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Beware the watchdogs at Old Folks Home
Pete Axthelm
May 15, 1967
Montreal's Canadiens learned that lesson painfully as the good, gray Toronto Maple Leaf goalies, Terry Sawchuk (above) and Johnny Bower, led hockey's oldest warriors to an unexpected Stanley Cup triumph
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May 15, 1967

Beware The Watchdogs At Old Folks Home

Montreal's Canadiens learned that lesson painfully as the good, gray Toronto Maple Leaf goalies, Terry Sawchuk (above) and Johnny Bower, led hockey's oldest warriors to an unexpected Stanley Cup triumph

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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.

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.

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