The days of old time hockey had a scant few American-born stars outside of Hall of Famers like Frank Goheen and Hobey Baker, but no player from the United States had been a superstar in the NHL before the arrival of Frank Brimsek with the Boston Bruins in 1938-39. Today’s collectors may not realize his significance within the game and the hobby itself, but now is as good a time as any to discuss his cards and memorabilia.
A native of Eleveth, Minnesota, Brimsek was born on September 26, 1915 and began his odyssey to hockey immortality with the Pittsburgh Yellowjackets at the age of 19 in 1934-35. After three seasons in the Steel City, he graduated to the AHL’s Providence Reds and led the team to a Calder Cup championship in 1937-38. He did attend training camp for the Detroit Red Wings as a teenager, but did not end up cracking the roster.
Arrival in Beantown
With Cecil “Tiny” Thompson in the twilight of his career, the Bruins signed Brimsek as a free agent on October 27, 1938. A week later, he debuted against the Toronto Maple Leafs and earned a victory. He won his next outing against Detroit on November 6, but was out of the lineup for a few weeks while Thompson took over the crease for five games.
With a serious dilemma on their hands, the Bruins decided to go with the younger goaltender and shipped Thompson off to Detroit for fellow goalie Normie Smith on November 25. Free to rule the net, Brimsek continued what proved to be one of the greatest rookie seasons in NHL history. After experiencing his first career loss to Montreal on December 1, he recorded six shutouts over the next seven games – surrendering just two to the Habs on December 13. By the end of the 1938-39 season, he had earned the nickname of Mr. Zero and had a remarkable 33-9-1 record to go along with a 1.56 goals-against average and 10 whitewashes. He was voted the NHL’s Rookie of the Year and earned a Vezina Trophy nod to go along with a spot on the league’s First All-Star Team.
If that was not enough, he was brilliant during playoff action. During the semi-finals, he prevailed in a seven-game thriller with the New York Rangers and then eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five to take home the Stanley Cup.
At this time, hockey cards were becoming less of a concern in Canada due to the country’s involvement in World War II, but the 1939-40 O-Pee-Chee set was sure to include him on the checklist. The 5″ x 7″ black and white lithographs were part of the second-last set made before the London, Ontario-based company went on hiatus from making cards and it was the only card made during his playing days. There were two types of Beehive photos featuring Brimsek that were issued during this era and later in his career as well.
Another Cup and Off to War
Brimsek did not experience much of a sophomore jinx and led the league with 31 victories in 1939-40. Things got even better in 1940-41 as he won the Vezina for the second, and final, time in addition to backstopping the Bruins to another Stanley Cup. He was still one of the NHL’s best in the two seasons that followed, but listened to the call from his country and stepped away from the game for two seasons to serve in the Coast Guard. He even tended goal for the Coast Guard Cutters hockey club in 1943-44 before serving in the South Pacific.
Back in Boston’s lineup for 1945-46, he had average numbers during the regular season and turned things up a notch on the way to the Stanley Cup Final. While he did not win, he was consoled by his sixth of what proved to be eight spots on the NHL’s postseason All-Star Team (First on two occasions, Second six times). In 1947-48, he finished second in voting for the Hart Trophy, but he only spent one more year in Boston as the club celebrated its 25th season in the NHL.
With Jack Gelineau nipping at his heels, Brimsek was suddenly expendable to Boston and he was sold to the Chicago Blackhawks on September 8, 1949. The 1949-50 season proved to be his last in the NHL and he went 22-38-10, missing the playoffs. He wound up with 252 career wins and 40 shutouts – numbers that took decades to be surpassed by an American goalies.
Brimsek did not appear on a card again until the 1983 Hockey Hall of Fame set produced by Montreal-based card store Cartophilium. In the 1993-94 Parkhurst Missing Link collection which served as a “what if” for the missing 1956-57 Parkhurst set, he was depicted on an insert set which was made in the pop-up style of 1936-37 O-Pee-Chee and inserted into cases sold in the United States.
Around this time as well, Parkhurst, which was owned by Dr. Brian Price, was toying with the idea of releasing a Pre-Parkie product which paid tribute to the players who skated before the 1951-52 season. Several living players from this era signed autographs, including Brimsek, but the set was never officially released.
In later years, these cards would surface in the 2004-05 Ultimate Memorabilia 5th Edition product from In The Game as they were embedded into full-sized cards. Today, they occasionally pop up for sale and served as the only certified autograph cards for Brimsek that were not extremely limited such as one-of-one cut signatures. Brimsek was also regularly part of numerous Between The Pipes releases from In The Game and regularly had game-used memorabilia cards which tended to include pieces from his Blackhawks and All-Star Game jerseys. You can see Frank Brimsek cards on eBay here.