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100 Greatest Players

Bill Durnan: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Canadiens goalie began career at age 27, won Vezina Trophy six times in seven seasons

by Stu Hackel / Special to

Goaltenders have the reputation of being, well, different. But none has ever been more of an individual than Bill Durnan of the Montreal Canadiens. He was different even for a goalie.

First, consider the arc of his remarkable Hall of Fame career: His 1943 NHL debut came rather late, at age 27, and he played in the League only seven seasons. Yet, in six of those seasons he was the best in the business, winning the Vezina Trophy, being named to the First All-Star Team and posting the lowest goals-against average in every season except 1947-48. No goalie had ever been that consistently dominant.


Video: Bill Durnan was a six-time Vezina Trophy winner


And then he retired.

Second, the ambidextrous Durnan employed a highly idiosyncratic and unprecedented goaltending style. He could - and would - wield the stick with either hand, always able to protect the net's short side regardless of which wing opposition shooters attacked. And he caught the puck equally well with both hands, each large glove able to grasp the goal stick and trap the puck.

"He would hold his stick in both hands when the other team was heading his way, then switch it to one hand or the other, depending on which side the play was coming from," said Dick Irvin, the famed broadcaster whose father, Dick, was Durnan's coach in Montreal.


Games: 383 | Wins: 208 | Losses: 112 | Ties: 62 | GAA: 2.36


Third, Durnan was a large man playing a position that had been mostly occupied by smaller, acrobatic men, the epitome being Roy "Shrimp" Worters, the 5-foot-3, 135-pound Hall of Fame goalie who played mostly for the New York Americans a decade earlier. Big goalies supposedly moved too slowly and lacked dexterity. Durnan, however, at 6-feet and 190 pounds was, as Canadiens general manager Tom Gorman observed, "big as a horse, but nimble as a cat."

The combination of his size and his ambidexterity made Durnan incredibly difficult to beat.

"Every time I looked up to take a shot at him all I could see was a big mitt between me and the net," Chicago Blackhawks All-Star wing Doug Bentley said.

While other goalies often sprawled to stop pucks, Durnan adopted a stand-up style. However, as Toronto Maple Leafs center Ted Kennedy told authors Kevin Allen and Bob Duff in their book "Without Fear," "When he went down and was in a kneeling position, he still covered an awful lot of the net. He had a great catching hand. He hardly ever gave up rebounds. The puck would hit those goal pads and he would cover it up with that glove hand really quick. I don't remember anyone ever saying he had a weak spot."

Durnan possessed some garden-variety goalie quirkiness as well, especially when dealing with the job's pressures. It never showed when he was on the ice, where he always appeared unflappable and yelled encouragement to his teammates.

But away from the crowd and his teammates, Durnan battled a nervous condition that worsened as his career progressed. Between periods, he'd retreat to a small room adjacent to the Canadiens dressing room at the Montreal Forum, Durnan's private sanctuary, where he'd puff on cigarettes and fret about the game.

Adding to his worries, a vocal segment of the Forum crowd occasionally treated him with contempt, jeering when he'd allow a goal not to their liking. They chanted "We want Bibeault! We want Bibeault!" - calling for Paul Bibeault, the goalie Durnan replaced in 1943. The crowd was especially loud during 1947-48, that lone down season out of seven when Durnan wasn't the NHL's top goalie. They'd serenade him with mock applause after he'd make a save. Over time, the taunts increasingly upset him.

On the other hand, his teammates offered unwavering support and admired his work, leadership and character.

"He was the quintessential team player," wrote hockey historian D'arcy Jenish. "He never blamed teammates for a weak goal or a poor performance."

They held Durnan in high regard, and he would briefly succeed Toe Blake as Canadiens captain in 1948, the last NHL goaltender permitted to wear a 'C' on his jersey. That offseason, the NHL prohibited goalies from becoming active captains, maintaining Durnan's journeys from the crease to address issues with officials slowed the game.

"All of us looked up to him," Blake told The Montreal Star's Red Fisher after Durnan's death in 1972. "We looked up to him as a man. Some of us on the team - me, Murph (Chamberlain, the Canadiens' veteran checking forward) - we were older than he was. But we looked up to him."

In the end, the pressure proved crushing, too much for Durnan to endure. He quit during the 1950 Stanley Cup Semifinals against the New York Rangers, concluding a too-brief but nevertheless spectacular tenure in which he helped the Canadiens back to prominence with four consecutive regular-season championships, three trips to the Cup Final and two championships. Many believed that, in this relatively brief period, Durnan merited consideration, if not recognition, as the best goalie in hockey history.

Born Jan. 22, 1916 in Toronto, Durnan saw his athleticism emerge early. At age 9, he began playing hockey in a church league where the coach, Steve Faulkner, encouraged Durnan to develop his unique technique.

"If it hadn't been for Faulkner, I might never have had the skill to even get to the NHL," Durnan told author Hal Bock in the book "Save." "Steve showed me how to switch the stick from one hand to the other. Frankly, at the age I was then, I wasn't sure it was a hockey stick I was moving from hand to hand because it felt more like a telephone pole. But Faulkner kept after me and, gradually, the stick seemed to get lighter and lighter. It finally became so easy that I was changing automatically from hand to hand and often didn't realize I was doing it."

In his mid-teens, Durnan played for amateur teams in the Maple Leafs development chain. In his later teens, after some non-hockey injuries kept him off the ice, the Maple Leafs dropped him, which embittered Durnan toward professional hockey.

"I had been one of those zealous kids who just lived for an NHL career, but suddenly I wasn't especially concerned about playing pro hockey at all," Durnan told Bock.

Once recovered, Durnan played with senior amateur teams in northern Ontario's mining region, where he'd found steady work in the mines during the Great Depression. At 24, he was the goaltender for the 1940 Kirkland Lake Blue Devils, who swept the Calgary Stampeders in three games to win the Allan Cup, Canada's senior amateur championship. That's when the Montreal Royals recruited him, the owner enticing Durnan with an accounting job in his steel foundry. Durnan was now in the orbit of the Canadiens, playing in the Forum and distinguishing himself regularly.

Dick Irvin began coaching the Canadiens when Durnan signed with the Royals and, as his son Dick wrote in "In The Crease," "The most frustrating of the many frustrating experiences (my father) endured during his first three seasons in Montreal was watching Durnan play his home games for the Royals right in the Forum. It was obvious the amateur team had much better goaltending than the professional team that played in the same building."

When Bibeault entered the armed forces in 1943, Gorman didn't have to look far for a replacement.

Initially, Durnan wasn't especially interested, recalling how the Leafs mistreated him. But Gorman persisted and signed Durnan just minutes before the first game of the 1943-44 season on Oct. 30. Durnan was spectacular that night, a 2-2 tie against the Boston Bruins, and went undefeated in his first 14 games, winning 11 and tying three, setting an NHL record for longest unbeaten streak to start a career.

Durnan became the first rookie to win the Vezina Trophy and be a First-Team All-Star, going 38-5-7. His League-best 2.18 goals-against average and the emergence of the "Punch Line" -- Elmer Lach centering for Blake and Maurice Richard -- propelled the Canadiens to a runaway first-place finish, losing only five of 50 games. The Canadiens won the 1944 Stanley Cup, losing only one of nine games, and Durnan's postseason goals-against average was 1.53.

Some questioned whether he was really that good, claiming Durnan benefited from diluted wartime competition.
"Don't hand me that stuff about a weak league making Durnan a star," Detroit Red Wings coach Jack Adams said. "He's a terrific goalie. He would have been a star before the war and he'll be a star after the war. Just watch."

Adams was right. But when the Canadiens didn't run and hide from the pack to begin the 1945-46 season, Montreal's notoriously demanding fans blamed Durnan. Then he broke his hand and missed five weeks. The fans got Bibeault back for 10 games, but he won only four and Durnan returned, perhaps before the break healed completely.

"It felt as if my arm was falling off whenever I'd catch the puck," he said.

The Canadiens sprinted to first place and stayed there. They also won the Stanley Cup, again needing only nine games. Durnan posted another sparkling postseason goals-against average, 2.07.

He'd had a remarkable start -- the first goalie to capture the Vezina Trophy and All-Star honors in four consecutive seasons. He lost 40 of his initial 200 regular-season games, and the Canadiens became the first NHL team to finish first in four straight seasons.

A down year was perhaps inevitable. Among Montreal's many injuries -- including Blake's career-ending broken leg and Durnan's lingering hand pain -- the Canadiens missed the playoffs in 1947-48 and Durnan earned no awards.

But he rebounded a year later, registering NHL career-bests in goals-against average (2.10) and shutouts (10), winning his fifth Vezina Trophy and earning First All-Star Team honors. He also had a scoreless streak of 309:21, a modern NHL record that lasted until Brian Boucher of the Phoenix Coyotes broke it in 2004.

An incredible sixth Vezina Trophy and First All-Star Team selection followed in 1949-50, but by then the 34-year-old Durnan decided this would be his last go-round.

"His nerves were shot," Jenish wrote. "He'd been hit in the face by too many pucks, sticks and errant skate blades. He had been jeered too often by Montreal's unforgiving fans. He couldn't sleep before or after games."
Prior to Game 4 of the Semifinals, Durnan tearfully told coach Irvin he'd had enough.

"Although he always maintained he hadn't suffered some form of nervous breakdown, not many people believed him," the coach's son wrote. "He never played another game. He's still considered one of the best, but had Bill Durnan's career started earlier, he might have earned the nod as the greatest of them all."


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