The game of hockey has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Don’t get us wrong, it is still amazing and beyond entertaining. The game is arguably faster than it ever was before, and if you’re looking for goals, brilliant plays, and an exciting overall game, look no further.
Unfortunately, if you’re one of those people (like this writer) who misses the good ol’ days when you could go to a hockey game and see four or five fights with little more than a trip to the penalty box for the participants, along with devastating hits punished with the odd brief suspension, there is something missing. While brutality was once something to be celebrated on the ice, it has been heavily cracked down upon over the past decade, with huge penalties handed out for hits and lengthier punishments for fighting. Of course, the increased dialogue about CTE and head trauma in contact sports has made it more of a liability for the NHL to encourage violent play, especially after the deaths of tough guys Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien back in 2011; all thought to be linked to head trauma and violence in the game.
The goon is almost a thing of the past and many fans remember those rough-and-tumble legends fondly. While there are still tough guys in the NHL, the role of the goon or enforcer has become much less prominent and even the minor leagues (formerly known for almost exclusively tough play and mayhem) have less of them these days. If a guy is going to play the role of a tough guy these days, he has to also be damn smart about it and be able to occasionally put the puck in the net.
The game has changed, and while some of us aren’t thrilled about it, we still follow the great sport of hockey and will continue to because it’s still too entertaining not to watch. With that said, some of the greatest memories many fans will ever have is the exhilaration of watching two guys drop the gloves and try to tear each other to shreds. Here are fifteen of the greatest enforcers ever, and what they’re up to these days.
15. Terry O’Reilly
Boston has an incredible history in general but also in terms of sports. The Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and of course the Bruins all have legendary players. While names like Tom Brady and David Ortiz may be among the most recent heroes, and Bobby Orr is probably the most renowned, historic hockey name, Bruins fans love memories of Taz O’Reilly. They loved his rugged style of play and of course his Irish ancestry helped.
With only about 2,430 minutes spent in the penalty box, he doesn’t have a lot of time compared to some other members of our list, but his style of play was the kind of hard-nosed grinding and fighting that endeared him to his fans. These days he’s into charitable initiatives and related appearances, and has done some real estate investing. After his 1985 retirement he coached for a few years, but he declined to stick around after 1989, as his son was sick with a liver disease and needed care.
14. Willi Plett
Among the players on this list, Willi Plett is one of those that really walks the fine line between “goon/enforcer” and “physical power forward”. We’ll include him regardless, as his 2,500 penalty minutes and well over 100 career fights are more than enough for membership among the legendary goons of the sport. His 437 career points was icing on the cake for the Atlanta/Calgary Flames and Minnesota North Stars, for whom he played in the late 1970s and ’80s.
He retired after the 1987-88 season, realizing he was no longer interested in playing the sport. He opened a golf and sports park on his property in Atlanta. The business eventually went under but he remembers it fondly, despite the headaches he says goes along with working in a retail environment. Now in his late 50’s, his days are spent helping his son run a landscaping company.
13. Dave Semenko
Not many guys can call themselves “Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard”, but Dave Semenko (Pictured Middle) played that part for the Great One back in Edmonton during the 1980’s. Standing 6’3, he was an imposing, well built enforcer who diligently looked after not only Gretzky but also Mark Messier and other finesse players like Jari Kurri, all of whom were targets. All were members of that amazing Edmonton squad that won back to back cups in 1984 and 1985. “Tough as nails” may be an understatement when talking about Semenko.
Following the end of his playing career, Semenko worked in broadcasting and did some coaching. More recently he was involved in scouting for the Oilers, but lost that job back in mid 2015 because, well, we have to be honest, he and several of the other scouts were pretty terrible at finding talent for the team. He has also released a book detailing his career, entitled Looking out for Number One.
12. Chris Nilan
Montreal Canadiens fans were treated to the brawling of “Knuckles” Nilan throughout the 1980s. Despite a career consistently hampered by injury and often spending at least five minutes per game in the penalty box, he still managed to rack up a couple of 30 point seasons (not the best goon numbers you’ll ever see, but it shows he wasn’t just a big, dumb brute). He lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup in ’86 with the Habs and is enshrined in hockey’s record book for earning himself 42 minutes worth of penalties (ten penalties total) in a single game against the Hartford Whalers in 1991. If you watched the documentary The Last Gladiators a few years ago, you may be familiar with Nilan’s life after hockey.
It wasn’t an immediate spiral downward for Nilan, but happened over a number of years. He worked in insurance and stayed connected with the hockey world after his playing years were over, but he struggled with addiction. Alcohol, painkillers and heroin were among his worst vices, but he has since beaten his demons. He’s a motivational speaker, specializing in the “don’t do what I’ve done” niche of public speaking in the Montreal area. He and his girlfriend live just outside Montreal these days and he hosts a radio program.
11. Tim Hunter
We’ll see a recurring theme as we continue to make our way down this list, and that theme is brutal behavior while playing the game, coupled with being a model citizen and a great person while off the ice. Tim Hunter was a two time King Clancy Memorial Trophy nominee and a two time nominee for the Bill Masterson Trophy for sportsmanship and dedication. He also won the Calgary Flames’ Ralph Scurfield Memorial Trophy, awarded to the member of the club who demonstrates leadership on the ice and community service off the ice.
Nonetheless, Hunter was ruthless out there and took penalties like it was nothing, racking up over 350 penalty minutes in multiple seasons. After ten seasons with the Flames, he joined the Vancouver Canucks before spending a year with San Jose in 1996, before taking his retirement. Between 1997 and 2012, he had three assistant coaching jobs with the Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks and Toronto. In 2014, he got a head coaching job in the Western Hockey League, with the Moose Jaw Warriors.
10. Rob Ray
Many enforcers and goons have a bad image among hockey fans, and an even worse reputation among non-hockey fans, who, in their pathetic ignorance, often cite fighting and tough play as reasons to denigrate the sport. The reality of it is, many of the toughest, meanest guys on the ice, are some of the greatest gems off the ice. It is usually the flashiest players on the rink who are the biggest scumbags in their personal lives. Rob Ray is a great example of this. He was a brilliant fighter to the point where the league instituted a rule which levied a game misconduct penalty against any player whose jersey came off during a scrap. This was in response to Ray frequently shedding most of his upper body equipment during fights to gain greater freedom of movement.
The greatest enforcer the Buffalo Sabres have ever seen, as we briefly mentioned, is also a great overall human being. He was awarded the 1999 King Clancy Memorial Trophy, for leadership and humanitarianism. Some fans may be surprised to hear that this tough guy was also a compassionate advocate and volunteer for numerous charities, including March of Dimes, Make-a-Wish and a couple of cancer research programs, just to name a few. Since the end of his career in 2004, he has primarily worked in the world of hockey as an analyst. He released a book about his career and has hosted his own hockey discussion show.
9. Georges Laraque
If you’re not on board for the whole “they may have been tough, girtty players on the ice, but they’re totally nice guys outside of hockey” narrative we’re going with here, we don’t care because it is true. Most of these former goons are terrific people, and Georges Laraque is a great example. The long time Oiler was known for his ability to fight and released an autobiography in 2011: Georges Laraque: The Story of the NHL’s Unlikeliest Tough Guy. That self-assigned title is very apt given what he has been up to since his retirement. He’s been a deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, is involved with PETA and follows a vegan diet.
He’s known for being an active participant in many charities ranging from a seeing-eye dog initiative to building a hospital in Haiti with World Vision. He has also founded a few businesses. One of his most recent is Mentorum, a service that helps customers achieve their fitness goals. He also works for a Montreal radio station these days.
8. Craig Berube
With seventeen seasons spread out over a total of five teams, Craig Berube had plenty of time to rack up over 3,100 penalty minutes over the course of his career. After his lengthy time in the NHL, he almost immediately became a coach, being named for the head coaching job for the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2006. He remained with them for a while in the late 2000s, and became the head coach for the Flyers in 2014, leading them for two year before getting axed by GM Ron Hextall at the end of the 2015 season. After being fired from his job in Philly, Berube was picked up by the Chicago Wolves, the St Louis Blues’ farm team, where he remains the head coach.
7. Tie Domi
Whether you’re a Leafs fan or not, you probably respect Tie Domi. At 5’8, he made a career standing up to guys sometimes half a foot taller than himself. If we had to call someone the “Mike Tyson of hockey fighting” it would have to be Tie Domi (for non-boxing fans, Iron Mike is about 5’10 and fearlessly scored some unbelievable knockouts against significantly taller fighters in his career). He’s among the most penalized players in NHL history and spent more time in the box than any other Leaf.
After his playing career was over he was rumored to have shacked up with Belinda Stronach, a Canadian businesswoman and Member of Parliament, and split up with his wife. He’s had a couple of TV and movie appearances, including Battle of the Blades, a Dancing with the Stars knockoff featuring figure skaters, along with a comically brief broadcasting career. He works as a spokesman for Comwave, a Canadian telecom business, and released a book in late 2015: Shift Work, which details his career on and off the ice. These days a great deal of his time is spent watching his kid Max play for the Coyotes.
6. Dave Manson
Prince Albert, Saskatchewan’s Dave Manson played for seven teams over his fifteen year career, tallying up just shy of 2,800 career penalty minutes. Drafted in the mid 1980’s, Manson kept playing until 2002. Manson’s rough play and frequent fighting has left him with a vocal cord injury that has caused him to speak in a low, raspy tone to this day, after being punched in the throat by Sergio Momesso.
His son is Anaheim Ducks defenseman Josh Manson, who was drafted in 2011. Manson has tried to look into surgery to repair his voice box, and undergone some procedures, but nothing has worked. He has been coaching the Prince Albert Raiders since his retirement, and the inability to yell doesn’t hamper his coaching, as he admits, he’d rather talk to his guys than just scream and holler like some coaches do.
5. Dave Schultz
With over a decade in the NHL, The Hammer was a member of that Philadelphia Flyers team in the 1970’s when they were colorfully referred to as the “Broad Street Bullies” for basically pummeling their way to a couple of Stanley Cups. Schultz was a legendary fighter and a ruthless hitter, who got his nickname for his hitting and his vicious punching. He still holds the record for the most penalty minutes in one season with 472 in the ’74-’75 season, and remains tied for the most minutes in the box in a single playoff game with 42 in a game in April, 1976.
Schultz may have played hard throughout his career, but he still seems to have it together these days. He coached and got involved with the administrative side of some regional leagues after his retirement, but was out of hockey for the most part after the mid 1990s. He’s started and owned several businesses since his time on the ice, including a limo company, and has earned most of his success from several sales companies in the energy sector. He’s done some work in motivational speaking and tried his hand at stand up comedy on top of his business career
4. Marty McSorley
We listed one of the Edmonton Oilers’ classic enforcers earlier; Dave Semenko earlier, and now we’ll discuss the gent who took over for him in the late 1980s. Marty McSorley remains a controversial figure among hockey fans. While he is remembered as a terrible villain for his vicious slash on Donald Brashear, he’s not quite the monster many hot-headed fans want to say he is. He was a goon who was likely trying to stir up a scrap rather than cause a seizure and massive concussion. He made a very stupid decision, but is in no way the psychotic maniac a lot of hockey fans claim.
He remains a fan favorite among Oilers enthusiasts for his time keeping Gretzky safe. He’s into charity work these days and has had a few notable acting roles including CSI: Miami, Greek and Pros vs Joes. He coached the Springfield Falcons (AHL) for a couple of seasons and has been living down in California. He’s also married to a former pro volleyball player, and works as an analyst for a couple of networks.
3. Donald Brashear
While this is a decent topic for a heated debate, Donald Brashear was one of the last real goons in the NHL. The league still has some tough guys these days, don’t get us wrong, but calling players like Chris Neil enforcers or goons is a joke if you compare them to the legends on this list. Brashear last played in the NHL back in 2010, making him a relatively recent member of the “greatest goons of all time” club.
Brashear was an absolute legend when it came to punishing hits and dropping the gloves; to the point where most other tough guys in the league didn’t want anything to do with him. He had one professional MMA fight in 2011, and beat his opponent to a pulp in just over 20 seconds. More recently, he’s started a company that makes hockey sticks. He got the idea while shopping for a stick. He realized how stupidly expensive decent sticks are, and started “Brash87.” He designs the sticks with the goal of making premium quality for affordable prices.
2. Dale Hunter
It is rare for a goon to be a team captain, but by the end of his career, Dale Hunter was a leader, took fewer penalties and served very capably as the Washington Capitals’ captain from 1994 until 1999.
Over the span of two decades, Dale Hunter threw tons of punishing hits, fought like a maniac and of course, sat in the penalty box for over 3,500 minutes; good for second all time. Possibly his most infamous act was destroying Pierre Turgeon after he had scored in 1993. He got a 21 game suspension, but if it had happened today we’re guessing he would have been suspended for a year and possibly forced to pay for mental health counselling for everyone in the arena that night. What a lot of people forget about Hunter is the fact that he was an enforcer who also racked up over 1,000 points in his career. He’s the only player with 3,000 penalty minutes and a thousand points.
1. Tiger Williams
The most penalized man in NHL history, with a total of 3,966 minutes spent in the sin bin, is Tiger Williams. He was one of the fiercest players to ever strap skates to his feet, but has admitted that he felt constant fear while playing in the NHL. He gets asked every so often how he’d hold up in today’s league and usually comments on how he’d be fined and suspended frequently, which is likely true. He played for five different teams but is most remembered for his time in Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s.
These days he’s living a quiet life, but still comes out to NHL events from time to time. In spite of all the time he spent sitting in penalty boxes, he still managed to tally up over 500 points in his career. These days he mostly just helps to operate his family’s farm but divides his time between a couple of places he calls home in Calgary and British Columbia. He used to be in charge of Pacific Rodera Energy, a gas and oil business, but resigned from his duties a few years ago.
He also produced a cook book in the late ’80s, Done Like Dinner: Tiger in the Kitchen. Many of the recipes in the book were inspired by hockey and NHL themes.