In the 1940s, guys who played for the Montreal Canadiens used to form a softball team in the off-season. Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Reardon played second base for the squad, but he was as much a spectator as he was a player. That’s because the team’s pitcher was Bill Durnan. “The ball still hasn’t got to me,” Reardon told the authors of Without Fear: The Greatest Goalies of All-Time more than 50 years later. “They couldn’t hit Bill. He’d even tell them where he was going to throw it and they still couldn’t touch it.”
It wasn’t the only time Durnan confounded his opponents. Durnan was the ultimate enigma, whether he was snatching pucks out of nowhere for the Canadiens or sending opposing hitters back to their bench, cursing as they went. He was dominant and brilliant in ways few could figure out. And had Durnan not trekked to Kirkland Lake, Ont., during the Great Depression, lured to northern Ontario at a time when jobs were nonexistent in exchange for pitching for the company team, his NHL career would have never materialized. “I remember talking to Kenny Reardon about Durnan,” said Bob Duff, one of the co-authors of Without Fear, “and he got really emotional. We talked for a long time and he could not say enough about how much he loved that man and what that guy went through for them. When I thanked him, he gave me his cellphone number and he said, ‘I’m going up north to go hunting with the boys, but if you need anything, you call me. If you want to talk about Bill Durnan, I’ve got all day for you.’ That’s how much he thought of the guy.”
Durnan played seven years in the NHL and won the Vezina Trophy six times. Yet his body of work was as baffling as it was brilliant. He was driven out of the game not by a decline in his ability but by shattered nerves that seemed so common among goalies who played without a mask. The most prominent blotch on his record, however, was that despite his dominance in the regular season he simply couldn’t match that level of play in the playoffs. He won only two Cups with the Canadiens and was routinely outplayed by Toronto’s Turk Broda, who lacked Durnan’s imposing physical stature and didn’t have much use for regular-season accolades. But once the puck dropped for the playoffs, Broda forged a reputation as one of the great money goaltenders of his era, often at Durnan’s expense.
Durnan had been left embittered and disillusioned after being released by his hometown Maple Leafs because of an injury, without ever playing a game for them. He once said the prospect of playing in the NHL after being spurned by the Leafs was about as far from his mind as swimming on Mars. So Durnan went to Kirkland Lake to be a hired gun for a mining company’s softball team and was persuaded to play goal for the hockey team in the winter. He ended up leading the Kirkland Lake Blue Devils to the Allan Cup in 1940. After that, he played senior hockey for two years in Montreal and then reluctantly signed with the Canadiens as a 27-year-old rookie hours before the start of the 1943-44 season.
There have been some remarkable debut seasons in the NHL, but none more dominating than Durnan’s rookie campaign. Durnan played every minute of every Canadiens game in 1943-44 and went 38-5-7, winning the Vezina Trophy and leading Montreal to the Stanley Cup. Had the Conn Smythe Trophy been in existence, Durnan likely would’ve won it since he went 8-1 in the playoffs and gave up only 14 goals. It’s baffling how he didn’t win both the Calder and Hart Trophies along with the Vezina that season. According to hockey-reference.com, in 1943-44 Durnan had 15 “point shares” – an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player due to his play – which was almost double that of Hart winner Babe Pratt. Only one goalie who has won the Calder has ever matched that mark, and that was in 1971-72 by Ken Dryden, whose career with the Canadiens was almost a carbon copy of Durnan’s.
The comparisons to Dryden are uncanny. Neither Durnan nor Dryden expected to play in the NHL, and both were Toronto-born players who were cast aside by other organizations before starring with the Canadiens. But the similarities don’t end there. Neither has gotten his full due because of the teams that played in front of him. Durnan came to the Canadiens just as they were emerging from the dark ages of the late 1930s and early ’40s. The Habs were building a system under the astute leadership of Tommy Gorman and then Frank Selke in which they were hoarding Quebec-born players, many of whom didn’t share English Canada’s willingness to take up arms and join the Second World War, and Montreal’s network of scouts gave the organization the jump on a lot of players from outside Quebec that other teams might have missed.
When Durnan joined the Canadiens, they were in the process of becoming a powerhouse. In his first two years in the NHL, Durnan went a combined 76-13-11, with a 2.30 goals-against average, and only two of those losses came on home ice. Montreal’s goal differential those two seasons was plus-232, and the next-best team was the Detroit Red Wings at plus-94. In 1944-45, Durnan’s second year in the NHL, the three members of ‘The Punch Line’ – Elmer Lach between Toe Blake and Rocket Richard – finished 1-2-3 in league scoring. Durnan won his two Cups in his first three years with the Canadiens and the team finished first overall in each of his first four seasons. “What we know is that he is the goalie for a team that is by far the best in the NHL for a couple of years,” said hockey historian Eric Zweig. “Is he that good or is he that good because the team in front of him is so strong?”
As it was with Dryden, it was a lot of both. Unlike Dryden, who at least on the surface appeared to be one of the most poised goaltenders in the history of the game, Durnan was regularly a nervous wreck. Teammates and opponents said he would obsess over bad goals, playing them over and over in his head. One opponent even said Durnan followed him to the train station in Montreal after a game to find out how the guy scored on him. The Canadiens had an anteroom just off their dressing room, and between periods Durnan would often be found sitting alone in that room puffing on cigarettes. “My nerves are shot and I know it,” Durnan told The Hockey News after his retirement in 1950. “It got so bad that I couldn’t sleep the night before a game. I couldn’t even keep my meals down. I felt nothing was worth that kind of agony.”
Born: January 22, 1916, Toronto, Ont.
NHL Career: 1943-50
Stats: 208-112-62, 2.36 GAA, 34 SO
All-Star: 6 (First-6)
Trophies: 6 (Vezina-4)
Stanley Cups: 2
DID YOU KNOW?
Durnan is the only known ambidextrous goaltender in NHL history. In fact, he had special gloves made that allowed him to catch the puck with either hand, sometimes changing his stick hand in the middle of the play. Durnan credited a coach by the name of Steve Faulkner for encouraging him to use both hands when he played in a church league in Toronto as a youngster. A classic standup goaltender, Durnan rarely surrendered rebounds because his catching hand was so good. There is a story in hockey lore, though, in which Gordie Howe outsmarted him. Legend has it Howe was on a breakaway once when Durnan switched hands, only to have Howe switch hands himself and score.