It’s always a tough thing to see talented NHL players depart from the game before their careers have a chance to fully blossom. In a rough-and-tumble world of high-speed collisions, 100-mph slap shots and bareknuckle fisticuffs, we are all-too-often forced to bid a sad farewell to careers whose unbridled potential for greatness is cut short by injury or debilitating physical challenges.
But there can be other extenuating circumstances at play, too, that spell an early end to promising, young careers. We’ve seen instances of substance abuse, illness, contract disputes and even tragic and untimely deaths.
For all the missed opportunities and squandered talent, we’re oftentimes left wondering what might have been when one player or another sees his career come to a premature end. Would (enter name here) have challenged the all-time greats for a spot atop the record books if his career had gone full-term? Could so-and-so have helped his team win the elusive Stanley Cup championship it just missed out on if he hadn’t suffered that career-ending injury?
There is no way to know the many ways these 15 careers would have affected the game we know today had their full potential been realized. We can only speculate on their missed impact and remember them for their abbreviated time in the world’s best hockey league.
So here are 15 NHL careers that, for one reason or the other, were cut short way too soon.
15 Marc Savard
Fast, feisty Marc Savard was at the top of his game and was still trending up when a scary hit in 2010 by Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke forced him out of the game on a stretcher and eventually onto the sidelines for the better part of the next year with chronic post-concussion symptoms.
His injury began lots of discussion about blindsided hits in the NHL, but when Savard became the victim of another big hit, this time by Colorado’s Matt Hunwick the following January, it dealt him the ultimate blow that brought a swift end to the promising young centerman’s career.
Though he hasn’t officially retired from the game yet, he is reportedly still suffering from near-daily symptoms and in all likelihood won’t ever feel the ice under his skate blades again.
14 Pavel Bure
The “Russian Rocket,” Pavel Bure, was poised to become one of the greatest Russian-born players to play the game after bursting onto the scene with the Vancouver Canucks in 1991, but in 12 NHL seasons, he would be limited to just 702 games, as knee injuries plagued him throughout his career and forced him to retire in 2005 at only 32 years old.
He was the 1992 Rookie of the Year and led the NHL in goals in 1993-94 in Vancouver before doing the same thing as a member of the New York Rangers in back-to-back seasons in 1999-00 and 2000-01. When he retired, he was averaging 1.11 points per game, including .623 goals per game, which is fifth overall in the history of the NHL. He finished with 779 points in 702 games and a lot of future scoring potential left on the table.
13 Dean Chynoweth
He never challenged for an NHL scoring title, but Dean Chynoweth forged a path in professional hockey as a tough guy, fighting his way through both the AHL and the NHL. He was drafted 13th overall by the New York Islanders in 1987 and spent parts of nine seasons at hockey’s top level with the Islanders and Boston Bruins while also jetting between the top clubs and their respective AHL clubs.
Along the way, Chynoweth fell victim to not one, not two, and not three, but a (literally) mind-bending 13 concussions – at least that was the number reported. By the end of his three seasons in the Bruins organization, his numerous head injuries caught up with him despite otherwise being in good shape, and he called it a career at 29. He ended his pro days with 667 penalty minutes, thanks to nearly 40 fights in 241 NHL games alone, and that may or may not explain a few things.
12 Rick DiPietro
In what could have been one of the greatest goaltending careers in the history of the game, Rick DiPietro was ultimately defeated not by goal-scorers but by repeated and nagging injuries.
DiPietro became the first goaltender to go No. 1 in the draft when the New York Islanders took him with the first pick in 2000. He made even more history six years later when he signed a massive 15-year, $67.5 million contract with the Isles in September of 2006, the longest and most expensive deal in goaltending history that would have paid him through the 2021-22 season.
While he performed admirably when he was actually on the ice, the physical ailments were already taking a toll. His first groin injury struck before he even made his pro debut, and as his abbreviated career wore on, knee and head injuries severely limited his playing time to just 50 games over five seasons between 2008-09 and 2012-13. His contract was ultimately bought out by the Islanders in 2013, ending his days at just 31 years old and with eight years left on his deal.
11 Derek Boogaard
Tragically, not only did widely feared NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard’s career end far too soon, but so did his life. Boogaard earned his keep dropping the gloves for both the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers and had five seasons in the league under his belt when he sustained a major concussion during a fight with Matt Carkner of the Ottawa Senators during the 2010-11 season.
It certainly wasn’t his first head injury, but unfortunately it would prove to be his last. While sitting out on the Rangers’ injured reserve list, Boogaard suffered from deep depression and rarely left his Minneapolis home. Eventually, he was found dead on May 13, 2011 – at just 28 years old – after overdosing on illegal pain-killers and alcohol.
An autopsy later revealed that his brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by constant violent blows to the head.
10 Bob Brooke
Bob Brooke was an economics major at Yale during his college years, and ultimately it was his advanced intellectual mind that’s to blame for tearing his hockey talents away from the game.
After skating for the Ivy League institution, Brooke played for the U.S. Olympic team as a member of Team USA at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo before signing with the New York Rangers.
He was a gifted skater and with plenty of speed and balance and won a lot of battles both in the corners and at the faceoff dot. In parts of seven NHL seasons, Brooke put up 166 points in 447 games.
His hockey days ended, though, when he was just 30 and opted to retire and pursue a career on Wall Street instead of agreeing to a trade from New Jersey to Winnipeg.
9 Eric Lindros
Unfortunately, Eric Lindros’ NHL career is probably better remembered by most for the repeated concussions that nullified a career rather than the remarkable skills could have elevated him from great to elite.
Even though the big power-forward stood 6-foot-4 and weighed in at over 240 pounds, Lindros was terribly susceptible to big hits and injury. He suffered at least eight different major concussions over his 13-year NHL career and even sat out the entire 2000-01 season with post-concussion symptoms.
The 1995 Hart Trophy-winner returned from his hiatus in 2001 and played five more seasons for the Rangers, Maple Leafs and Stars, but he never could return to his previous form that made him the first overall pick in the 1991 draft. He retired after the 2006-07 season at just 34 with 865 points in 760 games, leaving everyone wondering at the time what might have been.
8 Vladimir Konstantinov
It’s sad to see bad things happen to good people. It’s even worse when those good people make such a positive impact on a championship-winning team. Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was just coming off a 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs in which he had four points and hoisted the Cup as a member of the Detroit Red Wings for the first time as a 30-year-old when tragedy struck.
In the wee hours following the team’s Stanley Cup parade in Detroit, on June 13, 1997, Konstantinov and his fellow Russian Red Wings defenseman Slava Fetisov were in in a limousine accident that left him paralyzed and with a serious head injury.
Though his condition has improved some over the years, Konstantinov has never since walked on his own, and therefore his NHL career was halted after just six short seasons.
7 Steve Moore
In one of the most despicable instances of illegal on-ice violence, Steve Moore’s livelihood was brutally taken from him as a result of Todd Bertuzzi’s fit of rage in March of 2004.
After Moore laid a crushing – but legal – hit on then Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund in a February matchup between the Avalanche and Vancouver, Todd Bertuzzi took it upon himself to seek revenge after Naslund came away with a minor concussion from the impact.
On that fateful day, Bertuzzi hunted Moore down in the neutral zone, sucker-punched the unsuspecting Colorado forward and then landed on top of him as Moore collapsed to the ice from the blow.
The resulting injuries included fractured neck bones, a major concussion, ligament damage and facial lacerations. Moore would never recover fully from his injuries, and he never returned to the game.
6 Pat LaFontaine
Pat LaFontaine had a legitimate chance to become the greatest American-born player ever to play in the NHL, but as you may have guessed, concussions and post-concussion symptoms cut his chances short before had the opportunity to round out his prolific career.
Before he retired, LaFontaine had 1,013 points in 865 games with the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, a rate of over 1.17 per game, one of the best in the industry.
His first of six documented concussions happened in the 1990 playoffs, when the Islanders were playing their intra-state rival Rangers. Three more happened in the interim until a massive hit by Penguins tough guy Francois Leroux in 1996 became the beginning of the end for LaFontaine. But it was an innocent collision with teammate Mike Keane in 1998 that ultimately ended his career at just 33 years old.
5 Mike Bossy
Montreal native Mike Bossy is still the all-time leader in average goals per game at an unheard-of rate of 0.762 over 752 career games. He’s also one of just a handful of players ever to achieve the gold-standard 50 goals in 50 games. He had a lot of career left to do similar things in his mind when he called it quits at the age of 31, at the beginning of the 1988-89 season, but his body had other plans.
Bossy began having bad back problems in the mid-1980s, near the end of the Islanders’ dynasty, causing him to miss 17 games during the 1986-87 season. His condition continued to worsen the following year, and he missed the entire 1987-88 season after having surgery. He would never return to the ice, announcing his retirement on Oct. 24, 1988, leaving behind a good yet incomplete legacy as one of the best Americans to play the game.
4 Brett Lindros
Not only did Brett Lindros take after his older brother in size and physicality, but he unfortunately also mirrored his brother’s devastating head injuries and prematurely ended his career soon after being drafted ninth overall by the New York Islanders in 1994.
Brett’s concussion issues began much earlier than his brother’s, during his junior years in the OHL. He suffered his first concussion his first season in the NHL and followed it up with two more in the span of just eight days the next.
Citing memory loss and a fear of permanent brain damage, Brett hung ‘em up before his 21st birthday and after only 51 games in the league. He had just seven points, but there’s no telling what kind of career the first-rounder might have had.
3 Ken Dryden
Though he was originally drafted in 1964, goaltender Ken Dryden didn’t see his first NHL actuion until 1971, when he stepped up to the plate in the playoffs to anchor the Montreal Canadiens to that season’s Stanley Cup championship. He had foregone the start to his NHL days in favor of pursuing a history education and playing college puck at Cornell University
A similar situation would cause him to retire early, at the age of just 31, eight years down the road. After five more championships, a Rookie of the Year title and five Vezina Trophies under his belt, Dryden’s need for new stimuli led him to an early retirement in 1979, and he’s since become a published author, broadcaster, politician and an executive in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office.
2 Keith Primeau
He played 14 NHL seasons and was nine games into his 15th when concussions finally knocked Keith Primeau out of the game, but it was still far too early for the two-time All-Star to leave. The 220-pound power-forward thrice had 30-goal seasons and had a career-high 73 points on two occasions to go along with his four serious head injuries over the years.
Though he later said the real number of concussions was closer to 10, Primeau would continue to return to the game despite the danger of repeated blows to the head. In the ninth game back following the 2004-05 lockout, a big hit to the head from Montreal Canadiens’ Alex Perezhogin forced him out for the rest of the season, after which he finally retired. He has since agreed to donate his brain to Boston University for future research on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
1 Mario Lemieux
A player who once challenged the great Wayne Gretzky for the title of the greatest in the game, Mario Lemieux’s career ended for the first time at 31 years old after years of battling multiple injuries and then Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After initially retiring in 1997 and missing three full seasons, Lemieux made his triumphant return during the 2000-01 season and scored an astonishing 76 points in just 43 games. He would go on to win an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and actually played as a player/owner during his five-season reprise from 2000-2006 before retiring again at age 40.
In all, Lemieux missed over 500 games after his career initially ended, but he will still go down as one of the greatest players of all time with 1,723 points in just 915 games.