The further back you go into the history of the NHL, the more you see Canadian players over any other nationality. Frank Brimsek was not only a rare American NHL player, but also an NHL star. Born in the hockey-crazy state of Minnesota in 1915, Brimsek unsurprisingly played in the US for his junior years. After dominating in Pittsburgh, Brimsek moved to the AHL’s Providence Bruins, where his dominance continued. The 23-year old Brimsek began the 1938-39 season with Providence again, but was signed shortly into the season by the Boston Bruins to replace the aging veteran Tiny Thomson.
The Bruins were an extremely strong team, and Brimsek had no trouble taking over the goal tending reigns. Despite only playing in 43 of the 48 games, Brimsek led the NHL with 33 wins, a sparkling 1.56 GAA, and an impressive 10 shutouts. Brimsek had two 200+ minute shutout streaks during the season and continued his strong play into the playoffs. The Bruins won the 1939 Stanley Cup and Brimsek finished the playoffs with a 1.25 GAA. Brimsek took home both the Calder Trophy and the Vezina Trophy at the end of the season, a tribute to his stellar season. The Bruins had their new star goalie.
Brimsek played in all 48 games in the 1939-40 season, again leading the league in wins, this time with 31 victories. His strong season earned him a spot on the Second All-Star team. Brimsek was strong again in the 1940-41 season, with a league lead low of just 8 losses (of netminders with more than 12 games). His six shutouts led the league and Brimsek continued his confident style into the playoffs. Brimsek helped the Bruins win their second Cup in three years in 1941.
Brimsek was known for being surprisingly relaxed in tense situations on the ice. Often, when players would get breakaways, he would lean back against the net as they approached before readying himself to make the save. The Bruins regressed somewhat from their extremely dominant style after the 1941 Cup, largely due to the absence of the entire Kraut Line; Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer, and Woody Dumart; but Brimsek was able keep them competitive. He had a league-best 2.35 GAA in the 1941-42 season, winning the Vezina and finishing third in Hart voting, a testament to his value on the Bruins.
Brimsek again managed to keep the Bruins competitive for the 1942-43 season, helping the Bruins to not only make the playoffs, but go on a run to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Detroit Red Wings. Brimsek was awarded with a spot on the Second All-Star team and a 5th place finish in Hart voting. Following the 1942-43 season, Brimsek joined some of his fellow teammates in the World War II effort, and the Bruins suffered greatly for it, with two brutally bad seasons.
To no one’s surprise, Brimsek’s return in the 1945-46 season greatly improved the Bruins. Brimsek only returned partway through the season, so he played in just 34 games, but still finished on the Second All-Star team despite the break in professional hockey. The Bruins were certainly a weaker team after the war, but Brimsek carried them season after season to the playoffs. In the 1947-48 season, he finished 2nd in Hart voting behind Buddy O’Connor, who himself was carrying an even worse New York Rangers team on his back.
Brimsek was sold to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1949 and played one season in the extended 70-game format, playing in all 70 games. The Black Hawks were a truly terrible team and Brimsek did what he could, but they finished last in the NHL and Brimsek retired at 34 years of age at the season’s end.
Brimsek retired with the third most wins all-time at 252 and only Bill Durnan matched his 10 shutouts in a season during the span of Brimsek’s career. Brimsek paved the way for many future American NHL players. When he retired, he was one of just six American goaltenders in US history, and second place goaltender by wins had less than half Brimsek’s total. Despite Brimsek’s motivational play, the NHL didn’t see anymore star goaltenders until the 1980s win the arrival of goaltenders like Tom Barrasso and Jon Vanbiesbrouck. It was Barrasso himself who finally surprassed Brimsek in all-time wins among US goalies in the 1993-94 season. It wasn’t until the 2000-01 season that Vanbiesbrouck was able to tie Brimsek’s 40 shutouts, but he didn’t surpass it. In fact, it was until very recently in the 2015-16 season that the Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings finally surpassed Brimsek’s 40 shutouts. It’s clear to see why Brimsek had the nickname “Mr. Zero”. Brimsek’s 1.56 GAA in his rookie season also still holds as the all-time record for the Boston Bruins. Brimsek was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 as was also fittingly one of the first players inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.