Hockey heroes: The toughest hockey players in NHL history
Hockey is arguably the toughest sport, but these guys gave new meaning to the word “tough.” Some earned their toughness through playing through injuries, others through brawling, while others simply earned it based on their longevity playing one of the most demanding sports.
Here are the 30 toughest hockey NHL players in history.
Notorious Bruins bad boy Terry O’Reilly was nicknamed “Bloody O’Reilly,” thanks to his pugnacious nature and inclination toward racking up penalties. Unlike other players on this list, Terry O’Reilly’s most notorious moment came during 1979, when O’Reilly and a group of Bruins fought New York Rangers fans at Madison Square Garden.
O’Reilly and his pals scaled the glass and started beating fans. For his actions, O’Reilly was suspended for eight games. Not too shabby, all things considered. After his playing (aka fighting) days, O’Reilly began coaching, leading his Bruins for three seasons. For his career, O’Reilly racked up over 2,000 penalty minutes.
An iconic player with one of the most iconic ways to finish off a career, Ray Bourque was a true grinder. He returned to Boston season after season in search of the elusive Stanley Cup, only to come up short each year. That didn’t stop the 19-time All-Star from skating for 22 seasons in search of Lord Stanley’s precious cup.
After his time in Boston ended, where he served as the city’s longest-standing captain, Bourque moved to Colorado in pursuit of the Cup. In what was announced as his last season of hockey, Bourque finally summited his Mount Everest, winning the Cup with the Avalanche in a thrilling seven-game series.
Rick Tocchet entered the league as a fighter, throwing hands whenever possible to earn the respect of his teammates and stay employed. Slowly but surely, “Slick” Rick’s game evolved. He began to score goals and became a deft puck handler, all while keeping up with his reputation as a brawler. As Rick began to become one of the league’s more respected forwards, he also began to travel more, getting traded to various teams.
In 1992, Tocchet won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He finished his career a four-time All-Star and one of only a few players to notch 400 goals and over 2,000 penalty minutes. Tocchet also has the most known Gordie Howe hat tricks (scoring a goal, recording an assist, and fighting in one game), with 18.
The man who lent his name to the coolest stat in sports, the Gordie Howe hat trick, Gordie Howe is a legend and is oft regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time and the sport’s iron man. Howe was a 23-time All-Star and six-time MVP and is the only player to lace ’em up in five different decades.
Yep, in 1980, Howe returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers at the ripe age of 52. It wouldn’t matter if Howe didn’t get into one fight during his career (he got into plenty); his insane longevity is its own level of toughness unsurpassed by anyone.
Ron Hextall was a goalie, one that didn’t give a you-know-what about the opposition or his own body. One of the most aggressive goalies in NHL history, Hextall had no problem emerging from the net to crash into the offense to stop the puck. He was also the only goalie to record at least 100 penalty minutes in a season, something he did on three separate occasions.
When Hextall wasn’t fighting (he got into 17 scraps during his career), he was … scoring goals. Hextall was the first goalie in the NHL’s illustrious history to score a goal. He also holds the dubious distinction of being the most penalized goalie in NHL history.
The man played 26 seasons of professional hockey. That alone should put him on any list about toughest athletes, regardless of the sport. Now factor in the bruising style in which he played, and the feat becomes even more impressive. Chelios racked up over 2,800 penalty minutes over the course of his career, in no small part due to his 103 fights.
In 1986, Chelios won his first Stanley Cup, and over 20 years later, he won his third Cup with the Detroit Red Wings. At the time of his retirement, he was the second-oldest active player ever. Chelios is of Greek ancestry.
Towering at 6-foot-9 is longtime Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, appropriately nicknamed “Big Z.” Big Z is everything big and tough. He has the hardest slap shot in the league. He is one of the game’s biggest hitters, and he’s one of the toughest. After all, the man is 42 and still brings it on a nightly basis.
In the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Finals, Chara blocked a shot with his face, shattering his jaw instantly. What did this savage do? He got his mouth wired shut, went on a liquid diet, and suited up for the next game. Oh yeah, that was after taking a slap shot to the wrist which required numerous stitches to stanch the gushing blood. Tough guy for sure.
This name is perfect for an NHL tough guy. Sawchuk. Doesn’t get much better than that. Now factor in the fact that this man was a goalie who played without a mask. Seriously, props to all the old-timer goalies that played without a mask, and even the ones that played with those Halloween-esque horror-movie style masks. All those guys deserve to be on some list.
Terry Sawchuk played in the NHL for 21 seasons, using every inch of his bruised and battered body to stop pucks. Over the course of his career, Sawchuk required over 400 stitches to his face to seal up cuts and wounds.
All you need to know about the first great defenseman in hockey history is that he got into a scrap with a teammate that nearly took his ear off. This story is not apocryphal. Mr. Shore’s ear was hanging on by a thread. Doctors, who rushed to the scene, told him it would be best to amputate, but Shore wasn’t down for that.
So, without anesthetic, the doctors begrudgingly sutured his ear back to his head. Shore is also notable for ending the career of Ace Bailey when he sucker punched Ace in a retaliation scheme gone utterly wrong. Thankfully, Ace lived after surviving hours of surgery to his fractured skull. The two became friends after the incident.
No. 4, Bobby Orr, the man behind the most iconic photograph in NHL history, the one where he soars through the air after scoring the game winner in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals against the St. Louis Blues. Aside from that goal, Orr is known as one of hockey’s greatest defensemen, especially from a scoring standpoint.
Orr’s former teammate Darryl Sittler said, “Bobby Orr was better on one leg than anybody else was on two.” Sittler was referring to the devastating knee injuries Orr played through throughout his career. Rumor has it he underwent around 15 knee surgeries in order to keep playing hockey. Orr is also the only defenseman to win the Art Ross Trophy, something he did twice.
Another name that is perfect for the toughest hockey players list, Jeff Beukeboom has boom built into his name. So it’s no surprise he would frequently lay the boom on the helpless skaters that crossed him on the ice. A four-time Stanley Cup winner, Beukeboom was a punishing physical presence, but that physical nature ended up taking its toll on the long-time New York Ranger.
Beukeboom, who racked up nearly 2,000 minutes in the sin bin, suffered numerous concussions, including one from a sucker punch in 1998 that effectively ended his career. After 13 seasons in the league, Beukeboom retired from hockey and still suffers from post-concussion syndrome.
Coming in with a solid 100 career fights, Cam “Bam Bam Cam” Neely was a preeminent scorer, bruiser, and, when necessary, fighter. His fists were as lethal as his slap shot. Although Neely couldn’t lead Boston to a title, he still remained one of the game’s best players. And definitively one of the toughest.
In a 1994 game, Neely was slashed so hard in the glove that the tip of his pinky was severed clean. Neely retreated to the bench, got the thing stitched right back on, and returned to the game. If that isn’t the epitome of toughness, then what is?
Let’s put Tony Twist on the All-NHL Name Team. Let’s do the twist. Twist the Fist played in 445 career games and fought in 137 of them. That’s 31% of his games, or a fight every 3 out of 10 games. That’s solid work right there. Twist didn’t have the career longevity that others on this list had, but he did have one of the most devastating punches.
In 1995, Twist broke enforcer Rob Ray’s orbital bone with his signature right-hand smash, a move that won him most of his on-ice battles. What Twist wasn’t able to beat was a motorcycle accident that prematurely ended his NHL career.
The “Broad Street Bullies” of the early ’70s wouldn’t be the Broad Street Bullies without Dave Schultz, aka “The Hammer.” The two-time Stanley Cup champ racked up an NHL record 472 penalty minutes during the 1974-75 season. In fact, he was so inclined toward brawling that he would wrap his hands like a boxer prior to games.
When the NHL found out about this, they banned the practice, in what came to be known as the “Schultz Rule.” Aside from his hands, Schultz is known for his iconic mustache that added an aura of mystery to the enforcer. Today, Schultz is championing against violence in the NHL.
Back at it with the perfectly fitting tough-guy names. McSorley, emphasis on “sore,” is perfect. McSorley is known as Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard, as the enforcer played with the “The Great One” in Edmonton and LA, sticking up for his fleet-footed buddy whenever possible.
While McSorley was primarily thought of as an enforcer, he did have a nice repertoire of scoring moves and was a solid addition to any team he was on. In 2000, McSorley’s NHL career essentially ended when he smashed his stick over Donald Brashear’s head. McSorley was found guilty in Canadian courts of assault with a weapon and received 18 months’ probation.
Are you serious with the names? The man is one letter away from having “Bash” in his name. No wonder he became one of the game’s most feared fighters and biggest hitters. Brashear overcame a rough childhood to become one of the NHL’s most feared players. He was also one of the most notable for a moment when, in 2000, Marty McSorley knocked him out cold with a slash to the head.
Thankfully, Brashear recovered and played for nearly a decade after the incident. He currently ranks 15th of all time in penalty minutes and holds the Canucks record for penalty minutes in a season. In 2011, Brashear won his MMA debut with a knockout.
Another brawler who had the honor of getting an unofficial rule named after him, the “Rob Ray Rule” further penalized fighters for taking off their jerseys during a fight, a common tactic Ray employed. The shedding of the jersey allowed Ray, who holds the Sabres record for most penalty minutes, to quickly dispel most of his opponents, who were unable to grasp him during the fight.
An interesting aside about Ray: He scored a goal on his first NHL shift and on his last shift before retiring. Rob Ray is a proud member of the 3,000-penalty-minute club. Ray is currently an announcer for the Sabres.
Domi said that it was “his job to protect his teammates.” In other words, he was paid to fight. Despite being small in stature, Domi threw some big, heavy hands. He got into a fight during the first game of his career and never looked back.
The problem with Domi was he wasn’t a clean fighter, and he is known for two highly publicized incidents where he knocked two people unconscious with sucker punches and elbows. The man who spent over 3,000 minutes in the box also fought a fan one game when the glass surrounding the penalty box caved in due to the heckler climbing it. Domi, needless to say, got the best of the fan.
While Maurice “Rocket” Richard may not have the most fights or penalty minutes to his name, he is responsible for getting into a vicious on-ice brawl that incited a riot in Montreal. In 1955, Richard got into a fight with Boston’s Hal Laycoe and, in the heat of the moment, also punched a linesman.
The NHL came down hard on the elite goal scorer, suspending him for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. When the NHL commissioner went to a Canadiens game, the fans rioted, causing upwards of $100,000 in damage. Rocket retired the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer, a record that has since been surpassed.
A member of the Triple Gold Club (Olympic gold, Stanley Cup champion, and gold in the World Championships), Rob Blake defined toughness in the sense of longevity and reliability. Blake played over 1,200 games, and while he didn’t get into too many fights (33 to be exact), he was a physical presence on the defensive side of things.
There wasn’t a shot that Blake wouldn’t be willing to throw his body in front of if it meant stopping a scoring play. It’s dedication like that which earned Blake his reputation as one of the most solid and reliable players in the NHL.
Towering on the ice at 6-foot-6 stood imposing physical presence Chris Pronger, another hockey Triple Gold Club member. Pronger, a respected leader with a mighty slap shot, captained three different teams throughout the course of his career. In 2007, Pronger helped lead the Anaheim Ducks to their first Stanley Cup title.
While teammates loved having a presence like Pronger on the ice, the opposition didn’t think too highly of him. He was usually regarded as one of the league’s more dirty players and was suspended eight times in his career. Pronger currently suffers vision impairment stemming from an injury when he was slashed in the face by an opponent’s stick.
A true pest, Matthew Barnaby is arguably more known for his antics on the ice than his skill set. While most players love celebrating goals, it seems Barnaby was fueled by taunting the opposition, with infuriating smiles, sticking his tongue out, waving his gloves, and doing whatever else he could to get under their skin.
Barnaby was never able to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup, although he did capture the resentment and ire of virtually everyone he played against. He logged 834 games played and got into a healthy 211 fights. Potentially his greatest NHL regret was not joining the 3,000-minute club in the penalty box; he came up 500 minutes short.
How scary was Derek Boogaard, aka “The Boogeyman”? Just ask Todd Fedoruk, the man who squared up against Boogaard only to get his cheekbone broken, requiring several metal plates and multiple surgeries to fix. Boogaard, the son of a Canadian Mountie, was one of the game’s most feared enforcers, and in 2007, he was named the second-most intimidating player in hockey.
Sadly, that fighting playing style that became synonymous with Boogaard took its toll on his head. Boogaard suffered numerous concussions and head trauma, and in 2011, Boogaard was found dead from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. The autopsy revealed he had advanced stages of CTE.
Right winger Jarome Iginla could do it all: score, assist, defend, and, of course, fight. His right hand, the one he broke on Bill Guerin’s face, can attest to that. Iginla was a two-time scoring champ and was the 2002 MVP. Iginla, who’s most well known for his time with the Calgary Flames, had his number retired by the franchise in 2019.
The only thing Iginla, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, wasn’t able to do on the ice was win the Stanley Cup. At a time during his career, stat keepers believed Iginla was the active leader in Gordie Howe hat tricks.
Craig Berube was never able to win the Stanley Cup, at least as a player. He did make amends to himself by leading the Blues (as head coach) to the Stanley Cup title in 2019 by defeating the Bruins in seven games. What was the secret weapon? A physical, bruising style of play that battered Boston to a pulp.
Where did Berube learn that style? Playing, of course, where the 17-year vet fought 412 times and logged a very substantial 3,149 minutes in the penalty box. Berube finished multiple seasons in the top 10 for penalty minutes, a distinction he carries with pride.
Georges Laraque, which really sounds like “The Rock,” was a 6-foot-3, 273-pound mauler with some of the most devastating hands in NHL history. In 2002, The Hockey News named Laraque the league’s best fighter, a nod Laraque would again receive in 2008 when Sports Illustrated named him the top enforcer in the NHL.
Everything about his game was physical, including his signature celebration from his playing days in Edmonton where, after scoring a goal, he would thunderously leap into the glass. Laraque fought 142 times over the course of his 14-year NHL career. After hockey, Laraque found his softer side and entered politics while even becoming a vegan. Time to mash those potatoes.
Goal-scoring was not Ken Daneyko’s forte. In fact, Ken went a record 255 straight games without putting a puck in the back of the net. Did anyone really care, though? Nope, so long as Ken, a ruthless defender, was shutting down the opposition. Nicknamed “Mr. Devil,” Daneyko is the Devils’ all-time leader in games played, with 1,283.
Known for his signature toothless smile, Daneyko recorded over 2,200 penalty minutes during his career and racked up over 200 penalty minutes in a season five times. And yes, those teeth were missing because Daneyko, the selfless defender that he was, opted to use his face to block a shot. In 2006, New Jersey retired his uniform number (3).
Longevity, not fisticuffs, lands Jaromir Jagr on this list. The deft scorer retired second of all time in regular-season points and third of all time in goals scored. Jagr is also a member of the Triple Gold Club, winning Olympic gold and World Championship gold with the Czech Republic, and two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jagr’s longevity and commitment to hockey is punctuated by setting the longest time between Stanley Cup Finals appearances at an astounding 21 years. Jagr is also the oldest player to record a hat trick. Amazingly, despite playing for 24 years, Jagr never had a fighting major in his NHL career. Not. One. Time.
Not the biggest fighter and definitely not the biggest name on this list, Borje Salming simply returned from an injury that would keep 99.99% of the human population from ever putting skates on again. In 1986, the future Hockey Hall of Famer took a skate blade to the face, severely gashing open his cheek.
The injury required facial surgery and over 200 stitches to his face. Once Borje’s face healed up, Swedish Frankenstein returned to the ice for another three seasons. There was no keeping Borje off the ice. In total, Borje skated in the NHL for 17 seasons, all but one with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Arguably the smartest player in NHL history, George Parros is a graduate of Princeton University and was an enforcer in the NHL. Yep, an Ivy League graduate who used his brawn over his brain and his hands over his head to make a living. Parros played in 474 games and fought 169 times. For the non-Ivy grads here, that’s about 36% of his games.
The chances of Parros throwing down were high. Parros, who knew his career on the ice hinged on his ability to fight, even took boxing lessons to ensure he’d remain one of the game’s more feared fighters. Ironically enough, Parros became the head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety after retiring.