Every hockey fan appreciates mastery. We all admire icons like Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux. That said, there’s also a special place in our hearts for the tough guys—the toothless sluggers who open the ice up for the rest of their team. And I’m not talking about your run of the mill goons. I’m talking about the NHL’s truly tenacious titans. I’m talking about the league’s great enforcers. There have been a lot of them, but a few stand out from the crowd. Allow us recount ten of our favourites, in no particular order.
Gino Odjick: As Vancouverites, there may be a bit of bias here. But every fan has their biases, and in Vancouver, we let our colours fly. So sue us. Odjick was a beast in the truest sense, tough as nails in his Canucks sweater from ’91-’98. He was never afraid to drop the gloves to protect his teammates and as a result, this left-winger punched his way into a very special place in franchise history.
Dave Williams: Tiger: a fitting nickname for a fierce force. We knew him both for his celebratory, stick-riding goal celebrations, and for the way he racked up minutes in the sin bin. Over the course of his awesome career, which he spent with the Leafs, ‘Nucks, Red Wings, Kings and Whalers, Tiger piled up over 4,000 penalty minutes, cementing his place as the king of ice fighting, and one of the most intimidating enforcers of all time.
Tie Domi: Domi was never the biggest guy on the ice, but he was rich in grit. And while his reputation was diminished by a few unsportsmanlike moments, he became a fan favourite in Winnipeg (looking out for Teemu Selanne), and later in Toronto. Over the course of his career, a fearless Domi amassed a massive 3505 minutes in the penalty box, which clocks him in at third all-time. He also managed to crest 340 penalty minutes in a season on two occasions. And while he lost some teeth in the process, his career is nothing to smirk at.
Terry O’Reilly: This Niagara Falls-born Irishman, quite fittingly, made a name for himself in Boston, where he never backed down from a fight. Better yet, when he wasn’t throwing punches, he was a solid, offensive player. Over the course of his career he racked up not only 2095 penalty minutes, but a solid 606 points as well. Still, perhaps O’Reilly is best known for a 1979 post-game brawl that saw him vault into the crowd to tango with a troublesome fan.
Chris Neil: This staple of the Sens franchise may not win all his tussles, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t try. He’s held his own in battles with the league’s toughest, including the towering Zdeno Chara. Best of all? Neil never let’s ‘em fly without a big grin across his face. Despite being a devout Christian, he fights with the ferocity of a demon from Dante’s Inferno. And after years with the Senators, his undeniable toughness has made him a hero in the capital city.
Bob Probert: May this aggressive legend rest in peace. While he faced a number of substance-abuse-related suspensions, Probert carved out a rep as one of the most feared men the NHL has ever seen. Need proof? Check out his savage scraps with fellow sluggers Domi, McSorley and Grimson. And of course, Probert also made up one half of Detroit’s legendary “Bruise Brothers”, alongside
Marty McSorley: McSorley was the man charged with the protection of hockey’s GOAT: Wayne Gretzky. He excelled in this role during his time with the Edmonton Oilers, and racked up a nasty 3381 PIMs. Unfortunately, his career was cut short when he took things too far, lashing out at Donald Brashear with his stick in the year 2000. The results were a long suspension, and an assault charge— both well-deserved.
Stu Grimson: They called him the Grim Reaper— a fitting moniker for a hulk of a man who very few players were willing to tangle with. At 6’6, and almost 250lbs, Grimson collected over 2000 penalty minutes, most of which were five-minute major penalties. Despite taking on all comers, Grimson might be most remembered for his rowdy rivalry with Bob Probert. The pair shared a handful of massive collisions so brutal they hurt to watch.
Dale Hunter: You may know him as the former head coach of the Washing Capitals, but before he assumed that role, Hunter was head-hunting as a player for the Caps and Quebec Nordiques. Over his 20-season career, he spent 3400 minutes in the bin, and also managed to score 323 goals, proving himself to be an aggressive and adaptable presence on skates.
Chris Nilan: They called him “Knuckles” for a reason. Nilan is the owner of the highest, one-game penalty total: a massive 42 minutes across a total of ten infractions. And while his career as a whole was rather short (688 games), he still managed to amass over 3000 PIMs. Furthermore, he was an affective player in other facets of the game, and a cup-winner as part of the ’86 Habs.
Yes, the players who go down in history are the goal-scorers, the wall-like goaltenders, the captains. But the brick-chinned, glove-dropping enforcers that kept those players safe are worthy of remembrance too. This is our tribute to those warriors on ice. We thank them for the sweet savagery and the beautiful brawls. Who are your favourite NHL enforcers? Who did we miss?
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