The 1965-66 Toronto Maple Leafs lineup included several players with interesting sidelines. Centre Red Kelly had just wrapped up a three-year stint on Parliament Hill as a Toronto-area Liberal MP. Defenceman Tim Horton had a doughnut store on the east side of Hamilton. And then there was goalie Johnny Bower, who challenged the Beatles for record sales with a holiday song about a fat goose.
In fall 1965, CBC producer Chip Young went to the Leafs’ practice rink in Scarborough to recruit a player to sing a children’s Christmas song — “Honky the Christmas Goose,” which told the story of an overweight goose whose loud honking cleared such obstacles as kites and satellites so that Santa could deliver presents on time. Young went into the dressing room to find his singer. “I’d never seen so many guys undress and get into the shower so quickly in my life!” Bower joked in 2016 during an interview with the Toronto Star. “I was the only one left sitting there.” Bower was an appropriate candidate: the 41-year-old netminder played Santa during the team’s Christmas parties. To clinch the deal, Young agreed that all proceeds would go to charity and that Bower’s 11-year-old son, John Jr., could sing along.
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Although he had sung in a choir as a child, Bower had few illusions about his voice. “I told Chip the only singing I did was in the shower,” Bower recalled during a 1992 interview. “But the challenge appealed to me and he talked me into it.” When he told his wife Nancy about the song, she smiled. “This is a nice children’s song,” she said. “If you only knew how to sing!” She coached him at home, guiding him whenever he went off-key.
The recording session, which included Bower, his son, and several neighbourhood kids who’d be billed as the Rinky Dinks, was held on November 9, 1965, at a CBC studio near Maple Leaf Gardens. As soon as Bower started singing, the power went out. The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 had hit Toronto. “I open my mouth and the power fails all the way to Miami,” Bower told the Globe and Mail. The session continued, and though the power continued to flicker, “Honky” and its b-side, “Banjo the Mule,” were recorded within five hours.
Some roughness remained in the finished product. “It could have been corrected,” Bower told Toronto Daily Star sports columnist Milt Dunnell, “but Chip sort of figured it was better that way. See, we’re supposed to be a group of people who are singing because we’re happy — nothing professional about it. So you kinda expect somebody to make a mistake.” Young noted that it was just a fun novelty record “done to please children, not to please the ghost of Tchaikovsky.”
That amateurish charm, combined with the popularity of the Leafs, propelled sales when Capitol Records released the single. Within its first week, 21,000 copies had been snapped up. Bower had an inkling of how successful it was becoming when he did an early December promotional appearance at Eaton’s on College Street. “I was sitting there, selling my records, and there was a big pile of Beatles records sitting on the table next to me,” he told the Star in 2016. “So I took their pile of records and put them underneath the table, and after that we were selling all of mine!”
Bower received letters asking for copies of the song, including from kindergarten teachers who wanted to use it for Christmas concerts. “Some of the people enclose money orders, which I have to send back, on account of I have no records myself,” he noted at the time.
In the end, “Honky the Christmas Goose” sold 40,000 copies during the 1965 holiday season. It peaked at number 29 on the CHUM Chart during the last week of the year, coming in ahead of such artists as Ray Charles, Gordon Lightfoot, Frank Sinatra, and Sonny & Cher. A cover version by former Jack Benny Program star Dennis Day appeared two years later. (More Leafs-related music hit the Canadian charts in 1966 after Douglas Rankine and the Secrets recorded “Clear the Track Here Comes Shack” in honour of colourful winger Eddie Shack.)
Young asked Bower to record more holiday tunes, but he refused. “He had a song he wanted to write about a pelican with a broken wing,” he told the Montreal Gazette in 1992. “I thanked Chip but I told him to find someone who sings better than me.” Over the next half-century, Bower, who died on Boxing Day in 2017, sang the song at gatherings and public appearances.
While reviewing other hockey-related singles for the Toronto Star in 1980, Peter Goddard declared that “Honky the Christmas Goose” was “the best thing a Toronto Maple Leaf has ever done. Ever.”
Sources: Bower: A Legendary Life by Dan Robson (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2018); the December 9, 1965, edition of the Globe and Mail; the November 8, 1992, edition of the Montreal Gazette; the December 8, 1965, edition of the Toronto Daily Star; and the January 31, 1980, and December 12, 2016, editions of the Toronto Star.