By Joe Chrzanowski | Follow Me on Twitter @jchrz19
Welcome to the first of what will hopefully become a long and very entertaining series of articles. I am going to look at the best Bruin’s player to wear each number throughout the organization’s long and storied history. I will be skipping the retired numbers because it’s pretty self-explanatory who the best Bruin to don each of those revered numbers was.
Just to get it out of the way, in case anyone has forgotten, these are the current retired numbers in Boston:
#2 – Eddie Shore, #3 – Lionel Hitchman, #4 – Bobby Orr, #5 – Dit Clapper, #7 – Phil Esposito, #8 – Cam Neely, #9 – John Bucyk, #15 – Milt Schmidt, #16 – Rick Middleton, #24 – Terry O’Reilly, #77 – Ray Bourque.
Eleven numbers may seem like a lot, but it still leaves us 88 more to contemplate.
The best place to start this series, numerically anyway, is pretty obvious, and that would be with the number one. Generally speaking, the number one is worn in the NHL by goaltenders, and the greatest players to ever sport that number in B’s history were no exception. In an organization that has been around as long as the Bruins have, you would think that the competition would be pretty fierce? Normally, that would be a safe assumption. Unfortunately, in the case of the number one, the competition IS fierce, but it’s not for first place, it’s for third. That said, there is still a worthy discussion to be had for the runner-ups.
The Bruins have two goalies that played their careers primarily in the 1930s and 1940s that have without question locked up the first and second spots as the greatest B’s players to ever wear the number One. Those two guys are Cecil “Tiny” Thompson and Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek. While it is difficult to compare players across different eras, these two players were able to pile up more than enough wins and hardware to leave no doubt that they were the top dogs in this contest.
Thompson was the preeminent goaltender of the 1930s. During that decade (and in 1928-29,) he played in 468 games for the Bruins, had a GAA of 1.99 (Save Percentage was not a stat yet), and a whopping 74 shutouts. He won 252 games for Boston, and both his games played and win totals are 2nd all-time for the B’s. They were 1st until recently being eclipsed by Tuukka Rask. In addition to those impressive numbers, Tiny won a Cup in 1929, had four All-Star game appearances, and four Vezina Trophies on his resume. In that era, the Vezina was given to the goalie whose team allowed the fewest amount of regular-season goals. This was no slight as Thompson was largely responsible for that. In 1936 he became the first goalie in NHL history to record an assist in a game. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959. For my money, he is the best player to wear number one for the Bruins.
Frank Brimsek played for the Bruins from 1938-1948. Somewhat ironically, it was Brimsek that forced out and took over for Thompson in 1938. Tiny suffered an eye injury, and Brimsek played so well in his stead that the Bruins dealt Thompson to Detroit in November of 1938. It would mark the beginning of an impressive nine-year run in the Boston goal. Brimsek would suit up for 444 games (tied for 3rd on the B’s all-time list), winning 230 with 35 shutouts. During that time, he would also win two Stanley Cups and two Vezina Trophies, along with being named to the All-Star team eight times.
Brimsek earned his famous “Mr. Zero” nickname after recording six shutouts in his first eight games and setting a league record for consecutive scoreless minutes in the process. Brimsek was born in Eveleth, Minnesota, which is notable because he was one of very few Americans in the NHL in the 1940s. The United States Hockey Hall of Fame was established in Brimsek’s hometown in 1973, and he was part of the original group of 25 to be inducted. In addition, an award given to the best senior high school goalie in the state of Minnesota is named after him. He joined Tiny Thompson in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 and is a close second to him for best Bruin to ever wear the number one.
There are a number of other goalies that have worn the number one for the Bruins over the years. Some have been goalies that made their fame with other teams and wore it briefly for the Black and Gold. Guys like Terry Sawchuk, Rogie Vachon, and Marty Turco fall into this category. While they were great netminders, they were not in Boston long enough to warrant consideration.
The next trio of goalies I considered were all players that fell short of third place for one reason or another, whether it be lack of tenure or performance. Andrew Raycroft had good numbers with Boston (2.62 GAA, .908 Save %), but he only played 108 games and had a losing record before being traded to TOR for Tuukka Rask. Pete Peeters played 171 games in Boston and had 91 wins, but his stats were not great (3.00 GAA, .883 SP), and he had more games and years in a Flyers uniform than a B’s sweater. Last but not least was Reggie Lemelin, who, while he was in Boston, was beloved by the fans for his “fist pump” celebration after games. In six years in Boston, he played in 182 games, had 92 wins, but the numbers were average. His GAA was 3.09, and his save percentage came in at .884. All three of these players were good, but not good enough for the top three.
Third place for the best to wear the number one in Boston came down to two goalies in my estimation, Eddie Johnston and Gilles Gilbert. Readers younger than myself are probably much more familiar with Gilbert than Johnston, who played primarily in the ’60s for the B’s. Gilbert was known for being on the losing end to Philly and later Montreal in the ’70s under Don Cherry.
While Johnston might be lesser-known to today’s Bruins fans, he has a very respectable resume. He played in Boston from 1962 thru 1973, amassing 444 games for the B’s (tied for 3rd all-time with Brimsek), winning 182, with a GAA of 3.22 and a .900 Save Percentage. He was the starter before Gerry Cheevers established himself and backed “Cheesy” up in the late 1960s and early ’70s. His numbers were very comparable to Cheevers,’ and he actually played in more games for the Bruins. He was also a key contributor on both Stanley Cup teams, playing 37 games in 1970 and 38 games in 1972. Despite these solid stats, Johnston may be more well-known as a successful coach and GM for the Penguins in the 1980’s and 90’s?
Last but not least, is Gilles Gilbert, the acrobatic French-Canadian goalie with the memorable flow. He played in Boston from 1974-1980, totaling 277 games for the B’s, winning 155 of them. His GAA was 2.95, and he had a save percentage of .890 over that time. I remember Gilbert as being a key component in net for the highly effective “Lunch Pail AC” teams. Despite their success in the regular season, those teams came up short in the playoffs. Unfortunately, my most lasting memory of Gilbert will be of him falling to the ice after he gave up Guy Lafleur’s game-tying goal as time was running out in Game Seven of the 1979 Stanley Cup Semifinals. That goal is not the reason I am going with Eddie Johnston as the third-best to wear number one for the Bruins…but it didn’t help either.
So, there you have it, the three best players to wear the number one for the Bruins are Tiny Thompson in first, followed by Frank Brimsek as a close second, and Eddie Johnston as a distant third. I hope you enjoyed this look back in B’s history. Next up on the agenda is the number six, where there should be a lot more debate for the title.