Hockey goalies have been called a lot of things in the past: protectors of the paint; caretakers of the crease; masked-marauders of the mesh; or guardians of the goal. However, this list will examine the top 15 ‘Iron Men’ to ever stand between the pipes in the NHL. In other words, the goalies who lead the NHL’s history in games played.
More often than not, playing goaltender in hockey seems like a thankless position. The credit for a victory is usually awarded to the forwards and defensemen who scored, unless of course, the goalie figuratively – and sometimes literally – stood on his head. Following a loss, spectators are quick to point the blame in the direction of the goalie who, whether deserved or not, is the ideal scapegoat in most scenarios. Realistically, they are the only player on a team that can be replaced at the snap of a finger; backups constantly battle for the starting job and are often utilized in favor of a struggling starting goalie. It is therefore an incredible feat that the fifteen ‘Iron Men’ that made this list managed to play so many professional NHL games.
Although they can be under-appreciated at times, there is little doubt that goaltenders play the most important position on the ice. Without their reflexes, their flexibility, or their ability to anticipate plays, hockey would not be the game it is today. As hockey has evolved, so too have goalies. In order to keep up with the speed and skill of an ever-evolving NHL, it is necessary for goalies to be fast, fit, and sharp – in effect, the ‘Iron Men’ of the league.
15 Nikolai Khabibulin (799)
Nikolai Khabibulin played with a lot of teams over the span of his career. In total, he represented five different teams, beginning with the Winnipeg Jets in 1994-1995, and ending with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013-2014. It should come as no surprise then, that after nearly twenty years in the NHL, Khabibulin was able to crack this list. Over his career, Khabibulin faced a total of 22,329 shots and managed to save 20,258 of the pucks shot in his direction. Over the 799 games in which Khabibulin appeared, he amassed a grand total of 45,607 minutes played. There were several seasons, earlier in his career, in which he played an incredibly high number of games. In 1996-1997, Khabibulin played in 72 games with the Phoenix Coyotes, which was followed by a 70 game campaign in the 1997-1998 season. Khabibulin played in 70 games once more in 2001-2002, albeit with the Tampa Bay Lightning, proving that he was in fact one of the NHL’s greatest Iron Men in goal.
14 Harry Lumley (803)
Harry Lumley played for all but one of the Original Six teams in the NHL. Of Lumley’s 803 games, he played in at least one for the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins. Considering the history behind those organizations, there is one fact that Lumley’s number of games shares with each of those teams: it is legendary. Playing over 800 professional games in the NHL is a rare feat, especially for a goalie – let alone one who played in the era without facemasks (Lumley actually retired the same year that Jacques Plante wore the first facemask). Lumley played in over 60 games for eight straight seasons (1947-1948 – 1954-1955) and was able to record 71 shutouts over his career. Although Lumley played before statisticians were recording shots against and numbers of saves, he was recorded as having played in a total of 48,044 minutes which, when added up, is a lot of hockey.
13 Sean Burke (820)
It can be assumed that Sean Burke’s suit case was worn thin by the end of his career. In total, he played for nine different teams, including a stint with the Hartford Whalers in the mid-1990s. The number of teams that he played for, combined with the fact that he played in the NHL for an astounding 20 seasons, alludes to Burke’s placement on this list. If one is to picture Burke as an Iron Man, his suit of armor would definitely have its fair share of scratches and wear-marks. Although in the twilight of his professional career Burke was a backup goalie he still managed to appear in over 800 games in the NHL posting impressive numbers. For his career, Burke held a 2.96 GAA and a .902 save percentage while managing to shut out his opponents 38 times. Playing in over 800 NHL games in three different decades (80s, 90s, 00s) certainly qualifies Burke as one of the greatest Iron Men to ever strap on the pads.
12 Jacques Plante (837)
Without Jacques Plante, goalies might still be playing without masks, leaving them vulnerable to 100 mph slapshots striking them in the face. Not only did Plante play in well over 800 NHL games throughout his career, he single-handedly revolutionized the game of hockey. Perhaps the reason he was able to play for so long and solidify himself as an NHL Iron Man was a product of his invention: wearing a mask while in goal. Before Plante, goalies would lose teeth, break noses, and would require many stitches. Indeed, each goalie on this list owes – in part – their longevity and success in the NHL to Plante and his inventive, logical thinking. This is why Plante must be considered the original Iron Man between the pipes; not only was he actively looking for ways to play for longer, he wore a mask to shield his identity while he performed – the same as Marvel’s comic book Iron Man.
11 Gump Worsley (861)
With a name as awesome as Gump Worsley, it’s not hard to imagine why he was beloved by teammates and fans alike. However great his name is though, it is more likely that his play kept him in the crease for over 20 years. Worsley played for the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens before playing out the remainder of his career for the Minnesota North Stars. A name like Gump Worsley and the North Star jersey make for quite the hockey card. Worsley posted 335 wins in his 861 career NHL games, but added a staggering 150 ties to his stats before there was ever any overtime or shootouts. Maybe most impressive is the fact that Worsley played in over 50,000 minutes – 50,183 to be exact – before there was ever a fourth period. There are 1,440 minutes in a day, meaning that Worsley played in net for a total of nearly 35 days.
10 Grant Fuhr (868)
Although Grant Fuhr played for six separate teams in a career that spanned nearly twenty years, he will always be remembered as an Edmonton Oiler. In the 1980’s Fuhr won five Stanley Cups with Edmonton during their dynastic years which included the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. Fuhr never seemed to boast the best stats in terms of GAA and save percentage, yet he knew how to win, posting a 403-295-114 career regular season record. Fuhr still holds the Oiler’s team record for most wins in a single season – 40 wins in 1987-1988 – which led to him being awarded the Vezina trophy that season. Fuhr’s accolades led to his number 31 being retired by the Oilers as well as his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1995-1996, while playing for the St. Louis Blues, Fuhr started in 79 games which, save for a couple games, was the entire season.
9 John Vanbiesbrouck (882)
It is quite impressive that John Vanbiesbrouck played in at least 50 games in ten different seasons over his career. Even more eye-opening is the fact that Vanbiesbrouck played less than 40 games only five times in his twenty year career. Considering those numbers, it is easy to see why Vanbiesbrouck, with his 882 games played, cracked the list of NHL Iron Men goalies. Vanbiesbrouck is considered by many to be the face of American goaltending, as he is the winningest American-born goalie while being tied for the record of career shutouts held by an American-born goalie. Maybe it was the fact that he was Americanized which led him to play for the New Jersey Devils and both New York teams (the epicenter of the United States). Alternatively, Vanbiesbrouck may have been a fan of Brooklyn-style pizza and simply asked to play in the New York area. Whatever the case, being one of America’s greatest talents to ever play in goal and playing in nearly 900 professional games, cements Vanbiesbrouck’s legacy as one of the greatest Iron Men to ever protect the paint.
8 Tony Esposito (886)
This Chicago Blackhawk legend led the Hawks to the playoffs a total of 14 times and, although he only won one Stanley Cup, played in more playoff action than most goalies played in their entire careers. Esposito won the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goalie three separate occasions and also won the Calder Memorial trophy in the 1969-1970 campaign. Esposito certainly played a lot of hockey throughout his NHL career. He played over 60 games in nine different seasons and totaled a whopping 52,585 career minutes of ice time. Esposito played the majority of his career in the 1970’s and into the 1980’s when goals ruled supreme, making it very impressive that he was able to amass 76 career shutouts while posting a 2.92 career GAA. Esposito nearly won half of his 886 games – he won 423 – while adding 151 ties. As one of the early pioneers of the popular butterfly style in net, Esposito was definitely a work horse, earning him the privilege of being named one of the greatest Iron Men in NHL goaltending history.
7 Glenn Hall (906)
Another Chicago Blackhawk legend, Glenn Hall is the first of several goalies on this list to have played in at least 900 games. Of course, being on such an exclusive list must indicate a successful career. This is true of Hall who, while playing for the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues, won over 400 games – a feat only ten other goalies have ever accomplished. Statistically speaking, Hall compiled some impressive numbers as he managed to secure a career 2.49 GAA while compiling 84 shutouts. At the end of his NHL career, Hall had played in a total of 53,484 minutes. To go along with his impressive statistics, Hall also won the Vezina trophy three separate seasons, led the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup victory in 1961, and also won the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoffs most valuable player in 1967-1968 with the St. Louis Blues.
6 Roberto Luongo (926)
The only player on this list still currently playing, Roberto Luongo continues to add to his win totals. At 37, the Montreal-native is still well in reach of obtaining enough victories to leapfrog the next three players on this list. In doing so, Luongo would become third all-time in games played by a goalie in the NHL. Already, he sits in a class of only 7 players to have ever played between the pipes for over 900 games. Of those 926 professional games, Luongo has won 436 while posting a 2.49 GAA and a .919 save percentage. In addition, he has shut out his opponents 72 times and has skated in 53,239 minutes. Always the goof on social media, perhaps the reason why Luongo has been able to continually thrive in an increasingly younger league is because of his lightheartedness and his ability to cast humor onto otherwise difficult situations. Although he has never achieved winning the Stanley Cup, Luongo has certainly had an impressive career up until this point, and with several years left in his contract, he will continue to climb the ranks of NHL Iron Men goalies.
5 Curtis Joseph (943)
Curtis Joseph played for six separate teams in his illustrious career, but is probably known best for his time spent in Toronto. It is well-known that playing in Toronto, let alone as a goalie, is a tough act that only a select few players can handle. However, Joseph – or ‘CuJo’ as he was referred to by fans – seemed to be able to thrive with the Maple Leafs, posting 138 wins in his five seasons in Toronto. Succeeding as a goalie in Toronto should be enough to classify an individual as an Iron Man, right? Evidently, Joseph was much more than his time in Toronto suggests, winning a total of 454 games in his 943 appearances. He was never able to win a Stanley Cup or the Vezina award which is unfortunate, considering he is the fourth most winningest goalie of all-time in the NHL. At the end of his career, Joseph had faced over 26,500 shots against and had skated in 54,055 minutes.
4 Ed Belfour (963)
Ed Belfour, or ‘Eddie the Eagle’, was seemingly beloved everywhere he played in the NHL. Whether it was in Chicago, Dallas, or Toronto, Belfour was a hockey icon. Part of Belfour’s legend was that he was an extremely feisty goalie; throughout his career he racked up an unbelievable 380 minutes in penalties. Aside from his aggressive play, Belfour was also a very, very good goalie. Of the 963 games in which Belfour appeared, he won over half of them – his 484 wins made him the third most winningest goalie of all-time. Statistically, Belfour posted a career 2.50 GAA, a .906 save percentage, and an impressive 76 shutouts in over 55,000 minutes of ice-time. Even Marvel’s Iron Man would have to admit that Belfour’s mask was pretty cool – the double eagle not only matched his nickname, but also his demeanor as one of the NHL’s most powerful goalies to ever play.
3 Terry Sawchuk (971)
Terry Sawchuk is one of the most recognizable names in the world of hockey, and rightfully so. Sawchuk played in nearly 1,000 professional NHL games and is one of only two goalies in the league’s history to have over 100 shutouts. In addition to his 103 shutouts, Sawchuk compiled 447 wins and a 2.51 GAA in an incredible 57,194 minutes. Sawchuk won three Vezina trophies with the Detroit Red Wings and one Vezina trophy with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Moreover, he won three Stanley Cups with Detroit and the Calder Memorial trophy as the league’s top rookie in the 1950-1951 campaign. Maybe more than any goalie on this list, Sawchuk deserves the ‘Iron Man’ title. Sawchuk’s infamous mask, which had every stitch he received while playing without it painted on, was hockey legend and is instilled in Red Wing’s lore. For every win that Sawchuk had, he almost had an equal amount of stitches, as he needed a total of 400 stitches throughout his career.
2 Patrick Roy (1,029)
Is there a more infamous goaltender moment in NHL history than Patrick Roy telling the Montreal Canadiens that he would never play for them again mid game? Or perhaps a more memorable moment was Roy stating that he couldn’t hear Jeremy Roenick’s trash talk because his ‘two Stanley Cup rings were plugging his ears.’ Regardless of which memory of Roy stands out more, there is no doubt that he was one of the greatest goalies to ever play hockey. In his nineteen year career, Roy played in over 60 games in an astounding eleven different seasons, while only appearing in less than 45 games once. Roy won over half of his 1,029 career NHL games – he won 551 times – and played in an unbelievable 60,226 minutes. To put that into perspective, Roy spent nearly 42 days in the crease. Roy cemented his legacy with both the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche by playing in 247 career playoff games, winning two Stanley Cups with each team, and by being named the Conn Smythe winner three times.
1 Martin Brodeur (1,266)
Martin Brodeur was undoubtedly the best goalie the NHL has ever witnessed. The New Jersey Devil stalwart played in over 70 regular season games twelve times in his 22 year career. In total, Brodeur played in 1,266 games and is the winningest goalie in NHL history with 691 wins. The next closest goalie is Patrick Roy who has 551 career wins, putting him a casual 140 behind Brodeur. For someone who played for so long and for so many minutes – 74,439 – Brodeur’s stats are absolutely insane. For his career, Brodeur posted a 2.24 GAA, a .912 save percentage, and 125 shutouts. Brodeur also sits second among NHL goalies in recorded points with 47, and is the only goalie in the league’s history to score more than one goal – he has two. One of the best testaments to Brodeur’s Iron Man qualities, aside from his statistics, is the fact that he remained with the Devils for the entirety of his career, save for seven games with the St. Louis Blues in his final year. With New Jersey, he won the Stanley Cup three times, the Vezina trophy four times, the William M. Jennings trophy five times, and the Calder Memorial trophy in his rookie campaign. Without a doubt, Martin Brodeur is the greatest Iron Man to ever stand between the pipes in the history of the NHL.