Hockey enforcers are some of the toughest players in all of sports.
Sure, linebackers and big rugby players dish out their share of punishment. But being an NHL tough guy means doling out devastating hits, taking shots to the body—and then, when the gloves come off, getting down and dirty with a fight every so often.
Whether it’s defending a star player from a big check, or taking down the best player from the other team, these gnarly players know how to make things happen. The players on this list aren’t just guys who took penalties, but players that could give out some major punishment—and play through the injuries they sustained in the course of their battle.
It takes hard work to be an NHL tough guy, and that means hours in the weight room, extra time on the ice, and hard work at home with the right nutrition to help pack on that extra muscle.
Here are the gnarliest, toughest, hardest hitting, and simply just badass players in NHL history:
Gordie Howe, Detroit Red Wings
Known as “Mr. Hockey,” Howe was considered one of the toughest players in the NHL during his career. Although he wasn't much of a fighter—although he could dish out a hard hit when he needed to—Howe made his presence known on the ice with a combination of physical strength, scoring ability, true grit, and supreme durability.
Born in a farmhouse in Saskatchewan, Howe went on to play until he was 51 years old, the bulk of that coming with the Detroit Red Wings. The ambidextrous right winger had a remarkably long career for a hockey player, appearing in professional games stretching over five decades from 1946 to 1980. Howe finished his career with 801 goals and 1,049 assists in 1,767 regular-season games played—the most of anyone in NHL history.
The Hall of Famer left his mark on the NHL as a tough guy with what is now known as the "Gordie Howe hat trick"—which is when a player has a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game.
Scott Stevens, New Jersey Devils
Stevens was the toughest player on some very good Devils teams, including three that won the Stanley Cup. Stevens played in over 1,600 games in his career, laying out some devastating hits in that time. One check stands above the rest: Stevens took down Flyers star Eric Lindros in a hit that still may have the Philadelphia center’s head spinning:
Rob Blake, Los Angeles Kings
Blake was one of the best two-way defensemen in the league during the course of his 19-year career, and he was a major physical presence on the ice. Blake put up over 1,600 penalty minutes in 1,270 career games and was always ready for a big hit. He won the Norris Trophy in 1993 as the league's top defensive player, and was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014.
Bobby Orr, Boston Bruins
Orr is considered to be one of the best players in NHL history, but he also was one of the toughest. Orr didn’t fight too much, but he threw down when he needed to, and the Boston Bruins defenseman played through a grueling battery of injuries in his career. Orr was forced to retire early because of all those injuries, but not before he won eight Norris trophies and racked up nearly 1,000 penalty minutes. Orr also scored one of the best goals in playoff history—a Stanley Cup-clinching goal in overtime—which spawned one of the greatest sports photographs ever.
Donald Brashear, Montreal Canadiens
Brashear had a lengthy career in the NHL as one of the top enforcers in the league. At 6'3", 237 lbs, he had the size for it. Brashear ended his career with over 2,600 penalty minutes, and one of his biggest claims to fame is taking part in the most penalized NHL game ever. Brashear was on the Philadelphia Flyers squad that took on the Ottawa Senators when the two teams combined for a record 419 penalty minutes. Brashear fought fellow enforcer Rob Ray in an epic clash:
Chris Pronger, St. Louis Blues
Pronger was one of the most skilled defensive players in the league during his career, but he also was an intimidating presence on the ice. At 6'6", 220 lbs, Pronger was often the biggest player in the rink—and he had no problem throwing that weight around. The defenseman has the distinction of being suspended twice in one playoff year (2007) and was suspended eight different times during the course of his playing days.
Jeff Beukeboom, New York Rangers
It’s right there in the name. Beukeboom was the enforcer and heavy hitter for the 1994 New York Rangers team that won the Stanley Cup, giving players like Adam Graves and Brian Leetch some protection on the ice. Beukeboom won three Stanley Cup titles in his career and finished his playing days with nearly 1,900 penalty minutes in 804 games.
Cam Neely, Boston Bruins
Neely was one of the few tough guys that also could score—he had nearly 400 goals in 726 career games—but Neely also knew how to deliver a major hit. Neely spent over 1,200 minutes in the penalty box in his career, and even earned the nickname “Bam Bam Cam” from Boston Bruins fans.
Marty McSorley, Los Angeles Kings
McSorley was one of the hardest-hitting players in NHL history, and during the course of his career he acted as the de facto bodyguard for Wayne Gretzky while playing for the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings. McSorley finished his career ranked in the top five in penalty minutes, but he also ended with some controversy. McSorley was suspended in 2000 after slashing Donald Brashear in the head, causing him to fall and suffer a concussion. The slash led to a major brawl:
Brendan Shanahan, Detroit Red Wings
Shanahan could boast that he's the best offensive tough guy in NHL history—at the time of his retirement, he was the only player with 600 goals and at least 2,000 penalty minutes. Shanahan won three Stanley Cup championships with the Detroit Red Wings and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Funnily enough, after his playing days were over, Shanahan took a job with the NHL as the Senior Vice President—a role that had him handing out rulings on players who made illegal hits. During his career, though, Shanahan had no problem dropping his gloves when he needed to:
Matthew Barnaby, Buffalo Sabres
Barnaby was known for taunting his opponents on the ice during his career, including during fights and after big hits. The winger played for a number of teams in his 14 seasons—including the Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars—but he is best remembered for his time in Buffalo. Barnaby finished his career ranked in the top 20 all-time for penalty minutes, with 2,562 minutes spent in the sin bin.
Mark Messier, New York Rangers
Messier is one of the most accomplished offensive players in NHL history, but he also had no problem throwing down for a fight. That showed in his statline: Messier finished his career with nearly 700 goals and 1,910 penalty minutes. Messier was a fiery and intimidating player and that mindset got him suspended a few times, including for a hit on Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano with an errant elbow.
Derek Boogaard, Minnesota Wild
Boogaard embraced the role of enforcer through his career—earning the nickname “Boogeyman”—and even in junior hockey he was known for his fighting. Boogaard was considered to be one of the toughest and most intimidating players during his time in the NHL—his 6'8", 265-pound frame sure helped that.
The former Wild and New York Rangers star once fractured Todd Fedoruk’s cheek and also knocked out Trevor Gillies with an uppercut in a fight. Boogaard’s life had a tragic end in 2011 that may have been precipitated by his hard-charging playing style. Boogaard will always be linked to the NHL and the fighting culture that he participated in, but he also epitomized the toughness and grit that many hockey players have.
Rob Ray, Buffalo Sabres
Ray was one of the top enforcers in the NHL during his playing career—he racked up 3,207 penalty minutes—while playing for the Sabres and Ottawa Senators. Ray made a major impact on the NHL fighting rules, as he often did not have his equipment latched to his pants, meaning opponents could not get a good grip on him during fights.
This allowed Ray to get the upper hand quite a bit, but it also forced the NHL to enact the “Rob Ray rule” to stop players from co-opting his strategy. But Ray’s off-ice persona was hardly as brutish as his playing style; he won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 1999 for leadership and humanitarianism.
Tony Twist, St. Louis Blues
Twist was known as one of the top NHL enforcers during his time in the league, racking up over 1,100 penalty minutes in his 10-year career. He was a fan favorite in St. Louis and never backed down from a fight. Sometimes Twist even started them on his own, including this prodding of Flyers star Eric Lindros with his stick:
Zdeno Chára, Boston Bruins
When you’re 6'9", 255 pounds and play hockey, there is a good chance you will end up an enforcer. Chára has established himself as one of the most fearsome players in the league—and one of the heaviest hitters.
Chára has had some controversial moments in his career, none bigger than when he smashed Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty into the boards in 2011. Chára is not considered to be a “dirty” player—just a huge dude who can throw his weight around—which is probably why he was not suspended for the hit.
Tie Domi, Toronto Maple Leafs
When people think of hockey tough guys, Domi is usually one of the first players named. That’s what happens when you play for 16 seasons and finish your career with the third-most penalty minutes of all-time (3,515). Domi is known by many hockey fans primarily because he threw down the gloves quite a bit. One of the most well-known—and worst—moments of Domi’s career was when he sucker punched Rangers defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, which resulted in a suspension for Domi:
Tiger Williams, Toronto Maple Leafs
Williams was one of the gnarliest enforcers of all-time—with a nickname like Tiger, how could he not be?—finishing his NHL career with the most penalty minutes of any player ever. Williams amassed 3,966 penalty minutes while playing for five different teams in 14 seasons. Tiger was known for his goal celebrations as much as his fighting, as Williams liked to ride his stick down the ice like a horse after scoring.
Williams actually was a fairly productive offensive player—putting up at least 40 points in six different seasons—but he also had a penchant for violence that led to suspensions, including one occasion when he was hit with an eight-game ban for trying to choke out a Calgary Flames player with his stick. This fight between the Flyers' Dave Schultz and Williams (then with the Maple Leafs) pretty much sums it up for Tiger:
Wendel Clark, Toronto Maple Leafs
Clark, a former No. 1 overall pick for the Toronto Maple Leafs, scored at least 30 goals in six different seasons—but he was better known his ferocious fighting and his devastating checks. Clark spent 1,690 minutes in the penalty box during his career, which goes a long way into explainign why he was a major fan favorite in Toronto.
The 5’11, 190-pound winger was proud of his pugilistic reputation in the league and he earned himself the nickname “Captain Crunch” for his hard hits. Clark played for a number of teams over the course of his 15-year career, including the Maple Leafs—three different times—the Quebec Nordiques, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks.
Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens
“The Rocket” is a legend in hockey history as one of the best playmakers ever and one of the first high-scoring players in the NHL. Richard was the first player to score 50 goals in one season, and when he retired he was the all-time leader in goals with 544. Throughout his career with the Montreal Canadiens, he was as famous for his scoring touch as he was for his fiery temper and toughness on the ice.
Richard finished his career with nearly 1,300 penalty minutes. One of his most infamous moments came during the 1954-55 season, when he hit a linesman during a game. Richard was later suspended by NHL president Clarence Campbell for the rest of the season and the playoffs—which later sparked a riot (yes, a RIOT) in the streets of Montreal. Aptly named the “Richard Riot,” fans took to the streets four days after the suspension when Campbell attended a game between the Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings. The incident caused over $100,000 in damage, but it only added to Richard's legend.