Brimsek, Francis Charles ("Frank")

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BRIMSEK, Francis Charles ("Frank")

(b. 26 September 1915 in Eveleth, Minnesota; d. 11 November 1998 in Virginia, Minnesota), legendary Boston Bruins goalie who became a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and the first U.S. professional hockey player elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Brimsek's interest in hockey, oddly enough, was accidental. His older brother John was the second-string goaltender on the Eveleth High School team, but he really wanted to be a defenseman. John moved up to the blue line, and his brother took over in the nets. After playing at Eveleth High, Brimsek goaltended for the 1933–1934 season at Saint Cloud Teachers College in Minnesota, then decided to give the pros a shot. In 1935 he tried out for the Baltimore team of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League. He failed.

Hitchhiking back to Minnesota, depressed and disappointed, Brimsek landed in hockey by accident once more. After running out of cash in Pittsburgh, he stopped at the old Duquesne Arena to see if he could borrow money for food. There he discovered that the Pittsburgh team in the Eastern League, the Yellow Jackets, needed a goaltender. Brimsek got the job, and for two years he was their goalie.

In the fall of 1937 Art Ross, the general manager and coach of the Boston Bruins, signed Brimsek to a pro contract. He had never even seen the young man play. However, the start of Brimsek's professional career hardly presaged his eventual eminence. He was assigned to Boston's American League farm club, the Providence (Rhode Island) Reds. Boston's goaltender was none other than Tiny Thompson, known to the hockey world as "the goalie without a weakness." Thompson was the best in the business, a four-time Vezina Trophy winner. Prospects didn't look good for the American kid buried in the minors.

In November 1938 Brimsek got his first chance to play in a big-league game through yet another accident. Thompson developed an eye infection, and Ross sent for Brimsek. It is tough to fill in for any goalie, but the pressure on Brimsek was colossal, considering he was being asked to fill the nets for the great Tiny Thompson. Brimsek's jitters vanished once the game started, however. At the age of twenty-three, he won his National Hockey League debut, 3–2. Three nights later, with Brimsek in the nets, the Bruins beat the Detroit Red Wings.

Thompson recovered and Brimsek was sent back to Providence, but Ross liked what he had seen of him. Thompson, however, was popular with the fans and had been Boston's solid rock for ten years. At thirty-three, he would have several more good seasons. Trading Thompson would not go over well with most Bruin supporters, especially if his replacement failed. Ross journeyed to Providence to take another look at Brimsek, who turned in a couple of shutouts while Ross scouted him. On 28 November 1938 Thompson was dealt to the Red Wings for $15,000, and Brimsek assumed full goaltending responsibilities.

On 1 December 1938, in a game against the Montreal Canadiens, Brimsek went into the nets—not as a replacement but as the regular Bruins goalie. Although the game was played at the Montreal Forum, Brimsek was aware of critical eyes watching his every move. The evening was a disaster. Montreal, which had won only once in eight previous contests, beat Boston 2–0, while simultaneously in Detroit, the exiled Thompson beat Chicago 4–1. Apparently Ross had made a mistake.

Brimsek was down but not out. It took only seven more games for him to become a hockey legend. Playing the next game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Brimsek recorded his first NHL shutout when Boston beat Chicago, 5–0. However, the fans had not yet warmed to him, and Brimsek did little to improve his image. Idiosyncratically he wore red hockey pants instead of the team's then gold, brown, and white colors, and his footwork left much to be desired. But his glove was quick and his confidence was enormous. Boston fans were in for a pleasant surprise.

Two nights later, Boston and Chicago met again, this time in Boston, in Brimsek's first appearance before hostile Bruins fans. Even though he blanked the Blackhawks again, Brimsek later claimed he could feel the coolness from the crowd.

His next game was against the New York Rangers. Although the Rangers belted him with thirty-three shots on goal, Brimsek stopped them all, earning his third straight shutout, 3–0. He now had 192 minutes and 40 seconds of scoreless goaltending. Thompson's modern record of 224 minutes and 47 seconds was in reach.

By now, even the formerly disgruntled Boston fans were enthusiastically supporting Brimsek. The Bruins were so confident of his ability that they often sent five men into enemy territory, leaving Brimsek to fend for himself. The next game was against Montreal at the Boston Garden. Boston jumped to a 2–0 lead in the first period. The amazing string of scoreless goaltending ran to 212 minutes and 40 seconds.

At the 12-minute mark of the second period, the tension in the Garden grew. At 12:08 the arena went wild. Brimsek, in his fifth game as the Bruins' regular goalie, had erased Thompson's scoreless record of the 1935–1936 season. However, with less than a minute to go in the second period, four Bruins were caught down ice, and Herb Cain took a pass from George Brown and dumped the puck in the Boston goal. Brimsek's marvelous streak ended at 231 minutes and 54 seconds. Boston went on to win the game, 3–2. Thanks largely to the talents of the young American goalie, Boston was now in first place.

Brimsek next shut out Montreal, 1–0. After that were the Detroit Red Wings and the first face-to-face meeting with Thompson. Both goalies played well, but Boston won, 2–0. Brimsek cut down the New York Americans next, 3–0—his third straight shutout, sixth in seven games. He had done the impossible—he had won over the Boston fans, making them forget Tiny Thompson.

Brimsek finished that spectacular rookie season with a brilliant 1.59 goals-against average and had ten shutouts, yielding only seventy goals in forty-four games. Rightfully he was awarded both the Calder Trophy, awarded to the best newcomer in the league, and the Vezina Trophy, for his outstanding play in the nets, the only American player ever to achieve that double win until Tom Barrasso did it in 1984. He was also voted to the All-Star team. He repeated as the Vezina winner in 1942 and was the All-Star team goalie that year as well. He was named to the All-Star team six times during his Boston career. With Brimsek in the nets, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup twice and three times finished first in the league (in the 1938–1939 season through the 1940–1941 season). His prowess in the nets earned him the nickname "Mr. Zero."

Brimsek became an American legend in a game that had long been dominated by Canadian players. In 1966 he was the first professional U.S. hockey player elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.

At the end of the 1942–1943 season, Brimsek enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and, for the next two years, served aboard a patrol craft in the Pacific. With the outbreak of World War II, many hockey stars joined the armed forces. Several of them came from Michigan and Minnesota and enlisted in the Coast Guard. A team was organized out of Baltimore, Maryland, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters, and it played in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League. Once the team was formed, other players who wanted to serve and still play hockey joined the Coast Guard and were assigned to Curtis Base near Baltimore. Brimsek was one of them.

After the war, Brimsek returned to Boston to play for the Bruins for four more seasons, but his comeback was a great disappointment. He had lost his edge. The Bruins kept waiting and hoping for the magic to come back, but it never did. Boston traded Brimsek to the dismal Chicago Blackhawks in 1949. He bombed, then retired after one season at the relatively young age of thirty-four.

Brimsek was one of a kind: an American-born, American-developed goaltender who achieved the acme of hockey success. He played on Stanley Cup–winning teams, broke hockey records, and was acknowledged the finest in his profession. But somehow the war drained him of his onice skills, and he had little choice but to retire.

Brimsek settled in Virginia, Minnesota, a small town five miles from Eveleth. He became an engineer for the Canadian National Railroad, guiding freight trains between cities in Canada. Brimsek married and had two daughters, and he died at age eighty-three. He is buried in the town of Virginia.

Brimsek's goaltending for the prewar Boston Bruins will forever be cited by hockey cognoscenti as the definitive work of its time. Brimsek also proved beyond a doubt that an American could make it in what was then an exclusively Canadian realm, the National Hockey League.

For further information on Brimsek, see Jim Hunt, The Men in the Nets (1967); Clark Booth, The Boston Bruins: Celebrating 75 Years (1998); Stan Fischler, The Greatest Players and Moments of the Boston Bruins (1999); and James Duplacey, Joseph Romain, Stan Fischler, Morgan Hughes, and Shirley Fischler, Twentieth-Century Hockey Chronicle (1999). "Teams Often Came Up Blank vs. Brimsek," Boston Globe (1 Oct. 1999), reviews Brimsek's career, and an obituary is in the New York Times (13 Nov. 1998).

Stan Fischler

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