BY ERIC ZWEIG
On Monday night, Martin Brodeur broke Terry Sawchuk’s long-standing NHL record with his 104th career shutout. It was a record many had once considered unbreakable. Yet the truth is the New Jersey netminder has only moved himself into a tie for the all-time lead in ‘major league’ hockey history.
George Hainsworth recorded 94 shutouts in just 465 games during 11 NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs between 1926 and 1937. Hainsworth now ranks third in shutouts in NHL history, but he also recorded 10 shutouts in three seasons with the Saskatoon Crescents of the Western (Canada) League between 1923 and 1926, giving him a total of 104 as well.
Though the NHL does not count numbers from the WCHL/WHL in its official record book, this was no mere minor league circuit, nor was it a pretender to the throne like the World Hockey Association of the 1970s. The Western League (though short-lived) was a true major league. Its champions competed annually against the NHL champion for the Stanley Cup, with the Victoria Cougars winning it in 1925. In fact, it was not until the collapse of the WHL that the NHL assumed control of hockey’s top prize.
In many ways, Brodeur and Hainsworth are a lot alike. Both played in a defensive era where new rules had to be devised to increase scoring and neither goalie was particularly flashy.
“I’m sorry I can’t put on a show like some of the other goaltenders. I can’t look excited because I’m not. I can’t shout at other players because that’s not my style. I can’t dive on easy shots and make them look hard. I guess all I can do is stop pucks.”
Brodeur might have said that, but it was actually Hainsworth in 1931.
“The pressure of playing a defensive game puts the spotlight on me, but I don’t think about it. I just have to play my game.”
Hainsworth could have said that, but it was Brodeur.
With the demise of the WHL in 1926, Hainsworth joined the Montreal Canadiens. Saskatoon teammate and former Habs superstar Newsy Lalonde recommended the goalie and Hainsworth proved to be a worthy replacement for the late Georges Vezina.
Hainsworth won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top netminder each of the first three years it was presented, culminating with the 1928-29 season when he posted a remarkable 22 shutouts and 0.92 goals-against average during a 44-game schedule.
It was after the 1928-29 season that the NHL introduced new rules, allowing forward passes in the offensive zone for the first time. Hainsworth’s GAA jumped to 2.42 in 1929-30 (still third in the NHL) and his shutouts dipped to four (second overall), but he was brilliant in the playoffs that year and the next as the Canadiens won back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Even under more modern passing rules, Hainsworth still managed 37 shutouts in his final seven full NHL seasons, an average of more than five per year, though schedules were only 48 games long. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
While Brodeur is a cinch to eventually notch the 105th shutout he needs to become the all-time leader, no one is likely to match the single-season marks Hainsworth established more than 80 years ago.
Eric Zweig is a managing editor with Dan Diamond and Associates, consulting publishers to the NHL, and the author of three books in 2009: “Fever Season,” “Tough Guys” and “On this Day in Hockey.”