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This is part of a continuing series of articles spotlighting the men that have played for the Montreal Canadiens and been afforded the ultimate honor; membership in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Bill Durnan, was the best goaltender I ever played in front of.” - Maurice Richard
The starting goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens.
There is no position in sports that can compare. Sure there have been teams that have featured superstars from one generation to the next, the New York Yankees in centerfield with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, the Los Angeles Lakers at center with Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the San Francisco 49ers at quarterback with Joe Montana come quickest to mind.
None of these team’s however can boast of having a specific position manned by seven hall-of-famers, who have won a combined twenty-seven Vezina trophies symbolizing the leagues best goaltender. Furthermore, the actual trophy that has symbolized goaltending excellence for the past eighty years, is actually named in honor of the Canadiens first great goaltender; the legendary Georges Vezina.
So closely are the Canadiens associated with goaltending excellence that any discussion of the sports top goaltenders usually revolves on those who’ve manned the Montreal nets. However, such is the Canadiens bounty of goaltending greats that few can agree on whom was the best of the best. Names like Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden, and Patrick Roy all have their supporters, but there is one name that rarely gets mentioned, when the truth is that he may have been the best of them all.
It’s hard to think of anybody bettering Bill Durnan’s seven year career in the National Hockey League. The numbers speak for themselves, six Vezina trophies, six first team all-star selections, two Stanley Cups, the Hall of Fame in 1964, and most recently a ranking of 34 on the Hockey News listing of the 100 greatest hockey players ever.
So why is Bill Durnan in the words of NHL.com’s John McGourty “the greatest nearly forgotten player in the history of the NHL.”
Bill Durnan had the misfortune to play right before what many refer to as hockey’s golden age. Retiring a couple of years before the debut of Hockey Night in Canada, Durnan was a player who was never seen by many. Like many stars of the 1940’s he has been mostly forgotten in contrast to the stars of the next decade who continue to be amongst the most fondly remembered and commemorated stars in hockey history. In addition, Durnan’s successor in goal for the Canadiens, Jacques Plante, is one of the most recognized and historical goaltender ever to stand in front of the net. Durnan like many of his teammates on the great Canadiens teams of the forties have been eclipsed in the hearts and minds of many by the dominant Canadiens squad’s of the fifties.
The unique story of Bill Durnan begins on January 22nd, 1915 in Toronto, Ontario. Ironically, like one of his predecessors in the Canadiens net, Georges Vezina, Bill Durnan played goal until his teenage year’s wearing a pair of boots, as opposed to skates. Eventually a friend of Bill’s “borrowed” a pair of blades from his father and despite Durnan’s protestations urged Bill to use them to learn how to skate.
“Don’t worry,’ Bill remembered his friend telling him, “you’re a big guy and you can fill the nets. The skating will come.”
The skating did come, but at the same time Durnan was able to develop a unique skill that hasn’t been replicated by future goaltenders, his ambidextrousness allowed him to present the opposition with a uniqueness, that has become with the passage of time, the main thing that people remember Durnan for.
Playing in the Toronto Church League, Durnan was fortunate enough to cross paths with a certain Steve Faulkner, a man whose debt he readily acknowledged for the rest of his life.
“It (being ambidextrous) was a tremendous asset and I owe that gift to Steve Faulkner,” Durnan reflected later. “Steve showed me how to switch the stick from one hand to another. It wasn’t easy at first because I was young and the stick seemed so heavy. But Steve kept after me and gradually the stick became lighter and I could switch it automatically.”
A natural right-hander, Durnan worked very hard to become ambidextrous, eventually resulting in the act of using either hand, becoming a completely natural move.
With his increasing skill level, honed on the rinks of the greater Toronto area, it seemed to be preordained that Durnan would one day take up the goaltending duties of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Durnan’s athletic talents were not solely limited to the hockey rinks however. Durnan was also noted for his baseball skills (both as a pitcher and a catcher), in addition to being a premier performer on the soccer pitches of Toronto.
It was Durnan’s size and big hands that eventually directed him to hockey and particular the nets. Standing six feet tall, and weighing around 200 pounds, Durnan was exceptionally big amongst goaltenders of his day. For example, his biggest professional rival, Turk Broda of the Toronto Maple Leafs, stood three inches shorter and thirty-five pounds lighter.
After four years of playing with various teams in Toronto and Sudbury, it seemed that Durnan was the heir apparent to the Leafs goaltending job. 1935 saw Durnan’s personal and professional life take an unexpected turn however, when he injured his knee, while play wrestling with a friend, and then compounded that by breaking his leg that summer playing softball.
Upon hearing the news of the injury, the Leafs immediately lost interest and took Durnan off their negotiating list.
“When the Leafs found about my injury they dropped me and I vowed that even when I got better I would never play pro hockey,” a bitter Durnan remembered later in life. “I was disillusioned and figured if that was the treatment I was to get, then hell, I didn’t want any part of it. Besides there wasn’t much money involved; in those days they weren’t paying anywhere near the money to be had today. So, I quit altogether. Playing in the NHL was about as far from my mind as swimming on Mars.”
With his dreams of a career in the professional ranks seemingly at a dead end, Durnan moved north to take a job (at $75 a week) and began playing senior hockey for the Kirkland Lake Blue Devils.
It’s hard for today’s fans to grasp the importance of senior hockey in Canada in the forties and fifties. In many ways, throughout Canada, senior hockey was more popular than the NHL at the time. With only six teams and no television, senior hockey was the big leagues in the cities that hosted a team.
It was in Kirkland Lake that Durnan reestablished his reputation as an elite goalie, leading Kirkland Lake to the 1940 Allan Cup, symbolizing the championship of Canadian senior hockey.
Basking in the success of the Allan Cup championship, Durnan fielded an offer from the Montreal Royals to be their goaltender, in addition to being given a job at a local plant.
Three years later, Durnan after proving himself up to the task was invited to the Montreal Canadiens training camp, after the Habs incumbent goalie, Paul Bibeault was drafted into the Army.
Watching Bill Durnan, day after day, that fall of 1943, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin soon reported to the Habs general manager, Tommy Gorman, that Durnan was the solution to the Habs goaltending dilemma. Gorman, remarked that Durnan was as “big as a house but as nimble as a cat.”
Using specifically designed gloves, Durnan astounded the Habs brass and all those who saw him, by clutching his stick with both hands and catching the puck with both hands. This allowed Durnan to have his glove hand covering the open side of the net all the time, depending on the shooters angle. Durnan’s on-ice competitiveness was also noted by Gorman, who felt that Durnan and his play gave the rest of the team a spark.
Despite being offered the spot by Canadiens management, Durnan hesitated to sign. The pain of his dismissal from the Leafs still stung, as did the fact that at the advanced age of 28, Durnan harbored some internal doubts, considering his financial future and also feeling he was too old to play in the NHL.
“I wasn’t ordered to sign,” Durnan remembered, “but there’s no question that some stress was put on me which I resisted at first. Somehow, I managed to hold out until the day of the opening game and got the Canadiens management to give into my wishes. I signed for the huge sum of $4200 and found myself on a hockey team just beginning to gel.”
Signing on the dotted line a mere ten minutes before the Habs opening game at the Forum against the Bruins, Durnan missed the pre-game warm-up.
In a debut that was reminiscent of another of his predecessors in the Montreal nets, George Hainsworth; Durnan, an English-Canadian from Ontario, supplanted a French-Canadian as the Montreal Canadiens starting goaltender.
Knowing very little about him, the fans at the Forum weren’t quick to warm to Durnan. During the game however that quickly changed; a legend was born, as Durnan backstopped the Canadiens to a 2-2 tie. After that first game, “he won the respect of his teammates and fans alike” observed one writer.
It’s hard to imagine any goaltender having a more successful rookie year than Bill Durnan enjoyed during the 1943-44 season. Playing on what might have been the greatest team in Montreal Canadiens history, powered by the Punch line of Elmer Lach, Toe Blake, and the resurgent Maurice “Rocket” Richard; Durnan played in all fifty games, winning 38, tying 7, and losing only 5 games during the regular season. In the playoffs, Durnan led the Habs to their first Stanley Cup in thirteen years, by defeating the Leafs in five games, and then sweeping the Black Hawks in the finals.
Particularly gratifying for Durnan had to be the clinching game of the Leafs series, which saw Durnan shutout the Leafs, in an 11-0 whitewash. At the conclusion of the season the honors poured in for Durnan, the first rookie to ever capture the Vezina trophy, leading the league in games played, goals against average, and being named to the first all-star team.
Ironically, the one honor that eluded Durnan that spring was the Calder trophy, symbolizing the NHL’s top rookie. Gus Bodnar, an eighteen year old rookie for the Leafs, finished tenth in league scoring, and took home the award.
The following year saw Durnan repeat his Vezina trophy winning success, becoming the first repeat winner since George Hainsworth. Named once again to the first all-star team, Durnan once again playing in all fifty games, led the Habs to another regular season title, losing only eight games along the way. The first round of the playoffs however saw the Canadiens fall victim to the Leafs in a huge upset.
Durnan became the first three-peat winner of the Vezina trophy in 1945-46, once again leading the Habs to a regular season title, in addition to being named to the first all-star team for a third consecutive year. This spring would be different for the Canadiens, as the team needed only nine games to recapture the Stanley Cup.
1946-47 saw Durnan capture his fourth straight Vezina trophy, along with a fourth straight first all-star team nod, while leading the Canadiens to a fourth straight first-place finish in the regular season. The playoffs however, saw the Canadiens dethroned in the finals by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The first four years of Bill Durnan’s career were unprecedented, four Vezina trophies, four first team all-star selections, four regular season titles, and two Stanley Cups. It’s hard to imagine any future goalie being able to top the incredible start to Durnan’s career.
1947-48 was a difficult year for the Canadiens and for Durnan. The team failed to make the playoffs; Turk Broda of the Maple Leafs won the Vezina trophy and was named to the first all-star team. The Canadiens captain Toe Blake suffered a career-ending leg injury, resulting in Durnan being named the team’s captain for the remainder of the season, the last time a goalie wore the “C” on his sweater.
The following year was a return to form for Durnan and the Canadiens. Relinquishing the captaincy to Emile “Butch” Bouchard, Durnan led the Habs back to the playoffs, recapturing the Vezina trophy and for the fifth time was named to the first all-star team.
Most notably, that spring saw Durnan set a shutout record that would endure for over a half-century. Amassing four consecutive shutouts, Durnan went 309 minutes and 21 seconds without surrendering a goal. In 2004, Brian Boucher of the Phoenix Coyotes finally broke one of the league’s longest standing records, by keeping the puck out of the net for 332 minutes and 5 seconds.
Durnan was on top of his game, recognized as the preeminent goalie of his day, and perhaps the greatest in hockey history. During the 1949-50 seasons, however, the grind of playing game in game out began to take its toll on Durnan. To those watching from the stands, there appeared to be no changes in Durnan’s performances. He captured his sixth Vezina trophy in seven seasons, and for the sixth time was named to the first all-star team.
But it had been four years since the Canadiens had carried off the Stanley Cup, and the fans in Montreal, quickly becoming accustomed to winning, increasingly judged the team and their players against their own standards of a few years before. It was a standard that was quickly becoming impossible to maintain.
“In the 1949-50 season the Montreal fans were particularly tough on our goalie, Bill Durnan,” Maurice Richard remembered later. “They demanded perfection from us. This bothered me because Durnan was one of the nicest guys in the world. He had a smile for everybody and never said a word against anyone. As a teammate, you couldn’t ask for anything more. After one bad game, he walked into the room and actually was crying. The crowd had been booing him.”
Injuries began to take their toll on Durnan, and Gerry McNeil was pressed into action for six games during the 1949-50 season.
As the playoffs began, Durnan was struggling with thoughts of retirement. Viewed by his teammates as an easygoing man, friendly and calm, the toll of playing began to wear him down physically and mentally.
After losing the first three games of the semi-final series to the New York Rangers, Durnan pulled himself from the Habs nets, never to return.
“I was afraid I was blowing things,” Durnan reflected years later. “I really wasn’t, I guess, but we hadn’t won a game and I didn’t want to be blamed for it. And I felt I wasn’t playing as well as I had in the past. The nerves and all the accompanying crap were built up. It was the culmination of a lot of thinking and I realized, ‘What the hell, I’m quitting and this is as good a time as any.”
“Bill Durnan was our goalie and he was the best there was and he was a fabulous fellow,” remembers teammate Emile “Butch” Bouchard. “He was a goalie who would never blame his defensemen because they blocked his view or something. He always took the blame whenever a goal went in. He was a real team player. He had those good hands and in the last year he played he hurt his hand real badly. He quit in the playoffs because of his nerves, but I think he was really worried that he couldn’t help the team because of his hand. He couldn’t handle the puck properly at all.”
Bill Durnan retired as one of the most decorated goaltenders in hockey history. He also became the poster boy for the nervous, frayed - on the verge of a breakdown - goalie, a subject that would be brought up every time it was thought a future goaltender was getting a “little scared.”
It was a perception that Bill Durnan spent the rest of his life fighting.
“A lot of people thought it was a nervous breakdown but it wasn’t,” Durnan protested later in life. “To this day, people still won’t believe me.”
“One of the main reasons for chucking it all was because the fun was going out of the game for me,” Durnan insisted. “A lot of my old pals were leaving – or had gone – and much of the camaraderie was missing.”
Further to Durnan’s decision were financial concerns. “At the end of any given season when I was playing I never seemed to have more than $2000 in the bank, so I wasn’t really getting anywhere that way. I wasn’t educated and had two little girls to raise.”
Retirement saw Bill Durnan try his hand at a variety of jobs; he ran a hotel in Ottawa, tried coaching junior hockey, represented a brewery, and became a presence on Hockey Night in Canada.
The Canadiens unprecedented success in the 1950’s and the ascension of Jacques Plante as the game’s greatest and most innovative goaltender quickly relegated Bill Durnan to a spot in the background in Montreal hockey history.
Sadly for Durnan, his health began to falter in the 1960’s as he developed diabetes amongst other ailments. In 1972, at the all too young age of 57, Bill Durnan passed away in a Toronto hospital.
Since his retirement twenty-two years earlier, the Canadiens had proceeded to win eleven more Stanley Cups and Bill Durnan had become a footnote in Canadiens history. Despite his unprecedented success, Bill Durnan has become a forgotten man in the 100 year story of the Montreal Canadiens. Those who have followed him in the Montreal nets have garnered more acclaim. Both Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden have had their numbers retired, with Patrick Roy soon to join them.
Bill Durnan’s name doesn’t hang from the Bell Centre rafters, yet he may have been the greatest goaltender ever to play for the Montreal Canadiens. The true measure of Durnan’s greatness is in the reminiscences of those who saw him masterfully patrol the Habs net.
After fifty years of being in the game, Dick Irvin Sr. regarded him as the greatest goalie in hockey history.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with the legendary Howie Meeker of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and later Hockey Night in Canada fame. Sharing stories he shared the following story about Bill Durnan with me.
“My first game with the Leafs happened to be against the Canadiens,” an animated Meeker told me. “I was always taught that if I didn’t have the puck in the offensive zone and a teammate did, then it was my job to sprint to the net, act as a screen, and be ready for a rebound. So I go to the front of the Montréal net and act as a screen.
Unfortunately, we went offside and I went for a shift change. As I’m skating to the bench, I can feel the heavy breathing of somebody following me. I turned around and found myself face-to-face with an angry Bill Durnan.
‘Listen kid, if you ever stand in front of me again, and get in the way of me seeing the puck, I’ll take this stick and shove it straight up you’re a**”
Meeker told me that he quickly made a beeline to the Leafs bench and found himself beside Syl Apps, the legendary Leafs superstar.
“I told Apps what just happened,” Meeker continued. “Apps’ looked at me with a most serious look and said in the calmest voice imaginable, ‘you better listen to him Howie; he’ll do it.”
“That was Bill Durnan,” laughed Meeker.
Bill Durnan was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964.