Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Bill Durnan
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One on One with Bill Durnan

16 JAN 2009
Just a few months ahead of his 29th birthday, Bill Durnan joined the Montreal Canadiens after honing his goaltending skills with both the Kirkland Lake Blue Devils and Montreal Royals.
Just a few months ahead of his 29th birthday, Bill Durnan joined the Montreal Canadiens after honing his goaltending skills with both the Kirkland Lake Blue Devils and Montreal Royals. (HHOF Images)
Although he didn't climb into the National Hockey League until he was 27 years old, Bill Durnan made the most of his brief career, winning the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender six times in a career comprised of seven seasons. William Ronald Durnan was born in Toronto, Ontario on January 22, 1916. The lanky youngster embraced goaltending because of a particular role model. "The greatest I ever saw was Charlie Gardiner," Durnan later stated. After joining the North Toronto Juniors in 1931-32, Bill spent one season with the Sudbury Wolves of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey Association, returning to Toronto to play Industrial and Mercantile hockey. Good enough to be signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bill suffered a knee injury that prompted Toronto to release him. "When the Leafs found out about my injury, they dropped me. I vowed that even when I got better, I would never play pro hockey," stated Durnan. "I was disillusioned and figured that if that was the kind of treatment I was going to get, then hell, I didn't want any part of it!"

In 1936-37, Durnan moved to Kirkland Lake and joined a senior team called the Blue Devils. The team found him a job in a local gold mine and that satisfied Bill. "Playing in the NHL was about as far from my mind as swimming on Mars!"

But the competitive juices flowed, as the Kirkland Lake Blue Devils were a fine club who took the Allan Cup as senior champions of Canada in 1940. By the next season, Bill was persuaded to join the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, also working full-time in the accounting department at Canadian Car and Foundry. "I hadn't given the NHL a second thought. That incident with the Leafs was still sharp in my mind and I never wanted to go pro," explained Bill. "My boss (at the foundry) was Len Peto, who was also a director with the (Montreal) Canadiens. I had a good job and was making a little extra from the Royals when Peto started pressuring me to sign with the Canadiens."

Bill Durnan wore a pair of special gloves that permitted him to catch with either hand while still holding his stick.
As an ambidextrous netminder, Durnan wore a pair of special gloves that permitted him to catch with either hand while still holding his stick. (HHOF Images)
Peto was persistent, and after much negotiating, Montreal's general manager Tommy Gorman finally got Durnan's name on a contract with the Canadiens on October 30, 1943. "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 $4,200 and found myself on a hockey team just beginning to gel."

When Durnan joined the Canadiens in 1943-44, he became part of a team that featured the incomparable Punch Line – Toe Blake, Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard. That season, led by the scoring stars of the Punch Line and the solid goaltending of the rookie, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. Bill also was named to the NHL's First All-Star Team and was named recipient of the Vezina Trophy for compiling the best goals-against average in the league, the first rookie ever to achieve the feat. In his first four seasons in the NHL, Durnan was all but invincible. He was the NHL's First All-Star goalie each of those four seasons, and also captured the Vezina Trophy in each of the four campaigns. In 1946, the team won a second Stanley Cup championship with Durnan in goal.

The Canadiens endured a poor season in 1947-48, a season in which Bill served as captain of the Canadiens, sharing the honour with Toe Blake. He was the last netminder to wear a 'C' on his sweater. The league ruled against goalies serving as captains, although Roberto Luongo was named as captain of the Vancouver Canucks in 2008-09 but is not able to wear the captain's 'C.'

Bill Durnan with his starting Montreal line-up, including Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach & Toe Blake - the Punch Line
In Durnan's first season, Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach & Toe Blake formed one of the league's top offensive threats which quickly became known as the 'Punch' Line. (Turofsky Collection/HHOF)
Both the team and Durnan rebounded after 1947-48, with the netminder collecting his fifth and sixth Vezina Trophy wins in 1948-49 and 1949-50. He was a First Team All-Star in both of those seasons as well. During 1948-49, Bill set an NHL record with a shutout streak that lasted between February 26 and March 6, 1949, when he earned four consecutive shutouts, not allowing a single goal through a span of 309 minutes, 21 seconds. This incredible record took 55 years to break. Brian Boucher of the Phoenix Coyotes finally broke Bill's record in 2004.

Through his outstanding seven-season NHL career, Bill Durnan attributed much of his success to the fact he was ambidextrous. "It was a tremendous asset and I owe that gift to Steve Faulkner, one of my coaches in a church league in Toronto when I was just a youngster," Durnan told Inside Sports in 1997. "Steve showed me how to switch the stick from one hand to the other. It wasn't easy at first because I was so young and the stick seemed so heavy, but Steve kept after me and gradually the stick became lighter and I could switch it automatically." By keeping his catching glove moving from one side to the other, it often robbed shooters of sure goals. "I noticed the opposition was unaware that I was switching hands, and later on when I was in the NHL, it often took years before the other guys knew I was ambidextrous."

Bill Durnan warming up with his Montreal teammates, some of the league's best shooters.
With the league's best shooters warming him up, there's no wonder why Durnan captured the Vezina trophy in each of his first four seasons in the NHL. (Turofsky Collection/HHOF)
During the playoffs against the New York Rangers in 1950, Durnan pulled himself out of the series. The Canadiens were down three games to one and were on the brink of elimination. "I was afraid I was blowing things," Bill shrugged. "I felt I wasn't playing as well as I did 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 as time as any.'"

Following the successes earned during the 1949-50 season, Bill surprised the hockey world by retiring mid-series. "Hockey started to get rough for me at the end of the 1940s," he admitted. "I had broken my hand and after it mended, it felt as if my arm was falling off whenever I'd catch the puck. My reflexes had gotten a little slow and besides, the money wasn't really that good. At the end of any given season when I was playing, I never seemed to have more than $2,000 in the bank, so I wasn't really getting anywhere that way. I wasn't educated and I had two girls to raise."

Durnan had lost much of his enthusiasm for the game. "The fun was going out of the game for me. A lot of my old pals were leaving, or had gone, and much of the camaraderie was missing."

Bill Durnan with Toronto Maple Leaf netminder Turk Broda
Durnan's only season in which he failed to capture the Vezina came in 1947-48. Toronto Maple Leaf netminder Turk Broda captured the top goalie award in what would be Durnan's only losing season throughout his seven-year career. (Turofsky Collection/HHOF)
Bill Durnan played in 383 regular season games, all with the Canadiens, through seven superb seasons, earning 208 wins against 112 losses and 62 ties. He had 34 shutouts and completed his NHL career with a goals-against average of 2.36. In post-season play, Bill won 27 (including 2 shutouts) and lost just 18 times in 45 games. His g.a.a. was a sparkling 2.07.

Six times a First Team All-Star and six times the recipient of the Vezina, Durnan was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964. In 1998, The Hockey News ranked Bill number 34 on their list of 100 Greatest Hockey Players. Bill Durnan died October 31, 1972 at the age of 56

Bill Durnan is presented his Hockey Hall of Fame inductee plaque by former NHL President Clarence Campbell at the 1964 Induction Ceremony
Bill Durnan (left) is presented his Hockey Hall of Fame inductee plaque by former NHL President Clarence Campbell (right) at the 1964 Induction Ceremony. (HHOF Images)

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features at the Hockey Hall of Fame.