For years now - ever since the lockout-shortened 2004 season - the role reserved for fighters, or the players strictly used for intimidation, aggression, and fighting, has been on the decline in the National Hockey League (NHL). More recently, this utility role seems to be nearing extinction in the NHL, as it is increasingly being claimed by a new "fighting" prototype, albeit a very different one.
Examining the disappearance of well-known fighters from the NHL highlights the acceleration of their departure while serving as an indication of the direction that the league is headed. Whether these players failed to re-sign with their respective clubs, were sent down to the minor leagues, or were placed on waivers, it is clear that the presence of these players continues to decrease. Notable names include Colton Orr, Zenon Konopka, Cam Janssen, and George Parros, to name a few. Most of these players were serving significant roles on their respective teams and providing important contributions but for a few years ago. Now, many of them struggle to find ice-time with NHL clubs.
Will fighting in the NHL ever stop? Maybe. Maybe not. Only time will tell. The only certainty in the meantime is the fact that the NHL is no longer populated with players who are reserved as mere "goons." Rather, the enforcers of today, and of the future, are talented hockey players who can excite with their skill, as well as with their aggression. Fighting in the NHL is often cited as having a purpose and as a necessity for star players to feel more protected. For the 15 players named on this list, protecting star players would certainly have played a factor into their many incidents of belligerence. Or perhaps, they simply enjoyed fighting while strapped to a pair of blades on a sheet of ice.
29 Mike Milbury
Although Mike Milbury does not share similar penalty minute numbers with the rest of the men on this list (he has 1,552), he does have one of the biggest “goon” moments in NHL history attached to his legacy. While playing for the Boston Bruins, Milbury and several other teammates were involved in an incident following a game against the New York Rangers. A fan had struck a Bruins’ player with a rolled up program prompting several Bruins to climb the glass and enter the stands. Milbury had reached the locker room already, but upon hearing what was going on, raced back to the bench to join his teammates. After climbing the glass, Milbury grabbed a fan’s shoe off of his foot and began beating him with it. The move got Milbury suspended for 6 games, pressured the league into raising the glass boards surrounding the rink, and cemented Milbury’s legacy as a goon.
27 Matthew “Bam Bam” Barnaby
Matthew Barnaby was part of possibly the most epic goon moment ever. After playing for the Buffalo Sabres, Barnaby was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During a game in 2000, Barnaby dropped the gloves with former teammate Rob Ray (a fellow enforcer), after going out for dinner with him the night before. Can you imagine taking a former teammate, and presumably friend, out to dinner, and then the next day taking him to lunch – with your fists? This move, in part, inspired a scene out of the movie “Goon” which depicts the journey of an enforcer trying to make it to the NHL. In another memorable moment, Barnaby pretended to be injured, lying motionless on the ice, until he jumped up to attack goaltender Garth Snow during a brawl. Barnaby finished the 1995-96 season with a career high 335 penalty minutes and ended his career with 2,562 total minutes in penalties.
25 Dale Hunter
Growing up, Dale Hunter had two brothers, Dave and Mark, and as such was no stranger to getting into tussles from a young age. During the Washington Capitals’ ceremony to retire Hunter’s jersey number 32, they presented him with the actual penalty box from their former home rink. It was that penalty box where he spent many of the 3,565 minutes he amassed in penalties throughout his career. His total penalty minutes have him sitting in second place all time on the list of career NHL penalty minutes. Perhaps the most infamous incident of Hunter’s pugilism was against Pierre Turgeon and the New York Islanders. After Turgeon scored a crucial goal late in Game 6 of the playoffs, Hunter hit him as he celebrated, causing him to separate his shoulder and miss most of the remaining playoff games. The incident prompted Gary Bettman to suspend Hunter for 21 games – the longest suspension in league history at the time for an on-ice incident.
23 Tim Hunter
All you need to do to understand why Tim Hunter is on this list as one of the greatest goons to ever play in the NHL, is to look at his nose. His nose is so crooked from all of his fights, that it makes Owen Wilson’s nose look straight. In all seriousness though, Hunter was a feared enforcer during his playing days. He had over 300 penalty minutes in five separate seasons and managed to get at least 200 eleven different times. When it was all said and done, Hunter racked up 3,142 minutes in just 815 games, while adding 426 minutes in 132 playoff games. His career penalty minutes place him eighth on the all-time penalty minute leaders list. He also holds several Calgary Flames team records: most career penalty minutes (2,405); most penalty minutes in a single season (375); and most penalty minutes in a single playoff season (108).
21 Tie “The Albanian Assassin” Domi
This Toronto Maple Leaf legend was perhaps the biggest Leaf goon of all time, being involved in some of the most memorable incidents in recent hockey history. He holds the record for penalty minutes in the Maple Leaf organization – which has been around for 100 years – and sits in third place all-time for penalty minutes in the NHL (3,515). In one of his more memorable moments, Domi knocked Ulf Samuelsson out by sucker punching him in the face, a move that is described by some to be the cheapest shot in NHL history, and for which he was suspended 8 games. Another one of Domi’s gongshows came in the 2001 playoffs when he elbowed Scott Niedermayer to the head knocking him unconscious. On-ice altercations aside, Domi’s most infamous moment is perhaps his brawl with a Philadelphia Flyer fan. While sitting in the penalty box, Domi squirted a heckling Flyer fan with his water bottle and, when the fan leaned over the glass, Domi proceeded to pull him into the box and delivery a flurry of punches. Beloved by Toronto fans, Tie “The Albanian Assassin” Domi, is one of the NHL’s greatest goons to date.
19 Donald Brashear
Named as “The Enforcer of the Decade” by The Hockey News in 2010, Donald Brashear was by far one of the most effective, and feared, enforcers in the game during his career. Perhaps best remembered for being the victim of a Marty McSorley slash to the head, it should not be forgotten that Brashear led the league in penalty minutes six different seasons, sits in 15th place all time with 2,634, and was suspended numerous times for on-ice incidents. Brashear holds the Vancouver Canucks record for most penalty minutes in a single season with 372. In 2004, while playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Brashear was involved in the most penalized game in NHL history which saw him fight Rob Ray of the Ottawa Senators and receive 34 minutes in penalties. Brashear’s tough character apparently transcended hockey, as he signed a mixed-marital arts deal with Ringside MMA. In his first fight, Brashear knocked his opponent out and was declared victorious by TKO – in 21 seconds.
17 Shane Churla
Shane Churla may be better remembered for the elbow he received from Pavel Bure, to which Don Cherry dubbed “the mother of all elbows”. However, Churla’s effectiveness as an enforcer throughout his career should not be overlooked. At the end of his career, Churla had amassed a whopping 2,301 penalty minutes in only 488 games! His penalty minutes are quadruple the number of games he played in. That he managed to collect so many penalty minutes in such few games is enough to place him on this list. Another reason that he is on this list is the fact that he and Basil McRae were quite the feared duo while playing together for the Minnesota North Stars. While playing for the Stars, Churla had a total of 26 fights in one season. Over his 11 year career in the NHL, Churla managed to get into more than 10 fights in 8 of those seasons.
15 Bob Probert
The Detroit Red wing and Chicago Blackhawk legend, Bob Probert was by far one of the most feared enforcers to ever play in the NHL. In 935 career regular season games, Probert had tallied a total of 3,300 penalty minutes, ranking him fifth on the all-time penalty minute leaders list. Probert was involved in some of the most notorious and celebrated NHL rivalries, including with the likes of Tie Domi, Wendel Clarke, Joey Kocur, Donald Brashear, and Marty McSorley. With as many rivalries as Probert had, especially with the tough guys listed above, it is not hard to argue with his ranking on this list. In 1994, Probert and Marty McSorley decided to drop the gloves for a fight that became infamous, due to it lasting nearly 100 seconds. Another memorable moment in Probert’s career was when he fought Jody Shelley in all three periods of one game in 2002 – a feat that would not be matched again until 2016.
13 Rob “Rayzor” Ray
The long-time Buffalo Sabres fan-favorite, Rob Ray was one of the 1990s most imposing enforcers in the NHL. Throughout his career he held heated, long-standing rivalries with other goons, such as Tie Domi, Jeff Odgers, Dennis Vial, and Mick Vukota. At the end of his career, Ray had played in 900 games and had collected a total of 3,207 penalty minutes, placing him sixth on the all-time penalty minute leaders list. Early in his career, Ray would take off his jersey and shoulder pads just before he fought his opponents so as to mitigate their ability to clutch and grab him. Of course, this move greatly advantaged Ray who was easily able to grab his opponents while avoiding being held on to. This prompted the league to enact and enforce what was later called “The Rob Ray Rule”, whereby players had to tie-down their jerseys to their pants, or face a game misconduct. Not surprisingly, this new rule did not halter Ray’s dominance with the fisticuffs.
11 Dave “Cement-Head” Semenko
Easily one of the toughest players to ever grace the NHL, Dave Semenko earned his keep primarily by taking on the role of bodyguard for some of the league’s top players, including Wayne Gretzky. Semenko was a crucial piece to the Edmonton Oiler team who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1984 and 1985 by protecting the likes of Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky, and Mark Messier, giving them much more open ice to work with. For as many career games as Semenko played in (575), he had over double the penalty minutes with 1,175. Semenko was such a revered tough-guy, that his fans lovingly dubbed him “cement-head Semenko” which, more than anything, implies that the man could absorb a punch or two quite easily. His legacy as a fighter surpassed the boundaries of the hockey world which was proven when he fought the boxing legend Muhammad Ali in an exhibition fight in 1983.
9 Chris “Knuckles” Nilan
In his 13 year career, Chris Nilan finished with a total of 3,043 regular season penalty minutes and 541 playoff penalty minutes. The notorious tough-guy for the Montreal Canadiens of the 1980s, Nilan earned the nickname “Knuckles” for his pugilistic on-ice tendencies and desire to fight opponents. Nilan holds two NHL records concerning penalty minutes. The first record is the highest penalty minute average per game total, with an average of 4.42 minutes per game. The second record is for the most penalty minutes received in a single game by one player, when in 1991 against the Hartford Whalers, Nilan was assessed a total of 10 penalties for 42 minutes. Were it not for several injuries nearer the end of his career, Nilan would have definitely amassed more penalties and may have even finished atop the list of career penalty minutes. Nilan won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and was actually selected to partake in the 1991 All-Star game, a rare honor for a goon.
7 Terry “Taz” O’Reilly
Terry O’Reilly’s nickname “Taz” is perhaps the greatest testament to his style of play. Named after the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character from Looney Tunes, O’Reilly was a force to be reckoned with on the ice. Just as the Tasmanian Devil quickly lays waste to whatever he runs into, O’Reilly did not take much time in establishing himself as the toughest player on the ice. O’Reilly had over 200 penalty minutes in five consecutive seasons, but was also able to score, as he finished his career with 606 points. In 1979, after a game against the New York Rangers, an opposing fan smacked his teammate with a program and stole a stick, to which O’Reilly responded by climbing over the glass and brawling with fans. This act – which was characteristic of O’Reilly who took pride in protecting his teammates – earned Taz an 8 game suspension from the league. Protecting Boston Bruins teammates for his entire career earned O’Reilly the honor of having his number (24) retired by the Bruins organization.
5 Marty McSorley
Marty McSorley will forever be remembered for the biggest goon move of all time in the history of the NHL. In a game against the Vancouver Canucks back in 2000, McSorley used his stick as a weapon to slash Donald Brashear in the head who was instantaneously knocked unconscious. Brashear received a Grade III concussion and McSorley was suspended for the rest of the season. McSorley was found guilty in court of assault with a weapon and sentenced to 18 months of probation and subsequently never played another NHL game. Before this incident defined McSorley’s career, he inherited the title of Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard in 1986 from Dave Semenko, and helped Edmonton win another two consecutive Stanley Cups. McSorley is fourth on the all-time penalty minutes list with a total of 3,381 minutes, and is widely considered to be one of the most effective, and versatile, enforcers as he was able to play both forward and defense.
3 Dave “The Hammer” Schultz
As the primary enforcer on the “Broad Street Bullies” 1970s Philadelphia Flyers team, Dave Schultz is undoubtedly one of the biggest goons to ever play in the NHL. Schultz earned the nickname “The Hammer” from his extremely aggressive style of play where he would “hammer” his opponents with body checks and fists. As a notorious fighter during his career, Schultz became very familiar with the penalty box. The Hammer holds the NHL’s single-season record for penalty minutes for his efforts in the 1974-75 when he amassed 472 minutes of penalties. He was so fond of the penalty box, that he recorded a local Philadelphia hit song which he called “The Penalty Box”. The biggest testament to Schultz’s legacy as a goon was the “Schultz Rule” which the league instated as a response to Schultz using boxing wraps on his hands and wrists to stiffen his punches. In the 1973-74 playoffs, Schultz was awarded an incredible 139 penalty minutes in only 17 games. This two-time Stanley Cup champion earned his place as the face of the infamous Broad Street Bullies.
1 Dave “Tiger” Williams
As one of the greatest enforcers to ever play the game, Dave Williams definitely owned up to his nickname “Tiger” for his aggressive, instinctive style of play. The record holder for career penalty minutes in the NHL, with a ridiculous 3,966 minutes spent in the penalty box, Tiger Williams cemented his legacy as one of the most formidable goons on the ice. Williams racked up over 300 minutes in penalties in seven different seasons, with 358 – his highest – coming in 1986-1987 with the Los Angeles Kings. In addition to being the record holder for career regular season penalty minutes, he also holds the league record for most career penalty minutes including playoffs, with 4,421 minutes. An often overlooked aspect of Williams’ game, partly because he is oft remembered for being in the penalty box, is his scoring ability. In his NHL career, Williams scored 241 goals and added 272 assists for a total of 513 points.