Goaltender Frank Brimsek was an American playing in the NHL when the league was made up almost exclusively of Canadian-born players. The talented goaltender won the Vezina Trophy two times and earned the nickname "Mr. Zero". He enjoyed a stellar ten-year career during which he had a two-year break for military service in World War Two.
Frank Brimsek was only the second American-born and trained goalie to lead an NHL club to a Stanley Cup victory - the first being Mike Karakas (his hockey goalie predecessor and baseball teammate from high school times in his hometown Eleveth!) in 1937-38 with the Chicago Blackhawks. Brimsek would lead the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup twice in his career - in the 1938-39 and 1940-41 seasons.
Francis Charles Brimsek was born in Eveleth, Minnesota, on September 26th 1915. In this small town 100 miles away from Canada, the first ice hockey game had been played in 1903. The 3000-seat rink, built in 1922, was filled over its capacity for the games of the local amateur club during Frank's childhood. He started his hockey career playing in his hometown and later moved on to the Pittsburgh Yellowjackets of the EAHL (Eastern Amateur Hockey League) and later the Providence Reds of the IAHL (International American Hockey League, to become AHL).
The Boston Bruins were not the first NHL team to show an interest in Frank Brimsek. Originally the Detroit Red Wings claimed an interest in the goaltender. Their call was unexpected. In Eveleth, a community of five thousand inhabitants, people rarely worried about news outside of the tiny mining town. But after showing up for a Red Wings training camp he decided he wanted no part of the Detroit organization citing Jack Adams, the intimidating, dictatorial General Manager who "had a bad habit of favoritism", as the reason. Brimsek instead headed for Pittsburgh where his career started to flourish.
Once in the Steel City, Brimsek really started to show his ability as a goalie. In his second year with the Yellowjackets Brimsek posted eight shutouts in 38 games while winning the award given to the goaltender who allowed the fewest goals (George L. Davis Jr Trophy). His team in Providence won the league championship during his first season with the club while he posted superb numbers for the year. After several years of minor league hockey he was brought up by the Bruins to replace the legendary Cecil "Tiny" Thompson - himself now a Hockey Hall of Fame member. The Bruins fans were less than thrilled when Brimsek was announced as the starting goalie in his debut, but he quickly won the hearts of the Boston fans and the respect of his peers in the league.
Indeed Frank immediately paved his way to the Stanley Cup after embarking on two different shutout streaks. The first one lasted an incredible 231 minutes, 54 seconds. After that streak was broken he promptly started another shutout streak lasting 220 minutes, 24 seconds. The two streaks earned him the Mr. Zero nickname. He would lead the league twice in shutouts - recording an astounding 10 his rookie year.
An example for Americans
Brimsek greatly aided the development of the American game due to his success on the ice. During the era in which he played only a handful of Americans held down regular spots in the NHL. Ice hockey was slowly growing in popularity in the United States and the country was comprised of many good amateur leagues. His success led to the awareness of the talent becoming available in the United States. The Minnesota native forced the NHL executives to take longer looks at American-born players. The Chicago Blackhawks had a number of American-born players during the time Brimsek started his career in the NHL, but that was considered more of a publicity stunt (particularly among the Canadian executives) to draw American fans closer to the game. Frank Brimsek was the first American-born and trained player to dominate the league at a particular position and showed that Americans could indeed play the game and play it well. He was a superb goaltender in an era in which the NHL had a great many fine keepers. In 1939, after his rookie season, he won his first Vezina Trophy award as the league's best goalie (the other came in 1942) becoming the first American to win the award. It should be noted that prior to 1982 the Vezina Trophy was awarded to the goalie who had the lowest goals-against average for the season.
Brimsek played nine of his ten seasons for the Boston Bruins. During his first season in Boston he posted six shutouts in his first eight games! He also added the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie player that season in addition to his Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup victory.
In his rookie season Brimsek's stellar play helped lead the Bruins to victory in the Stanley Cup finals. The Bruins finished first in the league that year and were matched up against the New York Rangers in the semi-finals. The Rangers and the Bruins had no great like for each other and the series promised to be an exciting one despite the Boston club finishing sixteen points ahead of the Rangers during the regular season. The Rangers took the series to a full seven games. They battled back from being down three games to zero before the Bruins won game seven and a trip to the finals. Three of the games went into sudden death overtime and two of those went into a third overtime period. Mel Hill was the scoring hero for Boston scoring the three overtime winners while Frank Brimsek led the way in goal allowing only twelve goals against over the seven-game series. The Bruins then easily dispatched the Toronto Maple Leafs four games to one enabling the Boston club to earn their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Brimsek only allowed six goals in the five games of the final series. For the playoffs he posted a goals-against average of 1.25 and picked up all eight of the Bruins playoff victories. He also posted one shutout in the finals. All that from a rookie goaltender that most people raised their eyebrows about at the beginning of the year!
A confident goalie with fast hands
Perhaps his finest season for Boston came in the 1941-42 season when Boston's famous "Kraut Line" of Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer, and Woody Dumart all enlisted in the Canadian Armed forces. The Bruins were expected to have a dismal season after losing their scoring aces, but Brimsek was credited for holding the team together and just about single-handedly led Boston to the playoffs. During that season he again led the league in goals-against average.
More than fifty years after playing his final game for the famous Boston club Frank Brimsek still ranks second all-time in Bruins history with 35 shutouts. Only Thompson, the man he replaced, with 70 has more. Brimsek posted 230 wins, 144 losses and 70 ties for Boston with his win total again second only to Thompson.
Frank Brimsek was a classic standup style goalie who used a custom made extra heavy weighted stick - which he would use on anyone taking too much interest around his cage! He was well-respected by his peers and Hap Day and Frank Selke asserted that Brimsek was the finest goalie during his era. Canadiens and NHL legend Maurice Richard called Brimsek one of the toughest goaltenders he ever faced. No less than the famed Art Ross - who was the Boston General Manager during that time - claimed that Brimsek had the fastest hands that he had ever seen. One night in practice Ross took slap shots at Frank from 10 feet away (3 meters) - Brimsek turned away 25 consecutive shots. Cecil Thompson had stopped only 19 of 25, and that's why the Bruins decided to trust the young goalie and to send Thompson to the Jack Adams' Red Wings. Brimsek was a very fierce competitor and hated giving up goals even during team practices. Though he was hypocondriac before the games he was extremely confident on the ice and often threw shooters off during breakaways or penalty shots by simply leaning against the goalie cage and giving the appearance that he wasn't fully into the game or not ready for the coming rush.
Career interrupted by military service
During his two years of military service Brimsek played one season with the Coast Guard Cutters who previously played games in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, but went to a full exhibition schedule the year that he played with the squad. The Cutters, based in Curtis Bay, Maryland, were made up of some of the finest US minor league professionals and amateurs of the era and they were quite competitive. They played a physical, undisciplined brand of hockey and were accompanied by a band who played the Coast Guard marching song whenever they scored. They entertained the crowds, but other servicemen were fighting on the front, and people started to question why these players were able to play hockey while others fought in the war. The team was disbanded in 1944 after they won, for the second time, the National Senior Open Championship of the US Amateur Hockey Association. Brimsek's second year of service was on a supply ship in the Pacific Ocean.
Brimsek was fortunate to play on strong teams during his tenure in Boston. In his nine seasons with the Bruins they never missed the playoffs. Nevertheless, the Boston Garden crowd started to boo him at times during the 1948-49 season. Brimsek, who had faced the death of his one-year old son, experienced hard times, and when team manager Dit Clapper - a man he highly respected like he did with Art Ross - resigned he sent a telegram to the press to ask the Bruins to let him go too. He was sold to Chicago for cash, as the Blackhawks didn't want to trade a player. His last season in the NHL was the only time he did not lead a team he played on to the playoffs. Despite playing in and starting all seventy games for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1949-50 season the lowly club missed the playoffs. After completing his lone season in Chicago he retired.
Frank Brimsek was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 - at the time he was only the fourth American-born player enshrined in the Hall. He was further honored by his election in the inaugural USA Hockey Hall of Fame class in 1973 - the USA Hockey Hall of fame is fittingly located in Brimsek's home town of Eveleth, a goalie hotbed where 1956 Olympic Games best goaltender Willard Ikola came from too. Each year the State of Minnesota further honors his legacy by awarding the "Frank Brimsek Trophy" to the top high school goaltender. Frank Brimsek died November 11th 1998 in his native Minnesota not far from where he grew up.
GP W T L Min GA Avg SO 1935/36 Pittsburgh Yellowjackets EHL 38 20 2 16 2280 74 1,95 8 (play-offs) 8 4 1 3 480 19 2,36 2 1936/37 Pittsburgh Yellowjackets EHL 47 19 5 23 2820 142 3,02 3 1937/38 Providence Reds AHL 48 25 7 16 2950 86 1,75 5 (play-offs) 7 5 0 2 515 16 1,86 0 New Haven Eagles (play-offs) 1 0 0 1 93 3 1,94 0 1938/39 Providence Reds AHL 9 5 2 2 570 18 1,89 0 1938/39 Boston Bruins NHL 43 33 1 9 2610 68 1,56 10 (play-offs) 12 8 0 4 863 18 1,25 1 1939/40 Boston Bruins NHL 48 31 5 12 2950 98 1,99 6 (play-offs) 6 2 0 4 360 15 2,50 0 1940/41 Boston Bruins NHL 48 27 8 13 3040 102 2,01 6 (play-offs) 11 8 0 3 678 23 2,04 1 1941/42 Boston Bruins NHL 47 24 6 17 2930 115 2,35 3 (play-offs) 5 2 0 3 307 16 3,13 0 1942/43 Boston Bruins NHL 50 24 9 17 3000 176 3,52 1 (play-offs) 9 4 0 5 560 33 3,54 0 1943-1945 military service (played with Coast Guard Cutters in 1943/44) 1945/46 Boston Bruins NHL 34 16 4 14 2040 111 3,26 2 (play-offs) 10 5 0 5 651 29 2,67 0 1946/47 Boston Bruins NHL 60 26 11 23 3600 175 2,92 3 (play-offs) 5 1 0 4 343 16 2,80 0 1947/48 Boston Bruins NHL 60 23 13 24 3600 168 2,80 3 (play-offs) 5 1 0 4 317 20 3,79 0 1948/49 Boston Bruins NHL 54 26 8 20 3240 147 2,72 1 (play-offs) 5 1 0 4 316 16 3,04 0 1949/50 Chicago Blackhawks NHL 70 22 10 38 4200 244 3,49 5 NHL totals 514 252 80 182 31210 1404 2,70 40 NHL playoff totals 68 32 0 36 4395 186 2,54 2
- Stanley Cup 1939 and 1941
- AHL champion 1938
- NHL best goaltender (Vezina trophy) 1939 and 1942
- NHL first all-star team 1939 and 1942
- NHL second all-star team 1940, 1941, 1943, 1946, 1947 and 1948
- NHL best rookie (Calder trophy) 1939
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