The two men sat on a small bench in the corner of the locker room, separated from most of the players and well-wishers by the pile of pads and skates and tape that goaltenders use for equipment. In the center of the room some of the Toronto Maple Leafs were drinking champagne from the Stanley Cup, which few hockey men had thought they could win. Other Leafs were shoving fully clothed Coach Punch Imlach toward the showers. But Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower, the goalies who had done the most to make the celebration possible, were by themselves, dragging deeply on cigarettes and grappling silently with the frayed nerves and many physical ailments that are an inescapable part of life for aging men who insist on enduring in a young man's game.
Sawchuk, 38, had played one of the best games of his 20-year pro career that night to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1, as the Maple Leafs clinched the Stanley Cup in the sixth game. Bower, who claims he is 42 but is probably older, had put in two big games the week before; now he had trouble walking because of a pulled groin muscle. But he had been in uniform on the end of the Leafs' bench all night, because Imlach said he deserved to be there. He looked happily around the room through bright eyes that have been narrowed into a perpetual squint by 22 years of watching pucks speeding at him. "I knew we would win it tonight," Bower said, "and I damn well wanted to be part of it."
Someone asked Sawchuk about his most dramatic save of the game, a desperate lunge behind his back to grab the puck just as it trickled onto the goal line for what might have been a game-saving Montreal goal by John Ferguson. Terry shook his head. "No, I don't remember it. I don't remember any special saves once a game is over. How many shots did they take, anyway? Must have been a hell of a lot." The fast-skating Canadiens had taken 41, most of them from close range. But somehow Sawchuk, who wanted to quit hockey before the season began, had stopped all but one and had kept the outplayed Leafs in contention until they could seize the game with two second-period goals. Bower isn't even thinking about quitting. He had put on comparable performances in the Leafs' first two victories in the series—including a 60-save, double-overtime effort in the pivotal third game, which Toronto finally won 3-2.
Sawchuk and Bower are the most prominent members of what the coach calls his Old Folks Home—a group of seven scarred warriors 36 or over, five of whom had helped win Imlach's first three Stanley Cups. Imlach, an intensely loyal man, had kept his veterans around him despite critics who said their abilities were gone. The old folks had failed to get Toronto past the Stanley Cup semifinal rounds in the last two years. This season, during a horrendous 10-game losing streak, the Leafs dropped into fifth place, and it seemed possible that Imlach would fail to make the playoffs for the first time in his nine-year Toronto career. But with some needed help from younger players like Pete Stemkowski, 26, and Jim Pappin, 28, the Leafs finished in third place. Then they upset the record-breaking Chicago Black Hawks in their six-game Stanley Cup semifinal.
May 14, 1967
Against the heavily favored Canadiens, Imlach's old men fully vindicated his faith in them. Marcel Pronovost, 36, was the best defenseman in the series. Tim Horton, 37, had a bad opening game (won by Montreal 6-2), and Allan Stanley, 41, an awful fourth game (won by Montreal by the same score), but both veterans came back to play important roles in the Toronto victories. Center Red Kelly, 39, and Wing George Armstrong, 36, the captain, called on remembered skills and unflagging courage to execute big plays in what may have been the final cup series of their careers.
"Everybody said I'd never win another cup with these old guys," said Imlach. "Well, maybe that makes this one the biggest kick of all for me, because we sure shoved it down everybody's throats. These guys have always been champs for me. With expansion coming up I won't be able to keep them all. But now they're going out as champs, and that's the way it should be." Then Punch, never known for close relations with the players under his iron regime, raised a beer glass and added, "They also happen to be a really great bunch of men."
The senior citizens, of course, could never have won this cup alone. The line consisting of Bob Pulford—comparatively youthful at 31 but apparently just another washed-up star early this season—Stemkowski and Pappin was the team's best. And Dave Keon ranked close behind the two goalies as the most valuable Leaf; officially, he was the most valuable of all, and thus winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy. He led the club in its tireless forechecking of the speedy Canadiens and held together a line completed by the willing but slow Armstrong and Frank Mahovlich, the alleged superstar who never seemed especially interested in lending all his large talents to the cause.
But the Maple Leafs might conceivably have beaten the Canadiens without Keon, or high scorer Pappin, or even Imlach, whose rigorous practice sessions and cool psychology helped the club rebound from two potentially demoralizing routs. They certainly could not have won without Sawchuk or Bower. And it would be hard to imagine a pair of heroes less alike in their approach to the game.
Sawchuk has been an established National Hockey League star for 17 years. Bower spent 12 of his first 13 seasons in the minors. "When I was playing in Cleveland at the age of 33," he admits, "I gave up all hope of being an NHL goalie. In fact, when Toronto called me up I didn't even want to come at first." Sawchuk has thought of retirement for some time, and may quit now unless an expansion team offers him a contract he cannot refuse. Bower says he has "absolutely no thought of retiring. Too many guys quit this game too soon."
Sawchuk, who changed his style dramatically between his bad fourth-game defeat and his brilliant victories in the fifth and sixth, said he hadn't even thought about any such change. Bower thinks constantly of his style and his errors: "I don't care how long I've played. I still can improve on things like cutting down a shooter's angle or clearing the puck around the boards." Sawchuk believes in pacing himself carefully in practice, while Bower is probably the hardest-working member of hockey's hardest-working team.
The two goalies complemented one another perfectly against Montreal. Sawchuk, possibly worn out after his sensational showing against the Black Hawks, couldn't make up for his team's overall deficiencies in the opener. So Imlach started Bower in the second game, and he was brilliant in the 3-0 victory. "Our club must play good defensive hockey to win," said Imlach. "And this was pretty close to a perfect defensive game."
In the third game, their first at home, the Leafs were less than perfect, but Bower saved them. With the score tied 2-2 after two periods, Bower had to make a series of extraordinary saves in the third. He and rookie Rogatien Vachon—who also played very well until Coach Toe Blake replaced him with the veteran Gump Worsley late in the fifth game—matched superb saves in the first overtime. Pulford finally scored at 8:26 of the second overtime. "Bower's saves gave the whole team a tremendous lift," said Pulford. "Pulford's goal gave me a pretty big lift, too," smiled Johnny. "I love to play hockey, but a game like that one can hardly be called fun."
Bower's season ended in the warmup before the next game, when he kicked out at a puck and got the muscle pull. Sawchuk was rushed in—for his worst game of the playoffs. On four of the Canadiens' six goals he seemed almost immobile. The delighted Habs returned to Montreal envisioning two more high-scoring wins and their third straight cup.
Although he denied any conscious change, Sawchuk was a different player in the fifth game. "We talked before the game," said Imlach. "I told him he had brought us this far, and he had the records to prove he was a great clutch player. He was entitled to one bad game. I knew he could win for us as long as he played aggressively in goal. In other words, he had to go out and challenge the guys taking the shots." The Leafs started so slowly that Sawchuk had to challenge almost every Canadien forward during the first period. He kept moving out of the net, scrambling to the ice, and somehow stopping almost everything. The Leafs, who might easily have trailed 4-0, went off the ice with a 1-1 tie. In the second period they got going, and a magnificent breakaway goal by Pronovost seemed to deflate the Canadiens. Tightening up their well-drilled defensive game, the Leafs coasted through to a 4-1 win.
Sawchuk was even better in the final game, blocking 17 shots in the first period to keep the game scoreless until Kelly could set up young Ron Ellis for the first goal at 6:25 of the second. Half a dozen unbelievable saves later, Sawchuk was presented with another goal, by Pappin, just before the period ended. Once again the Leafs clamped down, checking diligently and concentrating only on stopping the Canadiens. Dick Duff scored for Montreal early in the third period to make it 2-1, but Sawchuk held off the Canadien charge the rest of the way. When Blake pulled Goalie Worsley with 55 seconds left, Imlach characteristically fielded a defensive platoon made up of four of his old men and the slightly younger Pulford. Eight seconds later Armstrong scored on the open net to clinch it.
With the exception of the wildly exciting, wide-open overtime game, the Toronto wins were typical masterpieces of rugged checking, defense and superb goaltending. "It's like a poker game," said Imlach. "You've got to drop out of a lot of hands to protect yourself. If you try to score on every play, you get killed." Cynics around the NHL have often said that this cautious philosophy produces boring hockey. Imlach, who is never boring himself, laughed when the objection came up. Resting an elbow comfortably on the large silver Stanley Cup, he wondered, "Were the Toronto fans bored with us this spring?"