Today is “Boxing Day” in Canada so we thought it would be fun to share our list of the toughest players to have played in the National Hockey League. Tough is defined in the dictionary as “strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough or careless handling.” Or “able to endure hardship or pain.” Toughness can be measured in a number of different ways. Physical toughness, mental toughness, toughness by positional play, toughness in terms of atmosphere and environment and in numerous other capacities.
We have compiled a list of The Hockey Fanatics Toughest of All-Time across six categories culminating with the Top 25 Toughest NHLers of all-time. Categories include:
- Toughest NHLers of All-Time – this is in terms of overall toughness and not just fighters, but players who were said to be some of the toughest players ever to play the game.
- Toughest Fighters – look we are not looking to advocate fighting or violence in hockey, fighting has always been a part of the game and we take a look at the top 25 NHL fighters of all-time.
- Toughest to Defend Against – which offensively gifted players were the toughest to defend against?
- Toughest to Beat on a Rush – an ode to the defenseman. We examine the toughest defensemen to play against.
- Toughest to Score Against – which goaltenders, when it mattered the most, were tough to score on?
- Toughest Barn to Play In– which arena did players have the most difficulty playing in?
Over a number of months we polled hockey fans via social media and in person and we scoured the Web for whom other’s people thought were the toughest hockey players to have skated on the surface of a National Hockey League rink. While we had our fair share of fictional players (see: Hanson Brothers of Carl Racki) we wanted these lists to consist of whom hockey fans felt were the toughest across six categories.
Let us begin with the Hockey Fanatic’s list of the top 25 NHLers of all-time.
Top 25 Toughest NHLers of All-Time
The following list is composed of NHL players who were not just enforcers or fighters, but were just tough NHLers to play against. They could set the tone with strong physical play, a menacing stare or a mean streak a mile wide.
- Gordie Howe– was there ever any doubt? The stories abound of Mr. Hockey and all of the times he evened up the score either on the score sheet, with a patented elbow or witty remark. Mr. Howe had a renowned pro career starting in 1946 through to 1980. The man played 1,767 games in the NHL and 419 in the WHA. He amassed 1,850 points over his NHL career and most notably was credited with the world-famous Gordie Howe Hat-Trick in which a player scores a goal, adds an assist and gets into a fight all in the same game. There are classic stories about just how tough Gordie Howe really was. He always got even:
- Stan Mikita recalled when he was early in his career and accidently cut Gordie under the eye one night. A few months later in a game in Detroit, Mikita recalled turning in the Red Wings’ end and then being on the bench with a staggering headache. The backup goalie for the Blackhawks that night claimed that he was the only one who saw what happened. Apparently, Howe slipped his hand out of his glove and popped Mikita in the jaw and quickly slipped his glove back on. Later in the game Howe skated by Mikita and asked him if he had learned anything?
- Lou Fontinato was known to be one of the toughest Rangers. He tangled with Gordie Howe and it didn’t end well for Fontinato.
- The Hockey News shares a number of great stories about Mr. Hockey including the time when he almost killed a Mountie. As the story goes:
When he was 14, Howe got to play in senior league games in Saskatoon during the Second World War (when a lot of men were away). Things got pretty out of hand one night when his squad was turfing the locals and a bench-clearing brawl broke out. Soon, the fans were jumping on the ice and it was all-out bedlam. A veteran teammate told Howe to stand behind him for protection, but also to watch the veteran’s back. Sure enough, someone came at them and Howe smacked the guy in the head with his stick, sending the assailant to the ice in a heap. Only then did Howe notice the yellow stripe running down the side of the man’s pants – he was an RCMP officer. Howe’s teammate hustled him out of the arena before The Law caught up to him and it never did.
- One of the most famous Gordie Howe stories is one told from Dr. John Finley, who for decades was the Red Wings’ team physician. Dr. Finley recalled stitching Howe up during a game, and being asked to work quickly so he could get back to the action. The cut sewn up, Howe headed toward the ice. As he exited the door of Finley’s infirmary, Howe paused for a moment. “You might want to wait here,” Howe told the doctor. “The guy who did this to me is going to be right in.”
- Gordie Howe also put a 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky in his place when in a WHA game, Gretzky stole the puck from Howe and as Wayne tells it “… third or fourth shift in the game, I took the puck from him, and before I knew it this big stick was pounding me on the hand, I thought I’d broken my thumb. He (Howe) took the puck and said, “Don’t ever take the puck from me,” to which Wayne Gretzky replied “Ok.”
The stories are endless. Gordie Howe was the most revered NHL player of all-time. While you could classify him as “dirty” at times, he policed himself and his teammates unlikely anyone before or since. The Saskatchewan farm boy was tougher than nails. No one ever got the best of Gordie Howe. You don’t get the nickname “Mr. Hockey” for nothing. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Howe once and after sjaking his hand I noticed that he had the hugest hands I have ever seen on a human being. For as intimidating as he was on the ice, he was the nicest man off of the ice. Gordie Howe is the best all-around player to ever play the game of hockey and he is the Hockey Fanatic’s toughest NHLer ever.
2. Mark Messier – in the vein of a modern-day Gordie Howe, Mark Messier was another player that you didn’t mess with but if you did you were going to have to deal with the ramifications. Full disclosure, Mark Messier was my favourite hockey player growing up. Messier, like Howe was one of the most all-around players to ever play in the National Hockey League. Messier was fast, strong, and intimidating. The ultimate leader, you wouldn’t dare through a jersey on the floor of the dressing room when the Moose was on your team. At the time of this writing, Messier is second on the all-time career lists for playoff points (295) and third for regular season games played (1756) and regular season points (1887). Messier not only skilled, but he was mean too.
- In 1981 Stanley Cup playoffs, Messier would need not be intimated by Montreal’s Larry Robinson who was known to not fear anyone in the league. While Robinson would most likely have destroyed Messier in a “dust up”, as the story goes Messier would tell his teammates to throw the puck in his (Robinson’s) corner so that he could take a run at him.
- In 1984, Messier was suspended for ten games for cracking Jamie Macoun’s cheekbone with a sucker punch from behind during a game against the Calgary Flames on December 26.
- Messier fought 62 times in his NHL career. He had nearly 700 goals and 1,910 penalty minutes in his career.
- If you have even seen the Edmonton Oilers documentary “Boys on the Bus” there is a clip where Messier blatantly cross checks an opposing player and when the referee signals a penalty on the play you can her Messier quip “You’re giving me a penalty? You’re giving me a “bleeping” penalty because he backed into me and my stick broke? That’s a joke… an effin’ joke”. Classic
Like Gordie Howe, Messier was famous for throwing an errant elbow. He was an intimidating presence and while fans in certain markets will say otherwise (Vancouver) Mark Messier was one of the NHL’s greatest players of all-time.
3. Larry Robinson – one of the greatest NHL defensmen in NHL history is also one of the toughest. Larry Robinson was one of the few who could put in any of the Big Bad Bruins or the Broad Street Bullies in their place. Robinson’s style was tough to play against and he used his massive size to gain position on opposing forwards. He won the Stanley Cup six times as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. When he needed to, Larry Robinson would absolutely throw down the gloves and fight. One of the classic tilts with Robinson was with the Flyers tough guy Dave Schultz. When a bench clearing brawl broke out between the Candiens and the Flyers, and as the story goes: “Robinson, a little late to the party, slides in and pairs up with Dave Schultz for the main event. The fight doesn’t last very long, but is extremely one sided. I’m not sure who Robinson is pointing at after the fight, but I’m sure that person was a little terrified, and thankful that he didn’t have to tangle with Larry. “
4. Eddie Shore – Eddie Shore is most known for his toughness. After all he is referenced in the hockey movie Slap Shot on multiple occasions. In 2017, he was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in NHL history. Shore was known for his violent play. One of his more famous incidents occurred in 1933, when on December 12, 1933, Shore ended the career of Toronto Maple Leafs star Ace Bailey when he hit Bailey from behind. Bailey was in a comma for 10 days with a fractured skull. As an owner of the Springfield Indians, Shore was often cantankerous and was commonly accused of treating players with little respect. He would have his Springfield players who had been out of the lineup perform maintenance duties in the Eastern States Coliseum, home of the Springfield Indians and would refer to them as “Black Aces”. Hence the term “Black Aces”. In 550 NHL regular season games, Shire amassed 1,047 penalty minutes. Not only was Shore tough, but from many accounts he was mean.
You want old time hockey? How about this? In the mid-twenties, when Shore’s ear was nearly severed in a collision with a teammate, not only did Shore refuse anesthesia, but he insisted on being given a mirror so he could watch the doctor sew it back on. This after other doctors said that they would have to amputate the ear.
5. Wendel Clark – another good old Saskatchewan farm boy, Wendel Clark was a former number one overall pick for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who scored at least 30 goals in six different seasons. However, he just might be was better known his ferocious fighting style and his devastating body checks. Wende Clark spent 1,690 minutes in the penalty box during his career. Who can forget this tilt between Wendel Clark and the Kings’ Marty McSorley?
- Scott Stevens – arguably the most brutal body checker and hitter of all-time. Just ask Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya. Scott Stevens is one of hockey’s most tough-as-nails defenseman and could have played in any era of the NHL.
- Maurice Richard – when people think of The Rocket, they think of 50 goals in 50 games. Well not only could Maurice Richard score, but he had an intensity about him like few before or few after. The glare and Richard stare was one thing, but make no mistake about it, Maurice Richard had a temper. Just look up The Richard Riot which happened on March 17, 1955 a result of an earlier game where a fight between Richard and Bruins player Hal Laycoe broke out. During the fight, Richard punched a linesman. Richard was suspended for the remainder of the season and playoffs and the Montreal fans rioted in protest.
- Bobby Clarke – The captain of the Broad Street Bullies is another example of a plyer who was not only tough but could play a skilled game. Clarke was an emotional leader for the Broad Street Bullies and could fight when needed to. His toughness was measured in his character and the fact that he did what it took to win a hockey game whether it was against the New York Islanders or the Central Red Army team from Russia. With Bobby Clarke as their leader, the Flyers used intimidation and a rugged style of play that led the Soviets to leave the ice midway through the first period of a Super Series game in 1976. The Russians were protesting a hit on Valeri Kharlamov, whom Clarke had slashed on the ankle in the famous Summit Series ’72. What made Clarke standout is not only his toughness on the ice, but the fact that he was a diabetic who played the game at such a high level.
- Ted Lindsay – “Terrible” Ted Lindsay was tough on the ice, but he makes our list due to the courage it took for him to be a catalyst in starting the NHL Players Union in the late 1950’s. With over 1,800 penalty minutes and 851 points in 1,068 NHL games, Ted Lindsay is one of the toughest men to have ever played in the National Hockey League.
- Zdeno Chara – a mammoth of a man that comes in at 6’9” weighing in at 255 pounds, Zdeno Chara is a beast of a defenseman to play against. While not known for his dirty plays, in an incident on 8 March 2011, Chara hit and drove Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty’s head directly into an off-ice stanchion at the end of the bench, knocking him unconscious. Pacioretty was taken off the ice on a stretcher. The extent of the injury was revealed the next day to be a non-displaced fracture to the 4th vertebra and a severe concussion. Chara has been known to use his stick the odd time. In fact he uses 67-inch sticks (four inches longer than NHL regulations), and receives a waiver from the NHL to use such a long stick.
- Bob Probert – one of the “Blues Brothers” along side Joey Kocur, Probert was one of the toughest of his generation. He sits fifth on the all-time PIMs list with 3,300, amassing as many as 398 penalty minutes in a single season, the sixth-most of all-time. Probert could also play the game and was an old school tough guy. His fights are legendary. Don\t just take out word for it, check out this clip on YouTube or this one.
- Clark Gillies – Gillies was a fearless enforcer, taking on the NHL’s toughest players en route to the Isles’ many Stanley Cup championships, and he was not excessive in using his aggression. When you ask people about NHL tough guys, the name Clark Gillies always come up.
- Brendan Shanahan – Shanny played an old-school game. He could score and make plays, but did have a temper and could throw a solid body check and was a pretty good fighter when he had to be. In Shanahan’s 21 seasons, he racked up 2,489 PIMs, good for 22nd on the all-time list.
- Chris Pronger – what’s makes Chris Pronger tough, in part, was the fact that he could be a very dirty player at times. In a Stanley Cup finals game, Pronger nailed Senators forward Dean McAmmond and was suspended for one game due to a forearm shiver to the head of McAmmond. It was the sixth time that Pronger had been suspended and the second time in the same post season. McAmmond was quoted as saying: “I don’t have concussion problems. I have got a problem with people giving me traumatic blows to the head, that’s what I have got a problem with.” Pronger was as tough as they came when it comes to defending the front of the net. He was a beast. Pronger ended up with nearly 2,000 penalty minutes in the NHL (regular season and playoffs). While he was one tough SOB, he was also a champion winning the Stanley Cup, Gold Medal at the Olympics, World Championships and World Junior Championships.
- Dave “Tiger” Williams – when you are better known as ‘Tiger’ Williams than Dave Williams, you know that you are tough. Williams is the NHL’s all-time penalty-minute leader, with an astounding 3,966 PIMs in under 1,000 games. Tiger Williams accumulated over 300 PIMs six timesin his career including putting up 116 of them in the playoffs in 1982 for the Vancouver Canucks.
- Chris Chelios – with his best Gordie Howe imitation, Chris Chelios holds the record for most games played by a defenseman with 1,651 played over the course of an NHL-record 26 seasons.
- Dave Schultz – had he played more games in the NHL than the 535 he did, “The Hammer” might appear higher on our list. Schultz served 2,294 minutes in the penalty box including 472 in the 1974-75 NHL season, a record that still stands today.
- Terry O’Reilly – O’Reilly, who infamously scaled the glass at a gamer in Madison Square Garden to chase a Rangers’ fan in a 1979 brawl, was one of the Big Bad Bruins. Nicknamed the ‘Tasmanian Devil” for good reason.
- Dave Semenko – when Dave Semenko asked you if you wanted to go for a “canoe ride” you knew that you were in trouble. Semenko had a number of good tilts in his career especially against Tim Hunter of the Calgary Flames. Semenko even fought boxing legend Muhammad Ali in an exhibition bout on June 12, 1983 earning a draw. He put up 1,175 penalty minutes in the NHL regular season in just 575 games. For 10 seasons, the man patrolled the ice for the Edmonton Oilers and was often referred to Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard.
- Joe Kocur – When you think of Joey Kocur, you think of two things… tough and devastating punches. Joe Kocur got a reputation for truly causing major injury with his punch. He even managed to crack Donald Brashear’s helmet during a bout. He amassed 2,519 penalty minutes during the course of his career. Known as one of the “Bruise Brothers” alongside Bob Probert, Kocur put up 377 penalty minutes in 59 games for the Detroit Red Wings in 1985/86.
- Tie Domi – Domi wasn’t the largest player out there, but he was a sparkplug. At the time of this writing Tie Domi holds the distinction on the third most penalty minutes in the history of the NHL with 3,515 career minutes. When he fought, he fought everyone. His battles with Red Wings Bob Probert are legendary.
- Red Horner – Red Horner was one of hockey’s first enforcers, joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1928 as a defenseman enthusiastic to drop the gloves. Lead the NHL in penalty minutes for eight consecutive seasons finishing with 1,264 PIMS in his career.
- Rob Ray – While playing in the AHL for the Rochester Americans, Ray put up 446 penalty minutes during the 1988-89 season. In his first full season with the Buffalo Sabres, he put up 350 PIMS. Rob Ray ended his NHL career with 3,207 career penalty minutes, ranking him 6th overall in NHL history. He was known for his animated and spirited fights and as per hockeyfights.com fought Tie Domi on 13 occasions. Ray scored on his first shot in his first shift in the NHL, and also on his last shot in his last shift. The NHL developed the “Rob Ray” rule in which you cannot remove jerseys and pads before a fight which was a direct result of Rob Ray and his style of fisticuffs.
- Cam Neely – Nelly was another of those old school players known for his fearless style of play. While injuries cut his career short, he still tallied over 1,200 penalty minutes over the course of his career. Playing for both the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins, Neely had most of his 76 NHL fights as a member of the Boston Bruins in the old Adams division. You have to be pretty tough to have a nickname like “Bam-Bam Cam”.
- Georges Laraque – during his time in the NHL, “Big” Georges Laraque was far and away the toughest man in the NHL. He was big and menacing often playing at an estimated 260 pounds. A south paw that very few looked forward to dropping the gloves with. He fought everyone and anyone and was never one to back down. According to hockeyfights.com he had over 130 fights in the NHL with 97 of those as a member of the Oilers. Oddly enough he had the most fights vs. the Minnesota Wild (12). Some of the guys that Laraque tangled with were some of the all-time best fighters in the NHL including Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson, Wade Belak, and Derek “The Boogeyman” Boogaard. Here’s a clip of the devastation of a Georges Laraque left in a tilt against Derek Boogaard from the 2005-06 NHL season.
There you have it, The Hockey Fanatic’s Top 25 toughest NHL players of all-time. Of course such as this are open to debate. So if you feel we missed a player off of this list let us know and we will consider it for a future update. #hockeyfanatics