Throughout his career in hockey, Ian Turnbull was a natural, rushing defenseman and puck-handler who knew what to do in the other guy's end of the rink. He started out in the youth hockey programs of Montreal where he quickly discovered that he was naturally better at the sport than most of the other kids around the neighborhood.
He continued being a superior performer right up the ranks to the junior level where he skated for the Montreal Junior Canadiens and, later, the Ottawa 67's of the OHA from 1969 to 1973. In his final year as an amateur, he skated with Islanders great Denis Potvin as the two prepared to make the jump to the NHL at the same time.
Turnbull was picked up by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1973 Amateur Draft. He and the stalwart Borje Salming were teamed together to form one of the more accomplished defensive pairings in the league. All was progressing according to plan until a second-year collision occurred between Turnbull and Blues' enforcer Bob Plager. Turnbull ended up tearing knee ligaments that severely limited his action during the 1974-75 campaign.
After a year of healing, he bounced back, establishing himself as a premiere offensively capable rearguard. In 1977, however, he slipped into a lengthy scoring drought. He waited until a match against the Detroit Red Wings on the night of February 2 to break free from his malaise. He became the first blueliner to score five goals in one game en route to a 9-1 pasting of the Wings. The record still stands today.
Turnbull remained as a Leaf mainstay until 1981-82 before being dealt to the Los Angeles Kings after only 12 games with the Leafs. Upon his arrival with the Kings, Turnbull played most of the season with the parent club before being demoted to the New Haven Knight Hawks of the AHL later in the season. He tried his hand with the Pittsburgh Penguins the following year but found that his interest in hockey had been supplanted by an eagerness to get a career in business underway. As a result, he hung up his blades in 1982.