Like every major professional sports league, the National Hockey League (NHL) has had its share of on- and off-ice distractions. For all can’t-do-wrong poster boys of the league who provide nothing but positive press, there’s a troubled player who has provided nothing but negative press for the league, whether during his playing career or in retirement.
As a preface for this list, there’s a difference between being a pest on the ice and acting like a reckless jerk. There’s also a long list of players who fill the role of on-ice pest but, outside of the rink, are humbled individuals who do plenty of good in their community. Someone like Brad Marchand is a great example of this; the Bruins winger is hated by players and fans alike, but is one of the most charitable athletes in Boston.
For instance, Marchand hasn’t assaulted a player on ice with his stick nor has he committed major crimes off the ice. He also hasn’t gone into the crowd and attacked a fan with a shoe at any point in his career. The following players, however, have done at least one of the above offenses and, in turn, gave the league’s executives a collective headache.
15. Marty McSorley
Prior to 2000, Ontario native Marty McSorley had a reputation as a physical defenseman who played the game hard but fair – at least for the most part. He had his run-ins with opponents, but nothing came close to the February 21 incident in which he struck Vancouver Canucks player Donald Brashear in the head with his stick. McSorley’s use of his stick wasn’t just reckless, it was downright vicious, so much so that he was suspended for the rest of the season (23 games) and faced a criminal charge of assault with a weapon.
The visual of Brashear falling as a result of the blow and striking his head on the ice is a scary one. McSorley’s apparent lack of remorse and understanding of what he did wrong was worse: “I’m disappointed it’s going to court because I don’t really know if anybody knows right now how much I’ve already lost – in a sense of just not having the right to play and I mean you have your reputation tarnished,” he told ESPN.
14. Rick Tocchet
Rick Tocchet is a veteran of 1,144 career NHL games, but the former winger was an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes when he was involved in a major criminal case which tarnished his image and hurt the league’s reputation. In February of 2006 it was made public that Tocchet, along with Janet Jones, the wife of Wayne Gretzky, was the subject of an undercover police operation led by New Jersey state police and aptly titled “Operation Slapshot”.
Tocchet was the prime name involved in the illegal nationwide gambling ring, which also included former players Jeremy Roenick and Travis Green. Tocchet’s partner, former state trooper James Harney, was sentenced to six years in prison, while the former NHLer avoided jail time and was placed on two years probation. It was a bad look for the league, but Tocchet was able to secure future coaching gigs with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins.
13. Tie Domi
Unlike many on this list, Tie Domi doesn’t necessarily have one instance in which he disgraced the NHL; rather, the former Toronto Maple Leafs pugilist has accumulated a variety of grey-area incidents. No, we’re not talking about his career 3,515 penalty minutes and his ability to take multiple punches to the forehead without flinching. It’s his elbow on Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Neidermayer that not only tarnished his reputation, but confirmed the idea held by some that the NHL was a goon league at the time.
Domi leaped at Neidermayer at the end of a game during the 2001 playoffs and struck with him a vicious elbow, which even he has since called “the dumbest thing I did in my career.” He was suspended for the rest of the playoffs and the first eight games of the following season. Factor in his sucker punch on Ulf Samuelsson which also earned him an eight-game suspension and the time he traded punches with a Philadelphia Flyers fan in the penalty box, and it’s clear he provided more negative than positive press for the league.
12. Todd Bertuzzi
Todd Bertuzzi might not have been trying to one-up the vicious intent-to-injure a player committed by the aforementioned Marty McSorley and Tie Domi, but he did exactly that during a March 8 contest against the Colorado Avalanche. Playing for the Vancouver Canucks, the power forward sought retribution on Colorado’s Steve Moore for a questionable hit he landed on Canucks’ Markus Naslund in a previous game.
Moore, keeping with the code of the game, fought Canucks’ Matt Cooke in the first period of the March 8 game, but with the Avalanche holding a big lead in the third period, Bertuzzi felt the need for further retribution. Trailing Moore, he pulled his jersey and sucker punched him in the back of the head. If that wasn’t enough, he essentially slammed Moore face first into the ice, leaving him with three fractured neck vertebrae and a concussion. Moore would never play another game, while Bertuzzi faced criminal charges and a civil lawsuit from Moore.
11. Mike Milbury
You might think there’s nothing more Mike Milbury could have done to hurt the reputation of the league than his terrible resume as a General Manager and the brutal analysis he provides for NBC, but think again. Prior to becoming an executive, Milbury played 11 seasons with the Boston Bruins and was a fairly effective defenseman, having recorded 238 points in 754 career games.
However, in a 1979 game against the New York Rangers, he embarrassed himself, the Bruins organization, and the entire league by going Ron Artest – and by that we mean going into the crowd and engaging in a fight with fans. He was one of many players to go into the crowd, but he stands out as the most memorable as he actually took the shoe off an unruly fan and struck him it. He received a six-game suspension for his role in the altercation, but one has to wonder how many games a player would get for doing the same thing today.
10. Chris Simon
Winger Chris Simon was a grey-area player for much of his 18-year career in the NHL, but, for the most part, he managed to avoid doing anything terribly stupid. That’s because, despite being a pest, he could add some offense in a limited role. For instance, he scored a career-high 29 goals and added 146 penalty minutes in 75 games with the Washington Capitals in 1999-00.
However, players like Simon, when the little bit of scoring touch dries up, have to find different ways to be effective. And that often leads to reckless plays. In a March 2007 game against the New York Rangers, Simon swung his stick at Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg as if it were a baseball bat. He was given a 30-game suspension, which, at the time, was the longest in NHL history.
9. Raffi Torres
The aforementioned Chris Simon held the record for longest suspension for just eight years. While it seemed as though 30 games might be a tough punishment to top, Raffi Torres was the one player we all believed could do it. Like Simon, Torres played a rough-and-tumble game, but he also had some skill, twice topping 20 goals as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. He was also a speedy skater, which made his hits all the more vicious.
The oft-suspended Torres served a 21-game suspension for a hit delivered to Marian Hossa in the 2011-12 playoffs, but took it to a new level of stupidity when he caught Anaheim Ducks’ Jakob Silfverberg with an illegal hit to the head in an early season game during the 2015-16 season. It might not have even been the worst hit of his career, but given his reputation and history of ill-advised hits, the league handed Torres a record-setting 41-game suspension.
8. Patrick Cote
Before the UFC fighter of the same name earned recognition as a champion, the hockey-playing Patrick Cote was the known tough guy. A native of La Salle, Quebec, Cote was selected by the Dallas Stars in the second round of the 1995 NHL Entry Draft, but only played 105 career games in the league between the Stars, Nashville Predators, and Edmonton Oilers.
The film The Town is a fictional account of a former pro hockey player turned bank robber that seemed a little too strange to be true, at least until Cote made it a reality. He was sentenced to 42 months in prison in 2014 for robbing two Montreal banks. In October of 2016, while serving his sentence, he was shot by a prison guard after allegedly trying to strangle another inmate. That he played in the NHL isn’t exactly something the league wishes to promote.
7. Slava Voynov
Slava Voynov was an integral part of two Stanley Cup-winning teams in Los Angeles. Along with Drew Doughty, the Russian defenseman gave the team a potent one-two punch on the blue-line for three seasons and appeared poised to be a stud for a number of years. However, early in the 2014-15 season, Voynov was charged with felony domestic violence after being accused of kicking and choking his wife during an October incident. His wife, Marta Varlamova, received eight stitches to close a cut over her eye, according to a police report.
If he played in the NFL, Voynov would have been back a few weeks later, but the NHL took a firm stance on the case, suspending him indefinitely. He served 90 days in jail and is currently on probation while playing back home in the KHL.
6. Mike Richards
Mike Richards is another member of the Los Angeles Kings who had a drastic fall from grace. Once a top-ten center in the league, Richards played well with the Kings and the Philadelphia Flyers, but in the summer of 2015 his career came to a screeching halt. His play began to fade in the years prior, and, according to reports, he was to be traded to the Boston Bruins at the 2015 NHL Draft, but that was derailed following a possession charge at the Canadian border.
Canada Border Services Agency officers in Manitoba found Oxycodone on Richards’ person June 17. The incident stirred up plenty of negative press, leading the Kings to terminate Richards’ 12-year, $69 million contract. He played 39 games with the Washington Capitals the following season, but is now out of the NHL.
5. Dino Ciccarelli
Luckily for Dino Ciccarelli, he’s a Hockey Hall of Famer who had an incredible career with the Minnesota North Stars, Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers. Had he been an average player, the one thing we would remember about his career was the stick-swinging incident in a 1988 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Playing for the North Stars, Ciccarelli was on the receiving end of a hit from defenseman Luke Richardson. He responded with cowardice, striking Richardson in the head with his stick multiple times. He was suspended for just ten games, but was charged and convicted of assault which carried a $1,000 fine and one-day prison sentence. He was the last player to be charged for an on-ice incident since Marty McSorley.
4. Craig MacTavish
Craig MacTavish’s management of the Edmonton Oilers has been so bad you might have forgotten – or simply not known – that he once killed a woman. While playing for the Boston Bruins in 1984, MacTavish served a one-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to vehicular homicide. He was driving while drunk and struck another vehicle, which resulted in the death of a 26-year-old woman.
He was remorseful for his actions – “Naturally, I’m really happy, but the sentence isn’t really over. It’s not behind me. So many things remind me of my fatal mistake,” he told reporters – but it’s hard to imagine a player receiving a one-year sentence for a similar crime today. Interestingly enough, MacTavish signed with the Edmonton Oilers while in prison and went on to have a great career with the organization.
3. Mike Danton
The story of Mike Danton is not only one the NHL wishes to forget, but it might be the strangest drama to have played out in league history. After finally earning a full-time NHL job with the St. Louis Blues during the 2003-04 season, Danton was arrested by FBI officials prior to a first-round playoff game against the San Jose Sharks for his role in a murder-for-hire plot.
Media outlets asked his agent, David Frost, about the arrest and the absurd rumor it was related to him being a closet gay man. “Once this story comes out, people are going to realize it’s a simple thing. Psychologically, Mike’s not where he needs to be. He’s in a state of depression. He’s in a state of paranoia. There was no fear of [Blues General Manager] Larry Pleau. No fear of a gay lover,” Frost said. The irony of the situation is that it was later reported that it was Frost who Danton has conspired to have killed, although Danton later claimed it was his estranged father Steve Jefferson. There’s more to the story, but the details warrant a novel, not a couple paragraphs. Danton served 90 months in prison and was granted parole in 2009 after serving 62 months.
2. Billy Coutu
Former Montreal Canadien Billy Coutu was long dead by the time players like Marty McSorley, Todd Bertuzzi, and Raffi Torres committed heinous on-ice acts leading to record-setting suspensions, but his legacy remains intact. It’s not a great legacy, however; the former Montreal Canadiens captain was playing for the Boston Bruins in the 1927 Stanley Cup Finals when he started a bench-clearing brawl, assaulted referee Jerry Laflamme and later tackled referee Billy Bell in the hallway.
Coutu, who had a history of violent attacks in the league, was given a lifetime ban. While playing in the minor leagues, he was officially reinstated by the league in 1932, but failed to draw interest from teams. He did, however, resume his official-abusing ways in 1935 as manager of the Providence Bruins. It truly was a different game back then.
1. Sean Avery
Few players embarrassed the NHL as much as Sean Avery, who, despite having a decent skill set, opted to act like a goon at just about every possible opportunity. Avery was a prima donna in every sense of the word during his playing days. On the ice, he was a noted diver who had one particularly embarrassing dive following a shove from Jaromir Jagr and he’s the reason behind the “Avery Rule,” which outlaws a player from turning his back to the play in front of the net and screening the goalie. It seemed almost genius when he did it during a playoff game against the New Jersey Devils, but the league deemed it unsportsmanlike the following day and created the rule.
Then there’s everything Avery has said in interviews and his reputation as a locker room bully. The worst instance came prior to a game against the Calgary Flames, where Avery went out of his way to seek members of the media and made the following comment: “I just want to comment on how it’s become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don’t know what that’s about, but enjoy the game tonight.” Dion Phaneuf was dating his ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert at the time. Avery was suspended indefinitely and his teammates made it clear they weren’t going to allow him back in the locker room.
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