With no major issue hockey cards hitting the market between the 1941-42 and 1950-51 seasons, there is a generation of NHL players that have a limited cardboard legacy. Many great names came and went during this period, but there is likely none greater than Montreal Canadiens goaltender Bill Durnan.
When hockey cards boomed in the early 1990s, many collectors wisely invested in vintage items and rookie cards for big names like Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, and Terry Sawchuk that debuted in the 1951-52 Parkhurst set consistently grew in value. Additionally, the rookie cards of Hall of Famers from earlier sets piqued the interest of collectors – but players from that in-between era that had no cards were largely forgotten in the hobby. Unless a collector was an astute hockey historian, there was not a lot of talk about their on-ice accomplishments – people did not necessarily want to dig deep to learn about the legends of the pre-television era.
This was a true shame as one of those players was Bill Durnan. After being relatively ignored for decades, why is it still important to consider his contributions to the game? Well, let’s start with the fact that he is a six-time Vezina Trophy winner and two-time Stanley Cup champion and go from there.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, on January 22, 1916, Bill Durnan protected the net for several local teams between 1931-32 and 1935-36. The following season saw him head north to play in the small gold-mining town of Kirkland Lake for four years and win the Allan Cup. During that period, Canada went to war and he ended up on the roster of the senior Montreal Royals club in 1940-41.
After three years with the Royals, the Montreal Canadiens signed him as a free agent just days before the start of the 1943-44 campaign. With NHL rosters depleted thanks to the war effort, the Habs were a club on the rise thanks to the Punch Line of Richard, Toe Blake, and Elmer Lach and several other budding talents. The team was on the precipice of folding or relocating due to low attendance a few years earlier, but the turnaround was thankfully swift and kicked off a long era where Montreal remained a serious contender for the Stanley Cup – winning plenty along the way.
Durnan was a hit from the start with the Canadiens. As a rookie, he had a sparkling 38-5-7 record which saw him have the best totals in the league for wins and mind-boggling goals-against average of 1.46. He was handed the Vezina Trophy as a result, but actually finished second in voting for the Calder Trophy behind Gus Bodnar of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who delivered a 62-point effort which saw him finish 10th overall in scoring as well. Under today’s rule for Calder Trophy eligibility, players aged 26 or under can only qualify. At this time, Durnan was 28.
There was some small consolation coming Bill Durnan’s way in the playoffs that year. After finishing in first place, they needed only five games to eliminate Toronto in the opening round before sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final with a fourth game that needed overtime. All told, he gave up only 14 goals over nine playoff games that year.
Another Vezina Trophy was Durnan’s for the taking thanks to a second-straight 38-win season in 1944-45. This was also the year where Richard became the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals – and he did it in 50 games. However, the playoffs were not so kind as the Canadiens were knocked out by a surprising Maple Leafs squad which had freshman Frank “Ulcers” McCool in net instead of Turk Broda, who was off to war.
In 1945-46, the Habs and Bill Durnan were once again the NHL’s top team. Durnan missed a few games due to injury and was relieved by Paul Bibeault, but he came away with a third straight Vezina. The postseason saw Montreal sweep Chicago before knocking out Boston in five to win a second Stanley Cup in three years. During that clash with the Bruins, he won the first two games in overtime and prevailed in the third outing before going into overtime in Game 4. The Bruins won that one thanks to an overtime goal from Terry Reardon, but Montreal was ready for victory two nights later and closed out the series with a 6-3 victory that was sealed by a trio of third period goals.
The Ambidextrous Wonder
When looking at vintage photos of Durnan in his gear, one will notice that his gloves look a bit odd. The reason for this is that he was ambidextrous and needed gloves that would allow him to move the lumber from hand-to-hand. This undoubtedly helped him as an elite goaltender and no other goalie at the NHL level has attempted it since.
Kids growing up in the mid-to-late 1940s had very few options for any sort of collectible item featuring Bill Durnan’s likeness. The most popular of them all would be his Beehive photo, which could be obtained from sending in a label from Beehive Corn Syrup to the St. Lawrence Starch Company in Toronto. Quaker Oats also offered up a larger 8″ x 10″ photo as a premium and it has a few small cropping variations. Local Montreal radio CHLP had a series of Parade Sportive photos of Durnan alone or with teammates Butch Bouchard and Leo Lamoureux that were issued anywhere from 1943 to 1948.
An unprecedented fourth straight Vezina came in 1946-47 as the NHL increased the regular schedule to 60 games. Thanks to Durnan’s 34 wins, the Canadiens finished in first place and rolled over the Bruins in five games to reach their third Stanley Cup Final in four years. Once again, they ran into a hot Maple Leafs team and Durnan went head-to-head with his greatest rival, Broda. The pair traded shutouts over the first two games, but Toronto jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series thanks to an overtime victory in Game 4. Durnan battled back and prevailed in Game 5, but Game 6 was a tight affair that ended with the Canadiens on the losing side despite a close 2-1 score.
The only real crack in Bill Durnan’s legacy is his 1947-48 season. This was the year where he was named team captain and proudly wore the “C” on his sweater. However, the fact that he would have to leave the net so often to confer with referees created longer games and the league instituted a rule soon after that a goalie could not be an on-ice captain. Over 60 years later, Roberto Luongo served as captain of the Vancouver Canucks, but it was essentially a symbolic position.
This campaign was also a rough one for Montreal as they finished in fifth place and did not make the playoffs. Their goals-against inflated and Broda ended Durnan’s streak of Vezina Trophy victories. This was also the only season in his career where he was not named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team.
Twilight and Retirement
Bouncing back was on Bill Durnan’s mind in 1948-49 and he delivered in an epic fashion. Despite struggling to find consistency at times that year, he put together a long-lasting NHL record for scoreless play that lasted for over 309 minutes and resulted in four shutouts between February 26 and March 6, 1949. All told, he blanked the opposition 10 times that year – marking yet another NHL best. He was awarded the Vezina once again and returned to the First All-Star Team, but the playoffs proved to be an incredible challenge.
Facing the up-and-coming Detroit Red Wings with the Production Line of Sid Abel, Howe, and Ted Lindsay, the Canadiens fought in vain to stave off the Motor City’s best. Game 1 was a triple overtime defeat, but Durnan and his teammates pulled off a two-game lead soon after. Games 4 and 5 went in the favor of the Red Wings to take the lead in the series, but Durnan evened it up by letting in just one goal in Game 6. With everything on the line in Game 7, though, the Red Wings were victorious and earned the right to face off against Toronto for the title.
Durnan was back in the crease in 1949-50, but he was beginning to let stress get to him. With Gerry McNeil waiting in the wings, the 34-year-old still managed to lead the NHL in goals-against average to wrangle a sixth, and final, Vezina and First All-Star Team nod. No other goaltender before or since has pulled off such a feat, but he was growing weary of the game.
The playoffs began on a sour note for Bill Durnan as he lost three straight to the New York Rangers. At that point, he stepped down and let McNeil take over in the crease. The fact that he retired mid-series was shocking – especially when he was essentially still at his peak. However, financial realities and a loss of passion for the game won out.
In retirement, Durnan would coach at the senior level and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964. He passed away in 1972 due to kidney failure resulting from diabetes.
It was also after his playing days where Bill Durnan was finally featured on mass-market trading cards. While the Oldtime Greats subset card from 1955-56 Parkhurst is widely regarded as his rookie card, there was one featured in the multi-sport 1951 Berk Ross Parade of Champions release. This card uses the same shot as the Quaker Oats photos but has an odd tint to it. It was issued in a pair with fellow Hall of Famer Bill Quackenbush, who was still active at that time.
Speaking of that Parkhurst card, it also has a couple of parallels of sorts. Around the time of issue, Quaker Oats decided to release a slightly altered version of the 1955-56 Parkhurst set in boxes that had a green tint on the back instead of red. However, there is also a slight card stock variation for the regular Parkhurst cards where one is noticeably lighter than the other. The darker cards seem to be much easier to find as well, but few collectors have noticed this over the years.
From that point forward, finding a new card of Durnan was a rarity. The Hockey Hall of Fame issues from Cartophilium arrived in the mid-1980s, but even the early part of the boom years and beyond left collectors with little to hunt down. In 1991-92, the set produced by Kraft made a card of Durnan and Broda shaking hands as part of their tribute to the NHL’s 75th anniversary. The next year, there was a card in the 1992-93 O-Pee-Chee Canadiens Hockey Fest set issued in conjunction with the 1993 NHL All-Star Game and the decade rounded out with Durnan being featured in the 1993-94 High Liner Greatest Goalies set that came in boxes of frozen fish and a neat “what if” insert in the 1994-95 Parkhurst Tall Boys release which featured a shot of the legendary goalie on the 1951-52 Parkhurst design which could be punched out of the oversized card.
Moving into the new millennium, Upper Deck made its first card of Durnan as part of the 1999-00 Century Legends product. It was also the first to have a numbered parallel. In The Game featured him prominently in the 2001-02 Be A Player Between The Pipes base set and also issued his first game-used memorabilia cards. He would be given plenty of cardboard by the company for over a decade and even made cut signature cards. After In The Game was sold to Leaf Trading Cards in 2014, that company has issued numerous Durnan memorabilia cards and President’s Choice Trading Cards also featured him in their limited releases. As this scarce material is used up for cards, one can wonder if the amount of them trickling into the market will come to an end.
Additionally, Canada Post issued a small card set in 2004 which had a stamp with Durnan’s likeness embedded into it. Upper Deck also made a few cards of him as part of their exceedingly popular 2008-09 Canadiens Centennial product.
You can see vintage and modern era Bill Durnan cards on eBay here.