle (US Public Domain)

World War II brought a major shift in manufacturing to Detroit factories. Cars were put on hold for the sake of Allied military production. Prime examples were Packard and Ford. Packard cashed-in on the V-1650 Packard-Merlin aircraft engine, built to British Rolls-Royce specs after successful use in Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft during the Battle of Britain. Over 55,000 Packard-Merlin engines were manufactured for the North American P-51 Mustangs and Curtiss P-40 fighters, as well as the Canadian-built Avro Lancaster bombers and de Havilland Mosquitos over the border in Ontario. Packard also built 20,000 V-12 marine engines for American PT boats, and British patrol and rescue boats. In 1943, at the height of Packard’s dominance, the company had 36,000 employees, almost all at the East Grand Boulevard plant.

The Willow Run Ford plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, about 20 miles west of Detroit, was constructed to build the four-engine B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. Inside what was reported to be the largest factory under one roof in the world where there was 3.5 million square feet of factory space, five different B-24 models were assembled along a line that stretched one mile inside the plant. By war’s end, almost 6,800 Liberators were assembled there.

In post-war Detroit, with auto production back on track, the city’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950. But by the mid-1950s, Detroiters began moving to new housing developments in the suburbs, and various businesses and manufacturing plants followed. This population shift cut deeply into Detroit’s tax base.

Then, to make matters worse, the Detroit Riot of 1967 occurred. Far scarier and longer than the riot two decades prior, this uprising saw 43 dead, almost 1,200 injured, over 7,000 arrests and 2,000 buildings destroyed. Once the smoke cleared, thousands of people left Detroit for good, many taking businesses with them. The affected areas lay in ruins for years afterwards.

Things didn’t get any better for Detroit and its car industry during the gasoline crisis of 1973 when the Arab countries placed an oil embargo on the US for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and another crisis in 1979 when oil production was cut severely as a result of the Iran-Iraq War. The outcome of these conflicts led many Metro Detroiters purchasing smaller foreign makes than the big Detroit-built gas suckers. Thousands of local auto employees, many of those still living in Detroit Proper, were laid off and could only look on sadly as plants closed, causing more havoc for city tax collecting.

One of the thousands of abandoned buildings in Detroit (US Public Domain) 

While the once-proud city of Detroit was falling to ruin, Mayor Coleman Young--the city’s first black mayor elected in 1973--went full-speed with revitalization plans for downtown. His first major project was the interconnected skyscraper complex called the Renaissance Center along the Detroit River. Opened in 1977, it became the world headquarters for General Motors and had the tallest hotel--73 stories containing 1300 rooms--in the Western Hemisphere, along with retail shops, banks, financial offices, and restaurants. This and other large-scale projects spearheaded by Mayor Young were expected to entice businesses and the people back downtown. But, the opposite happened: more area hotels, office buildings and shops closed.

Over the next few decades, the city worked hard to bring Downtown Detroit and the surrounding neighborhoods back to life by investing billions in several historic buildings that were once vacant, such as the Book Cadillac Hotel, the Fort Shelby Hotel, the David Whitney Building, and the glitzy Fox Theatre, the latter compliments of Mike Ilitch, who owned Little Caesers Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Detroit Tigers. Still, despite all these great efforts, overall problems remained.

Thousands of business and residential properties failed to pay their taxes in 2011 alone, amounting to $246 million in taxes and fees not collected. Mid-summer 2013, the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy--making it the largest American city filing for bankruptcy--when they were $18.5 billion in debt and unable to pay its creditors. By the end of the year, $7 billion of that debt was erased with creditors receiving between 14-75 cents on the dollar, which lightened the load for the city’s books.

Detroit hasn’t given up. Over the course of two years from 2014-2016, every downtown street light was replaced with LED lights--65,000 in total. Also, roads improved, gardens were planted along boulevards. The 18-story Michigan Central Station--the world’s tallest rail station when dedicated in 1914--unused since 1988 when Amtrak pulled out, has been renovated recently with new windows, updated electrical wires and lights, a new roof and elevators, as well as a general cleanup. The investors are now waiting for a buyer or at least renters.

Also, on December 12, 2013, Fernando Palazuelo, a 58-year-old real estate investor from Lima, Peru purchased the old Packard plant for $405,000 cash. Palazuelo’s large-scale plans to renovate the site over the next 10 years to lure various businesses to occupy the buildings have already started. If only there were more such people as Fernando Palazuelo stepping forward. There’s still another 75,000-plus abandoned buildings in the once-great Motor City to renovate and occupy.

Although it still has a long way to go, Detroit is doing its best to crawl back to life.