Maple Leaf great and Hall of Famer Johnny Bower dies at 93

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TORONTO (AP) — Johnny Bower didn’t even want to come to Toronto. Yet the pint-sized goalie with the big heart became a part of Maple Leafs lore.

Bower, a beloved two-time Vezina Trophy winner who helped the Leafs win their last Stanley Cup in 1967, died on Tuesday. He was 93.

His family said in a statement that the Hall of Famer died after a short battle with pneumonia.

Bower was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who became known as the China Wall. His career took off after the Leafs claimed him in an intra-league draft in 1958, and he played 475 regular-season games and won four Stanley Cups for the Leafs before playing his final game as a 45-year-old in 1969.

”There may not be a more loved Toronto Maple Leaf nor a former player who loved them as much back,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement.

Yet Bower originally had no desire to be in Toronto. He was playing happily with the minor league Cleveland Barons in his 30s when Toronto acquired him. He said he only showed up to avoid being suspended.

”They just wanted me for one year, but I had a good team in front of me,” Bower recalled with a laugh in 2014. ”I was there for 13 years, so it turned out really nice for me.”

The 5-foot-9 Bower won the Vezina Trophy in 1961 and shared it with teammate Terry Sawchuk in 1965. The Leafs hoisted the Cup in 1962, ’63, ’64 and ’67, and Bower remained a standout into his 40s despite near-sightedness and painful arthritis.

Bower pioneered the poke-check, brazenly diving head first at opposing players to knock the puck off their sticks. The move came with a cost -the mask-less goalie suffered cuts and lost teeth by throwing himself into the action.

”I got a couple hundred stitches in the face,” he said during a 2005 interview.

Bower was the only boy among nine children in a family raised in rural Saskatchewan. He made his first goalie pads from an old mattress, but put his hockey career on hold when he lied about his age in 1940 to fight in World War II. He told authorities that his birth certificate had burned in a fire, allowing him to enlist at 16 years old. He was stationed in England but did not see action during the war because of his arthritis.

”It’s a good thing I didn’t because the Germans were right there waiting,” he said. ”A lot of guys there were killed on the beaches. I know four or five good hockey players from Prince Albert who were killed. They never came back.”

Upon his return, he played junior hockey with his hometown Prince Albert Black Hawks before turning pro with the Barons in 1945. He played eight seasons in the American Hockey League before joining the NHL’s New York Rangers in 1953. He had a sour experience with the Rangers and ended up back with Cleveland until being selected by Toronto.

Bower wanted to remain in the AHL, but he agreed to show up when Cleveland general manager James Hendy ensured him the Barons would take him back if Toronto didn’t work out.

He never returned, instead becoming a fixture for one of the league’s most storied franchises.

”He was an inspiration to us,” said George Armstrong, who captained the Leafs’ last championship team. ”He shamed others into hard work.

”John gave everything he could during workouts and we weren’t going to let that old guy show us up.”

Bower was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976. Toronto paid tribute to him with a commemorative banner in 1995, and Cleveland retired his No. 1 in 2002.

”Johnny Bower enriched us all by sharing the pure joy he felt for the game he played and for the men who played it, with him and against him,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. ”It was a personal privilege to know him, a delight to be in his presence.”

Toronto honored Bower for his 90th birthday on Nov. 8, 2014, during a game against the Rangers. He was given a framed, autographed crest from each team and an enthusiastic rendition of ”Happy Birthday” from the sellout crowd.

The Buzzer: Merry Christmas Edition

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Players of the Night:

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: Barzal recorded his first career NHL hat trick against the Winnipeg Jets and took over the rookie scoring lead with 35 points. Not a bad day.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning, John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks, James Reimer, Florida Panthers, Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights, and Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Each of these goaltenders recorded shutouts on Saturday night. Vasilevskiy got his fourth of the season, stopping 22 shots to tie Sergei Bobrovsky for the NHL lead in shutouts; Gibson made 29 saves, including one you will see below on Sidney Crosby; Reimer stopped all 38 shots sent his way by the Ottawa Senators; Fleury kept the Capitals in check, stopping 26 shots for his first shutout of the season; and Jones dethroned the Kings, stopping all 28 shots he faced.

Dallas Stars penalty killers: The Stars appeared dead in the water after Jamie Benn and Dan Hamhuis took penalties in overtime against the Nashville Predators, but Ben Bishop and Co. weathered the storm, which included 31 seconds of 5-on-3 time, and ended up taking the game in a shootout on Tyler Seguin‘s winner.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks: Kane became the fifth player in Blackhawks history to record his 300th NHL goal on Saturday.

Highlights of the Night:

John Gibson did this to Sidney Crosby tonight:

Barzal’s hatty deserves its spot here:

Taylor Hall scored on this ridiculous deke. Poor Anton Forsberg:

Alexander Radulov‘s shootout goal was pretty filthy:

Factoids of the Night: 

More Barzal:

Vegas keeps, well, Vegasing.

Brock Boeser smashes Pavel Bure’s record by 15 games:

“Merry Christmas to me,” Brock Boeser said, probably.

MISC: 

Scores: 

Bruins 3, Red Wings 1

Islanders 5, Jets 2

Oilers 4, Canadiens 1

Lightning 3, Wild 0

Panthers 1, Senators 0

Devils 4, Blackhawks 1

Ducks 4, Penguins 0

Hurricanes 4, Sabres 2

Blue Jackets 2, Flyers 1 (SO)

Golden Knights 3, Capitals 0

Avalanche 6, Coyotes 2

Stars 4, Predators 3 (SO)

Sharks 2, Kings 0

Blues 3, Canucks 1

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone!


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Auston Matthews admits experiencing concussion symptoms; could return vs. Rangers

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We now know what the “upper-body injury” was that’s caused Auston Matthews of the the Toronto Maple Leafs to miss the last six games.

After returning to full practice on his teammates Friday morning, Matthews said he was experiencing “normal concussion symptoms” after a collision with Morgan Rielly during a Dec. 9 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It wasn’t until later that night into the next morning that the Maple Leafs star began feeling off and eventually went through the standard protocol.

Matthews skated on his own last week and will travel with the team to New York City ahead of their Saturday night game against the Rangers. He’s currently listed as a game-time decision.

“I think it’s just talking with the training staff. No decision is going to be made until tomorrow but I’m definitely feeling a lot better,” he said. “I feel good out there on the ice. Obviously, just trying to get my legs back and everything.”

The Leafs have missed Matthews, who has 13 goals and 26 points in 26 games played this season, as they’ve dropped three of four games in his absence.

If Matthews doesn’t go Saturday night, he’ll get a few extra days to get 100-percent before a homecoming when the Leafs head west to face the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 28, their first game after the Christmas break.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Eichel hat trick, Schneider robbery, Gaborik’s 1,000th game

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Players of the Night: 

Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres: Eichel ended a four-game goal-less drought with some authority on Friday. After scoring in the first period, Eichel watched as his Sabres blew a 2-1 lead to trail 4-2 with 10 minutes to go. Eichel then turned on overdrive, scoring twice in 10 seconds to tie the game and force overtime. Sadly, his efforts were in vain as the Carolina Hurricanes got the winner 2:15 into the extra frame. It’s Eichel’s first career NHL hat trick.

Brian Boyle, New Jersey Devils: What an inspirational story Boyle has been this year. On Friday, Boyle scored twice, including the game winner, to bring his goal total to eight on the season. His second of the night was also his 100th of his career.

Highlights of the Night:

Eichel showed a good bit of patience on his hat trick goal:

Cory Schneider committed robbery on this save:

Sam Gagner scored on a pretty backhand deke to give the Vancouver Canucks the win in overtime, ending a four-game losing streak:

Factoid of the Night: 

MISC: 

Scores: 

Hurricanes 5, Sabres 4 (OT)

Devils 5, Stars 2

Rangers 4, Kings 2

Red Wings 3, Maple Leafs 1

Canucks 4, Sharks 3 (OT)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: McElhinney with the McShutout, Schenn scores again

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Players of the Night: 

Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs:

McElhinney turned aside all 41 shots that came his way as the Leafs shutout the Edmonton Oilers 1-0. The Leafs backup improved to 3-2-0 on the season and his save percentage jumped from .900 to 9.25. Toronto has now won three straight and six of their past 10.

Brayden Schenn, St. Louis Blues:

Schenn notched his sixth goal in his past four games and extended his goal-scoring streak to four games with a goal 40 seconds into the game. The Blues are now winners of four straight and six of their past 10.

Eric Stall, Minnesota Wild & Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: 

Both scored twice for their respective teams in an entertaining 4-3 win for the Wild in overtime.

Highlight of the Night: 

Vladimir Tarasenko catches the Sabres defense sleeping in overtime, scoring his first non-empty net goal in nine games:

Factoid of the Night: 

Patrick Kane didn’t score, but his two assists were instrumental in giving the Chicago Blackhawks a victory on Sunday.

Scores: 

Blackhawks 3, Coyotes 1

Blues 3, Sabres 2 (OT)

Maple Leafs 1, Oilers 0

Wild 4, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck