The NHL is without question one of the most fast paced, brutal and physical sports in the entire world. It takes some insanely athletic and talented players to make it through a season, and also a lot of toughness. With that being said, the amount of serious injuries is surprisingly low for ice hockey and not many players have died while on the ice, especially in the past few decades as safety has increased dramatically.
The real danger in hockey hasn’t come from incidents on the ice, but rather off of it. There have been dozens of professional hockey players that have lost their lives in the middle of their careers, with only a handful of them coming from the NHL and even fewer coming from incidents that happened during a game.
Not all of the players that died during their careers were superstars, but that doesn’t mean their losses weren’t any less tragic. Let’s take a moment to remember some of those that had service time in the NHL, but didn’t get to play throughout the entire length of their careers before they tragically passed away. Here are 15 NHL players that left us too soon, with some of them even being in their early 20s.
15 Roman Lyashenko
Hailing from Russia, Roman Lyashenko was drafted late in the second round of the 1997 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars. In the 1999-2000 season, Lyashenko got the call-up and played 58 games for Dallas, scoring 12 points in his rookie season and three more in the playoffs as the Stars reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Lyashenko would float back and forth between the AHL and NHL for the next few years, playing just two games in his final season (2002-03) with the New York Rangers.
Lyashenko was on vacation in Turkey with two members of his family and was found dead in a hotel room in 2003. It was found out that Lyashenko took his own life, leaving a note behind that apologized for committing suicide after he had hung himself. He was buried in Yaroslavl, Russia where he played professionally before joining the NHL.
14 Tim Horton
You hear the name Tim Horton and you immediately think of coffee and donuts, and younger people are usually surprised to hear that the namesake for the restaurant chain was an NHL player for 24 seasons. Horton played for four teams, with his best season coming in 1968-69 with the Maple Leafs when he posted 40 points. Horton reached six All Star teams and was a 1977 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame three years after his death.
Horton was driving his car late one night after playing a game and decided to drive back to Buffalo all by himself. Unfortunately, Horton had been drinking and under the influence of drugs, and police caught him speeding. While going down the road, Horton’s car went straight at a turn and the crash took his life.
13 Sergei Zholtok
After winning a Junior World Championship in 1992 with the Soviet Union, Sergei Zholtok was drafted 55th overall by Boston in 1992’s NHL Draft. After playing just one game in his rookie season (in which he got an assist), Zholtok spent more time on the NHL squad the next season and made several NHL stops. Zholtok scored a total of 111 goals and 258 points from his center position from 1992 to 2004.
Zholtok suffered from cardiac arrhythmia and was playing a game in Latvia during the NHL lockout. With time winding down in the game, Zholtok’s heart was acting up and he went back into the locker room. When he reached the locker room, Zholtok collapsed and died almost immediately with one of his teammates in the room with him.
12 Stephane Morin
Stephane Morin was a huge standout in the QMJHL with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, which allowed him to get drafted 43rd overall by Quebec in 1989. Morin was not used much early on in his career, playing just six games and totaling two points in his first season. Over the next two years, though, he would see an increase in playing time with 78 games and 50 points. Morin would play in just six NHL games with Vancouver in his final two seasons before his death.
Morin was a member of the Berlin Capitals and was feeling sick before a game, opting to sit out. When the second period started, Morin collapsed on the bench and was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. It turned out that Morin had bronchitis and an enlarged heart, not aware of his fatal health problems.
11 Tom Cavanagh
Harvard alum Tom Cavanagh was a late pick by the Sharks in the 2001 NHL Draft, spending multiple years in the AHL with the Worcester Sharks, notching 202 total games. Cavanagh finally got to make his NHL debut with San Jose during the 2007-2008 when he was on the first shift of the game. Within 36 seconds, Cavanagh etched an assist on the stat sheet for his first career points. He would get just two more points and 18 more career games, though.
Cavanagh had mental health problems throughout his life, and he was found dead due to blunt force trauma at a mall parking garage in 2011 in Providence, Rhode Island. Police ruled his death a suicide and hypothesized that he took his own life after he had been let go by the Springfield Falcons of the AHL.
10 Dan Snyder
Making it to the NHL as an undrafted player is quite the accomplishment and that’s what Dan Snyder was able to do after signing as a free agent with the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999. It took a couple of years for Snyder to get the call-up as he spent time with Orlando (IHL) and Chicago (AHL) for two seasons. Over three years, Snyder would play in 49 NHL games with Atlanta, scoring 16 career points.
On September 29th, 2003, Snyder was a passenger in a car with Dany Heatley who lost control of his Ferrari and crashed into a wall. Heatley would survive the accident while Snyder slipped into a coma. Less than a week later, Snyder’s body went through septic shock and he was declared dead later that day. As a result, Heatley spent three years on probation while facing up to 15 years in prison if he were to violate the terms.
9 Steve Chiasson
The Red Wings made Barrie, Ontario native Steve Chiasson the 50th overall pick in 1985’s Draft and the talented defenseman was able to make the NHL roster when he was just 19 years old. Chiasson showed a lot of improvement, making the All Star Game in 1993 on the heels of a 62 point season, which would be tops in his career. Chiasson also played for Calgary and Carolina.
After being knocked out of the 1999 playoffs with Carolina, Chiasson was driving his car home from a party, but made the decision to drive home drunk. Chiasson crashed his car and was pronounced dead on the scene with a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit. Chiasson was just 32 years old at the time of his death.
8 Rick Rypien
A good grinder can be hard to come by and undrafted Rick Rypien filled the void for the Manitoba Moose for the AHL where he played the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. Rypien then received a contract from the Canucks and made his NHL debut in the 2005-06 season where he scored a goal on his first NHL shot. Rypien received sparse playing time until 2009-10 when he played 69 total games for Vancouver.
Rypien had been dealing with depression for years and had recently signed with the Winnipeg Jets when he had missed an appointment for treatment on his knee injury. When Rypien was found, he had sadly passed away with investigators calling his death a suicide. The funeral for Rypien was held in Alberta outside of the hockey arena where he started playing junior hockey.
7 John Kordic
Another enforcer on the list, John Kordic was a 1983 draft selection by the Montreal Canadiens. Kordic would spend seven seasons in the NHL with Montreal, Toronto, Washington and Quebec. In 244 career games, Kordic put up just 35 points, but spent an incredible 997 minutes in the penalty box. By the 1991-92 season, Kordic was sent down to the Cape Breton Oilers trying to make the NHL team.
Kordic would not get the chance to return to the NHL, as he passed away on August 8th, 1992. Kordic was on drugs when he got into a confrontation with police at a hotel in Quebec. The struggle and drugs took Kordic’s life and his official cause of death was ruled as a combination of heart malfunction and lung failure, ending his once promising career at 27 years old.
6 Howie Morenz
We have to go back in time for our next player that passed away too soon and it’s Howie Morenz, one of the first superstar players in NHL history. Morenz won three Stanley Cups in his 14 NHL seasons with Montreal, Chicago and New York (1923-1937). Morenz was a three-time Hart Trophy winner and three time All Star, scoring 472 career points over 550 games, earning a Hall of Fame induction in 1945.
Eight years before that, however, Morenz lost his life due to hockey. He had crashed into the boards and opponent Earl Seibert was chasing him, falling into the boards and breaking Morenz’ leg. Depressed and bedridden in a hospital, Morenz had a nervous breakdown and started to experience chest pains. The 34 year old tried to make it to the bathroom, but collapsed on the ground and was declared dead as a heart attack claimed his life.
5 Derek Boogaard
Known as “The Boogeyman,” Derek Boogaard was one of the more notable deaths in NHL history as his story was highly publicized in 2011. Boogaard was a grinder that could deal some serious damage and he made his NHL debut in the 2005-06 season at 23 years old. Though he played in 277 games with Minnesota and New York, Boogaard record just 16 points and a total of 589 penalty minutes.
On May 12th, 2011, Boogaard had taken a Percocet that his brother had given him and then went out for a night of drinking. After complaining to his brother that he was experiencing “spinning,” Aaron Boogaard assumed he was hungover. Eventually Aaron left the house and came back to find that Derek had passed away in his bed from a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs at the age of 28.
4 Bill Barilko
Ukrainian born Bill Barilko made his professional debut in the PCHL before getting the call from the Toronto Maple Leafs to join the NHL roster. Barilko spent all five of his NHL seasons with Toronto, scoring 62 points in 252 regular season games. The biggest goal that Barilko scored, though, came in the 1951 Stanley Cup Finals in overtime to win the cup. Sadly, that would be his last goal.
Barilko went on a fishing trip two months after winning the Cup, and he and his dentist hopped a flight on a small plane. The plane disappeared and it was assumed that the 24 year old and his friend were gone. It wasn’t until 11 years after the disappearance that the remains of the plane were found, confirming fears that the two had lost their lives.
3 Pelle Lindbergh
The highest draft pick on our list at 35th overall in 1979, Pelle Lindbergh came from Sweden to join the Philadelphia Flyers. Lindbergh would debut in the 1981-92 season and started to get more playing time with each passing year for the Flyers. In the 1984-85 season, Lindbergh notched a 40-17-7 record over 65 games, but would only play eight games the next year due to a poor decision.
Lindbergh was drinking late one Saturday night and was driving his Porsche through Somerdale, New Jersey. After losing control of his vehicle, Lindbergh crashed into a wall with two passengers in his vehicle. Lindbergh was put on life support as he was brain dead and his family decided to pull the plug on November 11th, 1985. He was just 26 years old and was coming off of a Vezina Trophy win the year before.
2 Georges Vezina
Speaking of the Vezina Trophy, the man that the title was named for also lost his life during his playing career. Georges Vezina was one of the original inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945 after spending his entire nine year career with the Montreal Canadiens. Vezina played in 190 regular season NHL games (making his debut at 31 years old) with a record of 103-81-5.
During the 1925 training camp, Vezina fell ill with a fever and started to vomit blood during a game and collapsed on the ice. Vezina, it turned out, had tuberculosis and knew his time was coming to an end. Vezina was able to go to the locker room and say goodbye to his teammates with tears in his eyes before passing away on March 27th, 1926 at 39 years old.
1 Terry Sawchuk
Another legendary goalie, Terry Sawchuk played 21 seasons in the NHL, most notably with the Detroit Red Wings, who have retired his number. Sawchuk notched a record of 447-330-172 over 971 career NHL games, making the NHL All-Star Game 11 times, winning four Vezina Trophies and another four Stanley Cups, making the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971.
Sawchuk is another sad case of a player suffering from depression that made his behavior erratic. Sawchuk was living with Ron Stewart of the Rangers after the 1969-70 season when the two got into a drunken argument over money. The argument turned physical and Sawchuk landed on Stewart’s knee during the fight. That would end up damaging his gall bladder and causing internal bleeding. The media, at the time called, it “horseplay” and a “fluke,” but it ended up claiming Sawchuk’s life at 40 years old.
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