Hockey is an insanely demanding sport, combining the extended schedule of basketball and baseball, with the constant physical play of football. Many of the NHL's best players suffer injuries throughout their careers, and the truly great ones usually stay relatively healthy throughout a long career.
In this article, we look at the 15 NHL players whose bodies betrayed them, limiting what were extremely successful if not potentially legendary careers. Many of the guys on this list suffered more than one injury, but all were subject to serious recurring injuries that prevented fans from seeing all that each player had to offer. For many of the players, multiple concussions ended their careers, but others struggle with back, knee, feet, and hip problems.
Leave any comments that you have at the bottom to spark discussion and I would be happy to continue this conversation.
Here we go, the 15 NHL stars whose bodies betrayed them. We will work our way up to the worst of all time, starting with 15,and going down until we hit one.
15 Keith Primeau (Concussion)
Some of Keith Primeau’s limited play was self inflicted, holding out twice, including a 60 game holdout in 19999-00. However, Primeau was a dominant force, especially for the Whalers/Hurricanes and the Flyers and was forced, like many of the players on this list, to retire due to concussions. Primeau started his career with the Red Wings, and while it took him two years to find his bearings in the league; once things clicked for Primeau, he turned into a great two-way player in the league. Primeau would almost double his career goal production in his third year, and posted his first of three 30-goal season in 1993-94. Primeau scored 42 points in the lockout-shortened 94-95 season, and followed that up with a 27-goal and 52-point season in 95-96. Primeau held out and was traded to the Whalers, where he would string together three consecutive seasons with 25 or more goals, including a 30-goal season in 98-99. Primeau would again hold out missing most of the 99-00 season before being traded to the Flyers, his second forced trade in four years.
Primeau posted a career high 34 goals and tied his career high in points with 73. The next two years, Primeau averaged 19 goals and 47 points with the Flyers, before having his last two seasons with the team cut short by injuries. Primeau would play in only nine games in his last season, when his career was ended by a blind-sided hit delivered with an elbow. Primeau would end up retiring due to the post concussion symptoms because of the hit and would continue to suffer them for seven years after his retirement. Primeau was an extremely consistent player, scoring double-digit goals ten times, and scoring at least 20 goals six times. Primeau was a great all around player, who would fight in the corners and stand up for his teammates and was a great captain for both the Hurricanes and the Flyers.
14 Rick DiPietro (Concussion, Hip, Knee, Groin)
We will never really know how great Rick DiPietro was or what could have been for the Islanders because we only got to see four years where he played in more than 50 games. When he was able to stay healthy, DiPietro put together impressive seasons and seemed to be living up to his billing as the #1 overall pick. DiPietro carried the Islanders to the playoffs twice, once in 2003-04, when he went 23-18-5 and had a 2.38 GAA and .911 Save Percentage, and in 2006-07, when he went 32-19-9 and had a 2.58 GAA and .919 Save Percentage. DiPietro is also famous for signing a 15-year, $67.5 million deal in 2006 that will forever be looked upon as one of the worst in NHL history.
However, DiPietro ran into a variety of injury problems starting during the 2006-07 season, when he suffered two concussions in the span of five games and missed the last month of the regular season. DiPietro had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip prior to the 07-08 season, the last season in which he would play in a majority of games for the Islanders. During the NHL All-Start game that year, DiPietro injured his hip in the shoot out competition and played out the season until March, when he was shut down for the rest of the year. He then had two knee surgeries and played in only five games in a year and a half, until making his return in January of 2010, but was out for the year by the beginning of February. Two months into the 10-11 season, he was placed on injured reserve for his knee again, and upon returning was punched in the face by Pittsburgh goalie Brent Johnson. After suffering a concussion at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, DiPietro needed season ending surgery on his groin, effectively ending a career that started with so much hype.
13 Adam Deadmarsh (Concussion)
Because of the teams that he played on, most people forget how good, and more importantly, how clutch Adam Deadmarsh was for the Colorado Avalanche and Team USA. After a brief rookie stint with the then-Quebec Nordiques, Deadmarsh burst on the scene in his second year with Colorado, scoring 21 goals and 48 points, providing scoring depth to a team with top liners like Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. However, Deadmarsh was loved not only for his scoring, but for his pace of play and aggression, willing to do the dirty work that the team needed. Deadmarsh endeared himself to Avalanche fans during the Stanley Cup run, tallying 17 points in 21 games while playing alongside Joe Sakic. Deadmarsh would then go play for the US in the World Cup of Hockey, putting up 2 goals and 2 assists in 7 games, helping win the gold medal for Team USA. Deadmarsh followed that year up with a career-high 60 points in the 1096-97 season and led the team in goals with 33, a team that would go on to win the Presidents Trophy and fall to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals. Deadmarsh was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Kings where he kept up his play before suffering his first of two concussions that would ultimately end his career.
Deadmarsh would miss 140 games from 2002-04 and was still suffering from concussion-like symptoms three years after the concussions, announcing his retirement in 2005. Though Deadmarsh only scored 30 goals in a season once, he brought the type of play and intensity that made him a well rounded player who looked to have a quality career ahead of him.
12 Chris Drury (Knee)
Like Adam Deadmarsh, Chris Drury isn’t a guy whose greatness can be entirely defined by the statistics he retired with. Drury was one of the most clutch players of all time and always seemed to take his game to another level in the playoffs. Drury came up to the Avalanche in the 98-99 season, scoring 44 points and winning the Calder Trophy. In 2001-02, Drury posted 65 points, helping the Avalanche win their second Stanley Cup, adding 16 points in the playoffs. After four years, Drury was traded to Calgary where he spent a year before getting traded again to the Buffalo Sabres, where he was able to get back on track. He had the best statistical seasons of his career in Buffalo abnd helped lead the team to regular season success and a President's Trophy in 2006/07. He signed as a free agent with the Rangers the year after and, in the playoffs of that year, he scored the series-clinching goal in the first round against the New Jersey Devils, furthering his legend as a clutch performer. After two years of captaining the New York Rangers, Drury announced that he had a degenerative knee condition, causing him to miss the entire 11-12 season and forcing him to retire. Much like Justin Williams, Chris Drury is beloved for his timing and scoring when the situations were most dire, rightfully earning his Captain Clutch nickname.
11 Marian Gaborik (Groin, Shoulder)
Many people don’t think of Marian Gaborik as a player that fits this category, but that is because we forget how truly dazzling Gaborik was, especially in the new NHL. After Gaborik’s rookie season in 00-01, in which he posted 18 goals and 36 points, he put up back to back 30-goal seasons. After a holdout-shortened year in 03-04, and the NHL lockout the following year, Gaborik came back to score 38 goals in 65 games, a season in which he suffered his first groin injury. He missed 34 games the next year due to another groin injury, and yet still manage to score 30 goals and 57 points in 48 games in 06-07. The next year Gaborik would score a career high 42 goals and add 41 assists, but would again be limited in 08-09, missing 70 games due to a lower body injury and hip surgery. Gaborik signed with the Rangers as a free agent and gave them four years of service, three of which were relatively injury-free. Gaborik posted 105 goals and 210 points in 220 games in his first three seasons as a Ranger, but suffered a shoulder injury that diminished aspects of his game, even after his recovery.
Gaborik would be traded two times in two years, from the Rangers to the Blue Jackets and then the Blue Jackets to the Kings, a span that saw him play only 88 games, scoring 23 goals and 57 points. However, Gaborik had one of the great playoff performances in recent history, scoring 14 goals and adding 8 assists, helping the Kings win the Stanley Cup at the end of the 13-14 season, and would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy had it not been for Justin Williams. Gaborik’s first “full” season with the Kings saw him score 27 goals, but he played less than 70 games for the 8th time in his career, and this past year, Gaborik played in only 54 games, going on IR in February. Yes, Gaborik won a Stanley Cup and is on a team that seems to be in contention every year, but he was a player who could be the superstar of the team not one of the stars.
10 Paul Kariya (Concussions)
If you were a kid growing up in the 90s, you loved Paul Kariya. After The Mighty Ducks movie came out in 1992 and then Disney founded the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, everyone wanted to be a Ducks fan. They were rewarded with a dynamic duo of Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya. Kariya burst onto the scene in the 1994-95 season, putting up 39 points in 47 games and then followed it up with 50 goals and 108 points and won the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most sportsmanlike player the next year. Kariya would suffer his first concussion in the 1996-97 season, and would miss 13 games that year, still scoring 44 goals and adding 55 assists, finishing runner up to Dominik Hasek for the Hart Trophy.
However, Kariya would hold out the first 32 games of the 1997-98 season and then suffer a concussion that would force him to miss the last 28 games of the season. Despite his limited play, Kariya again displayed his ability, scoring 17 goals and 31 points in 22 games. After Kariya’s second concussion, he began speaking out against the league for not deterring the dangerous play that leads to illegal hits and treatment procedures. Kariya would return to play a full season, posting his second 100-point season, compiling 39 goals and 62 assists and stayed healthy again to score 42 goals in 1999-00.
Kariya would go on to play in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals with the Ducks, but would suffer a brutal hit from Scott Stevens that would only take him out of the game for 4 minutes, but he was never truly the same player after the hit. Kariya would only play 51 games the next year for Colorado, but after the lockout, Kariya signed with the Predators, and had two seasons where he scored more than 75 points, including a 31-goal performance in 2005-06. Kariya would go on to play for the St. Louis Blues, but was a shell of his former self and retired after the 2009-10 season. Kariya would finish his career with 989 points (402 goals) in 989 games, but cited concussion issues and concerns as one of his main reasons for retirement. Much of the concussion reform that we see in the league now, though there is still way too little, can be attributed to Kariya’s spokesman-ship for concussions and reform.
9 Peter Forsberg (Spleen, Shoulder, Feet)
After spending three years playing in Sweden, Peter Forsberg burst onto the scene for the Nordiques in the lockout-shortened 94-95 season, and be an integral part of the dominant Avalanche run that included two Stanley Cup Championships. Forsberg won the Calder Trophy in 94-95, scoring 15 goals and 50 points in the team's last season in Quebec. Upon moving to Denver, Forsberg set career highs in goals (30), assists (86), and points (116), en route to the 95-96 Stanley Cup Championship, where Forsberg scored 21 points in 22 games. This would be the only season that Forsberg played in all 82 games. Forsberg missed 17 games in 96-97 due to a bruised thigh, still managing 28 goals in 65 games. Forsberg continued to miss games the next two seasons due to nagging injuries, and in the Winter Olympics, suffered a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Forsberg got the surgery, but played in only 49 games in the 99-00 season, still posting more than a point per game. In the 00-01 season, Forsberg only missed nine games, but ended up rupturing his spleen in the playoffs, that would not only require surgery, but force him to take the entire 01-02 regular season off to regain his health.
However, in true Forsberg fashion, he returned for the playoffs to lead all players in points with 27. Forsberg had his best year in 02-03, as he won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, with 29 goals and 106 points. However, Forsberg began having trouble with his feet that would lead to numerous lower body injuries that would nag him throughout the rest of his career. orsberg was struggling to recover from an ankle injury and ended up injuring his groin and hip, limiting to 39 games in 03-04. Forsberg would end up signing with the Flyers after the lockout, but had the first of many surgeries on his foot and ankle before the season began. He played in only 60 games that year, again suffering a groin injury attributed to the foot problems. Forsberg needed more surgery on his foot in the 05-06 offseason, but unfortunately the surgeries didn't complete fix the problem, and limited Forsberg to just 57 games the next season, being traded from the Flyers to the Predators. Further issues with his feet kept Forsberg from receiving any serious inquiries when he became a free agent, and would play in only 11 more games in two comeback attempts. Despite the injuries, Forsberg posted the 8th best points per game of all time with 1.25 and was one of the best set up men in the game.
8 Cam Neely (Knee, Hip)
Though Cam Neely was drafted by Vancouver, he will always be remembered for his time in Boston, helping the Bruins to two Stanley Cup Finals. From the 85-86 season to the 90-91 season, his first five with the Bruins, Neely played in 363 games, and scored 221 goals and 399 points. Neely had 50 goals in back to back seasons, including a career high 55 goals in 89-90 and became the prototype for new power forwards as a player who could score, especially in the dirty areas, and deliver devastating checks without being oversized. However, Neely suffered a knee injury in the 90-91 playoffs on a knee-to-knee hit, that would limit him to 22 games the following two seasons, and ultimately 162 games in five years after the injury. Though Neely was dealing with his chronic knee issues, he was able to come back and score 50 goals in 49 games in the 93-94 season, scoring his 50th goal in his 44th game, second all-time to Gretzky.
However, in addition to the knee issues Neely was suffering, he also developed a degenerative hip condition that would ultimate limit his play and cause him to retire. Many people speculate that the hip injury is related to the damage caused by the knee-to-knee collision Neely suffered and the complications that resulted from it. Unbelievably, Neely never played an entire season in the NHL and missed at least 10 games in a season in 10 of his 13 seasons. Had Cam been able to stay healthy, he could have rivaled Mike Bossy’s record of consecutive 50-goal seasons and potentially helped the Bruins finally break through and win the Stanley Cup
7 Pavel Bure (Knee)
Pavel Bure was one of the most fun players to watch during his 12-year career, displaying the talents that earned him the nickname “The Russian Rocket” for the Rangers, Panthers, and Canucks. In Bure’s first complete season in the league, he scored 60 goals and added 50 assists, both career bests, and averaged one point per game in the playoffs. Bure followed that up with his second and last 60-goal season, carrying (literally) the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals. After battling a groin injury, Bure closed the season on a truly impressive pace, scoring 49 goals and adding 29 assists. Bure then scored 16 goals and 31 points in the 93-94 Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring the iconic breakaway goal against Mike Vernon, before losing to the Rangers in the finals. Bure continued his impressive scoring by posting 43 points in 44 games in the lockout-shortened 94-95 season, but the first of his major knee injuries came the next year, limiting him to 15 games. Bure tore his ACL when he was pulled down to the ice and his skate caught in the boards as he slid into them.
Bure would play one more season with the Canucks before his refusal to play for Vancouver again and holding out until he was traded to Florida in the 98-99 season. However, Bure would suffer a strained right knee and then required for ACL reconstructive surgery that would limit him to 11 games. Bure bounced back to lead the league in goal-scoring for two straight years, posting 117 goals and 186 points in the two years following his knee injury.
After suffering a groin injury and concussion in 01-02, Bure was traded to the Rangers, where he would never play a complete season. Bure suffered a knee injury in the 02-03 preseason and then suffered a meniscus tear that required surgery and caused him to miss over half of the season. Bure couldn’t come back from the knee injury in 03-04 and didn’t pass his preseason physical and was declared medically unable to play. Bure retired with 437 goals in 702 games and has the fourth highest goals per game of all time.
6 Eric Lindros (Concussions)
Eric Lindros was referred to as "The Next One," a play on Gretzky's iconic nickname that touted Lindros as the next great scorer hockey would encounter. In his first season with the Flyers, Lindros scored 41 goals, and followed that up with a 44 goal, 97 point season in 93-94. Lindros would go on to tie for the league lead in points with Jaromir Jarg in the lockout shortened 94-95 season and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Lindros' career seemed to be destined to live up to the hype, when he followed up his MVP season with career highs in goals and points, and carried the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 96-97, where they would eventually lose to the Red Wings.
However, just as Lindros was starting to peak, he began a run of devastating injuries that would abruptly stop the career of a player who was expected to revolutionize hockey. Lindros would suffer his first concussion in March of the 97-98 season, which started a stretch of five concussions in 16 months, which also included a near-fatal lung collapse that kept him out of the 98-99 playoffs, a series the Flyers would go on to lose against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 99-00 season was Lindros's most memorable, not because of his stat line, but because he suffered one of the most brutal open-ice hits in NHL history by Scott Stevens in Game 7 of the playoffs, effectively ending Lindros's dominance.
Lindros would go on to play for the Rangers, Maple Leafs, and Stars, but was only able to play in two "full" seasons in his last five years, averaging just 40 games per season in his last three seasons. Lindros was hyped to revolutionize the league because of his size, speed, and physical play, but his play ultimately led to the bevy of injuries that would halt his career. Had Lindros not suffered as many concussions as he did, he may have been able to truly revolutionize the game, and the body-type of players who competed.
5 Steve Yzerman (Knee, Eye)
"The Captain" is arguably the greatest leader/captain of any team in major sports history, and was able to carry Detroit to three Stanley Cups during his reign as the Red Wings captain. After being selected fourth in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, Yzerman scored 39 goals in his first season, finishing second for the Calder Trophy, and became the youngest player to play in the NHL All-Star game. Yzerman was named captain in the 86-87 season, becoming the youngest captain in team history and rewarded the Red Wings front office by carrying the team to their first division title in 23 years, recording his first 50-goal, 100-point season of his career. However, after scoring his 50th goal that season, Stevie Y slid into the goal, his knee crashing against the goal post. His knee would never be the same after, destroying most of the cartilage in his knee and allowing bone on bone contact for the rest of his career.
However, this was only Yzerman's fifth season in the league, and he would overcome the injury and pain every game for another 17 seasons, making him one of the toughest players to ever lace up a pair of skates. However, around the time the Wings won their third Cup with Yzerman as captain, Yzerman's knee and overall body health would begin to fail him. Yzerman would have a knee replacement in the 02-03 season costing him the first 66 games and suffered one of the most brutal injuries in NHL history in the 03-04 playoffs, when a slap show was redirected and hit Yzerman in the eye, shattering his orbital bone and scratching his cornea. Despite this, Yzerman would play one more season for the Red Wings before announcing his retirement.
Yzerman should be considered the greatest captain in all four major sports, leading the Red Wings to the playoffs 20 times in his 22 year career and averaging just under a point per playoff game.
4 Mike Bossy (Back)
From 1976-1988, only three teams won Stanley Cups, starting with the Montreal Canadiens and ending with the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers. However, the dynasty that seems to have been forgotten was the New York Islanders, who won four straight Cups from 1980-83, led by their masterful right-winger Mike Bossy. Bossy waited 15 picks in the 1977 draft to be selected by the Islanders, being passed over by the Rangers and Maple Leafs twice. Bossy repaid the Islanders by becoming one of the best scorers in NHL history, scoring 50 goals in nine consecutive seasons (an NHL record), and scoring sixty goals five times in that stretch. Bossy currently holds 6 NHL career scoring records, including the most seasons with 50 and 60 goals, both of which are tied with Gretzky.
In his 10th season, Bossy began experiencing debilitating back pain in training camp, which would eventually cause him to retire at the end of that season. Though Bossy sought out several doctors, he was never given a true diagnosis as to what was wrong, and treatments never provided the necessary long-term relief to allow Bossy to continue his career. His injuries would limit him to 60 games that season, but he still showed the goal-scoring ability that made him a feared sniper, scoring 38 goals that season.
However, at the end of the season, Bossy announced that he would take the next season off to rest his back, but would never return to the ice again. Bossy's career stat line is absurd, considering he played only 10 seasons in the NHL, scoring 573 goals and adding 553 assists, as well as an additional 85 goals and 75 assists in 129 playoff games. If Bossy had not been forced to retire due to his back issues, not only would he be one of the top 5 goal scorers of all time, but the Islanders and Oilers could have forged a rivalry that would have defined hockey throughout the 80s and potentially the early 90s.
3 Pat LaFontaine (Concussions, Knee)
When people ask who the best American-born hockey player is, you could field an argument for players like Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Phil Housley, or even Brian Leech. However, had Pat LaFontaine’s career not been derailed by injuries, this question wouldn’t even merit a discussion.
He would score 30 goals in eight straight seasons and scored above 45 goals five times in that streak. LaFontaine scored 148 points in a single season, the most by any American-born player, and his 95 assists and 148 points that year are still Buffalo Sabres records. However, in 1989, LaFontaine suffered the first of many concussions at the hands of James Patrick, being left unconscious after an open-ice hit. His ambulance was attacked and shaken by Rangers fans as it was trying to leave Madison Square Garden, and he was lost for the rest of the playoffs. LaFontaine would go on to miss 33 games due to a broken jaw in 91-92 and then played in only 38 games from 93-95 due to a knee injury. However, LaFontaine’s career truly began to come to an end in 1996, when he suffered a major concussion that required several months of recovery, prompting a trade from the Sabres. Two years later, LaFontaine suffered another serious concussion which forced his retirement at the end of the season, with 468 goals and 1,013 points in 865 games, giving him the highest points per game of any American born NHL player.
2 Mario Lemieux (Back, Cancer, Hip)
We knew Mario Lemieux was going to be great when he scored a goal on his very first NHL shot, but I’m not sure anyone knew it would have been this great. Super Mario’s 88-89 campaign of 199 points is the most ever scored in a season by someone not named Gretzky. Lemieux also has the second highest points per game average ever, 1.883 to Gretzky’s 1.921, which is almost half a point higher than the third place player. Lemieux won the Art Ross trophy six times, tied with Gordie Howe for second most ever, the now Ted Lindsay Award (NHLPA MVP) four times, and scored 100 points or more 10 times, including in his rookie year.
Prior to Mario’s cancer diagnosed, he had been dogged by injury problems and simply bad luck. He missed 21 games in the 89-90 season due to a herniated disk in his back, which he would end up having surgery on that summer. However, Lemieux developed a bone disease resulting from a surgery-related infection and missed the first 50 games of the following season. That year, Lemieux would come back to lead Pittsburgh to its first Stanley Cup championship and won the Conn Smythe Trophy, scoring 44 points in the playoffs.
Then, in January of 1993, Lemieux revealed that he had been diagnosed with Hodkins Lymphoma, missing two months of play receiving radiation treatments. However, in Lemieux fashion, he returned to win the scoring title, again, with 160 points and collected the Hart Trophy, after playing in only 60 games. While Lemieux was able to overcome his cancer diagnosis, his back continued to bother him and he required a second surgery on it and played in only 22 games that year. At the end of the 93-94 season, Mario announced he would take a year off due to fatigue that resulted from his radiation treatments. After returning from his year off, Lemieux would play two more years before retiring. Lemieux’s return was limited by hip injuries that resulted in surgeries that forced him to play less than 26 games three times in his last four years.
1 Bobby Orr (Knee)
Bobby Orr is, by far, the greatest defenseman to ever lace up a pair of skates, and there is a great debate as to if he is the greatest overall player of all-time. He will forever live in hockey lore for his game winning overtime goal that clinched the 1970 Stanley Cup against St. Louis, but he was so much more than just that moment (he also clinched the 1972 Stanley Cup with the game winning goal). Orr won the Norris trophy eight straight times and is the only player in NHL history to win the Norris Trophy (best defensemen), Art Ross Trophy (NHL points leader), Hart Trophy (NHL MVP), and the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP) in a season.
However, Orr had injured his knee in his rookie season, which began a long battle with knee issues that would ultimately end his career. Orr would end up having six surgeries on his knee that limited him to 36 games in his last three years, ultimately forcing Orr to retire at the age of 30. Had Orr been able to average a 20 year career like some of the recently great defensemen, Bobby Orr’s stats would be even more impressive and further the claim that he is the best player ever to play in the NHL.
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