Bill Durnan entered the professional game late and didn't stay for long, but he packed an entire career's worth of awards and recognition into his seven National Hockey League seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. He won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder an amazing six times, missing out on the award only once when Toronto's Turk Broda borrowed it in 1948.
In 1936, the ambidextrous Durnan played hockey in the northern Ontario league with the Kirkland Lake Blue Devils. He spent four seasons with the Devils, backstopping the team to the Allan Cup in 1940. Friends in Montreal convinced him to take a job with the Royals in that city following his success with Kirkland Lake. After three years in the Quebec senior league he finally caught the attention of a National Hockey League team when the Montreal Canadiens began noticing the goalie star in their own backyard.
Up to that point, Durnan had earned at most $15 per week between playing hockey, softball and doing a variety of odd jobs. The Canadiens manager Tommy Gorman, was known to drive a hard bargain when it came to negotiating contracts with his players. At the Habs' training camp in 1943, he settled on Durnan as his goalie, but the amateur didn't make it easy on the general manager. Durnan proved to be a tough negotiator, saying he was happy as an amateur and happy with less money if it meant avoiding the stress of the professional game. On opening night, the goalie still wasn't signed. A mere 10 minutes before the first faceoff, he spoke with Gorman and the Montreal skipper finally mumbled the figures Durnan was waiting to hear. He signed his name to the contract and ran down the hall to dress for the game. The ink was hardly dry on the signature when he finished his debut, a 2-2 draw with the Boston Bruins. Incredibly, the rookie netminder was a few months shy of his 29th birthday.
That first season the Canadiens had the offensive services of the Punch Line - Elmer Lach, Rocket Richard and Toe Blake - but it was the often spectacular play of Durnan that took Montreal back to the Stanley Cup after 13 years of frustration. He led the league in games played, wins and goals-against average in the regular season and in the playoffs, when he allowed only 1.53 goals per game as the Canadiens skated to the title. Durnan was awarded the Vezina Trophy, the first rookie to win the award, and was selected to the league's First All-Star Team.
It's hard to imagine a better four-year introduction to the NHL than Durnan's. He won the Vezina Trophy for the four consecutive seasons and cemented himself on the First All-Star Team. Montreal won the Stanley Cup again in 1946 and finished first in the league after the regular season each year. Durnan suffered his only losing season in 1947-48. For the first and only time, he didn't lead the league in goals -against average and Montreal missed the playoffs. Broda, with the powerhouse Maple Leafs, took Durnan's spot on the First All-Star Team and had his name engraved on the Vezina Trophy as well as the Stanley Cup. Durnan returned to his winning ways in 1948-49, setting a modern league record with a shutout streak that lasted over 309 minutes and four games. In the next two seasons he was once again the best goalie in the league.
Durnan was an easygoing man, friendly and calm, but over time the stress of playing - and the mental and physical toll of so many minutes and games between the posts - began to wear him down. In 1950 he abruptly retired from the game at the age of 35, while still in his prime.
Durnan was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964.