Frank Brimsek had a face that looked as though it was chiseled right out of the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota where he grew up. With a perfectly square chin and the athletic ability to match his good looks, Brimsek gave every appearance he was the picture of health.
In reality, Brimsek played much of his career feeling terrible. Some of the maladies were real, others likely imagined. Brimsek was notoriously nervous and on edge, which was common in those days with guys who stood in front of speeding vulcanized rubber with inferior body equipment and no facial protection.
It became a running gag with the Boston Bruins that the worse Brimsek felt on a particular evening, the better he’d play. “(Bruins coach) Dit Clapper would ask him before the game how he felt and Brimsek would say, “Oh, I feel rotten,’ ” said Tyler Dilello, who wrote Mr. Zero: The Frank Brimsek Story in 2015. “And Clapper would say, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ because Clapper knew Frank would have a good game if he wasn’t feeling well before. (Brimsek) was a real worrier.”
With all due respect to Gerry Cheevers, Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, Brimsek is the greatest goaltender in Bruins history. That’s because he’s one of the greatest of all-time, despite the fact the NHL egregiously left him off its all-time top 100 list that it put together as part of the league’s 100th anniversary celebrations. Brimsek played 10 seasons in the NHL and was a first- or second-team all-star in eight of them. He backstopped the Bruins to two Stanley Cups. Maurice Richard, the greatest goal-scorer of his era, once said Brimsek was the toughest goalie he ever faced. Brimsek remains the only goalie in NHL history to win the Calder and Vezina Trophies as well as the Stanley Cup in the same season.
“Brimsek always seems to get underrated,” Dilello said. “I think maybe part of it was that he was American and he was a quieter player. And he didn’t really stay in the game after his career. But he’s definitely a top-100 player all-time and you could argue he’s a top-10 or top-15 goalie of all-time when you look at the stats.”
And if not for the Second World War, both Brimsek and the Bruins would be even more revered and likely would have more Cups. The war robbed the Bruins of their top line of Milt Schmidt between Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer for three seasons when they joined the Canadian forces and Brimsek for two seasons when he joined the U.S. Coast Guard.
The consensus is that when he came back after missing the 1943-44 and ’44-45 seasons, he wasn’t the same goalie as when he left. That’s understandable, since he went two years without playing much hockey – he did suit up occasionally with the Coast Guard Cutters – and later in his career had to deal with the death of an infant son. Plus, those maladies that seemed to be such a laughing matter among his teammates stopped being so funny. Brimsek developed diabetes near the end of his career, something that forced him to have a leg amputated later in life.
“World War II really hurt him,” said hockey historian Bob Duff, who co-authored Without Fear: Hockey’s 50 Greatest Goaltenders and ranked Brimsek 13th. “He served on a submarine and they figured that destroyed his legs and when he came back, he wasn’t the same. But when he got to the NHL, he was an instant star. It was like when Tony Esposito went to Chicago in 1969-70 and it was just dominance.”
Brimsek was a classic stand-up goalie who refused to go down to stop the puck the way many had begun to do in his time. He was known as a perfectionist who always seemed to be in the right position and had an uncanny ability to play the angles. Brimsek was supremely patient in net, almost never giving himself away by making the first move. In fact, he was so patient that Lester Patrick once said the only thing that moved less than Brimsek was the Washington Monument. And Richard once marveled about how he would come in on Brimsek and not have any room to shoot the puck.
“They called him ‘Frigid Frankie’ because he was so cool when playing,” Dilello said. “I’ve seen some video of him playing and he’s very technically sound. He always talked about playing the angles right and being parallel to the shooter with the post. He seemed so flawless. He had amazingly quick hands, but he also had amazingly quick feet. Not a lot of goalies can say their feet were quicker than their hands.”
Brimsek was known as ‘Frigid Frankie’ for reasons that went beyond the crease. In spite of his good looks and athletic prowess, he was painfully shy and a little reclusive. Some took that as aloofness, but in truth he preferred solitude, which was one of the reasons why he dropped out of the hockey world’s consciousness so quickly after he retired. In fact, he had to be coaxed into attending his own Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1966.
Brimsek went back to northern Minnesota where he could pursue his true passions of hunting and fishing. He died at 83 when he had a heart attack while shoveling snow, which he did while sitting on a stool because of the loss of his leg. In the end, Brimsek passed quietly and with little fanfare, which was the way he preferred to live.
Born: Sept. 26, 1915, Eveleth, Minn.
NHL Career: 1938-50
Teams: Bos, Chi
Stats: 252-182-80, 2.70 GAA, 40 SO
All-Star: 8 (First-2, Second-6)
Trophies: 3 (Vezina-2, Calder-1)
Stanley Cups: 2
DID YOU KNOW?
Legend has it that Bruins GM Art Ross signed Brimsek to a contract in 1938 after inviting him to the rink and taking 25 shots on him. Ross apparently decided there and then to sign Brimsek and trade fan-favorite ‘Tiny’ Thompson to Detroit. The deal was so reviled in Boston that reporters compared it to the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees 18 years prior. Things changed quickly when Brimsek posted shutouts in his first four games and had two three-game shutout streaks in the first month. Not long after, Brimsek earned the nickname ‘Mr. Zero.’