What particularly endeared Detroit Red Wings coach and GM Jack Adams to his goaltender in the spring of 1943? That Johnny Mowers was “twice as bad a loser as I am.”
“That’s what I like,” Adams effused. “Give me those bad losers; let the other clubs have the good losers.”
1943 was a fine year to be a Red Wing. That April, Adams’ team had failed to lose to Art Ross’ Bruins, sweeping to a Stanley Cup championship in four straight games. Mowers, 26, played an outstanding series, shutting out Boston’s shooters entirely in each of the final two games. In his third season patrolling the Detroit net, Mowers, who hailed from Niagara Falls, Ontario, also won the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender and a place on the league’s First All-Star Team.
Adams, it turned out, would have to make alternate goaltending arrangements for the following season. With the war in its fourth year, Mowers enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in July of ’43, reporting for training to No. 1 Manning Depot on the grounds of Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. “The red lights in NHL arenas will not shine behind [Mowers] this coming season or for the duration,” ran the caption that went with this photograph, taken there in late August.
That’s not to say Aircraftman 2nd Class Mowers didn’t see the ice while he wore his country’s uniform. That winter, he tended the nets for the Toronto edition of the RCAF Flyers during their OHA Senior schedule on a team that also counted on a number of NHLers-turned-airmen, including former Maple Leafs Ernie Dickens, Red Heron, and Bud Poile, and Peanuts O’Flaherty, who’d skated with the New York Americans.
Back in Detroit, Jack Adams would call on four goaltenders to defend the Red Wing net as they tried to defend their championship through the 1943-44 season. Connie Dion, Jim Franks, Normie Smith, and rookie Harry Lumley all saw pucks in that vain campaign — the Montreal Canadiens ended up winning the Cup in ’44.
Johnny Mowers served three years with the RCAF, making it back to the NHL after the war. He rejoined the Red Wings in 1946, though only as a reliever: Harry Lumley had, by then, established himself as the starter.