Take a look at all of the great NHL players. Gordie Howe played pro hockey in his 50s. Wayne Gretzky didn’t retire until he was no longer the lethal force he used to be. Most of the legendary players retire when their bodies give in and they have nothing left. It’s called Father Time.
Many players have also had to retire for different reasons – such as injuries/health concerns or family matters, and sometimes a loss of desire to play. But over the decades, we’ve seen a number of NHL players retire when we least expected it.
As we said, how many NHL stars surprised you when they retired? Other guys like Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Jaromir Jagr (just kidding), knew when it was time to hang them up.
Some superstars surprised us when they chose to hang up the skates, however. Here are the 15 most shocking NHL retirements of all-time.
15. Peter Forsberg
Peter Forsberg wasn’t able to reach his full potential due to injuries – which is a shame because he was like ridiculously good for a guy who couldn’t stay healthy. Forsberg battled concussion, thigh, rib, knee and shoulder injuries, among others. Despite all of this, he managed to score 885 points in just 708 NHL games. He was a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Colorado Avalanche and won both the Hart and Art Ross Trophy in 2003.
Forsberg put off retirement many years after the lockout. During the 2010-11 season, he made another return to the Avalanche. Many assumed he would simply at least close out the season, but Forsberg actually played just two games before retiring for good.
14. Keith Primeau
Keith Primeau was one of the more underrated superstar players of the ’90s. He was captain of the Philadelphia Flyers from 2001 up until his early retirement in 2006. Primeau was a key part in helping the Flyers reach the 2004 Eastern Conference Final while the team enjoyed plenty of postseason success.
Early in the 2005-06 season, however, the 34-year-old suffered an ugly hit to the head that led to a concussion. Primeau wasn’t able to return during the season, but many had hoped that he would eventually recover and get back to the ice quickly. Sadly, Primeau’s concussion symptoms never got better, and he retired prior to the 2006-07 season.
At the time, it the retirement was a surprise. We didn’t know as much about concussions then as we did now. Nobody expected that one concussion to end Primeau’s career. But he’s one of the many stars who had to call it quits for his own safety.
13. Lee Sweatt
You probably haven’t heard of Lee Sweatt. We don’t blame you, because the man who was being compared by some scouts to Brian Rafalski chose to end a promising career at a rather surprising time.
Sweatt was a speedy puck mover, signed by the Vancouver Canucks as an undrafted free agent. In a January 26, 2011 home game, Sweatt made his NHL debut and scored the game-winner against the Nashville Predators. It was supposed to be the very beginning of a promising career.
However, a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Sweatt then signed with the Ottawa Senators in the offseason, but opted to retire at the age of 26 instead of continuing his pro hockey career. Sweatt’s retirement caught many by surprise; you don’t alwayss hear about players retiring when their professional careers are just getting started.
12. Cody Hodgson
The Vancouver Canucks drafted Cody Hodgson with the 10th pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. It took him four years to finally crack the full-time roster, and Hodgson appeared to be on his way to a promising season that would have seen him score 20 goals. The Canucks would actually trade him to the Buffalo Sabres for Zack Kassian; a trade that failed miserably for both teams.
Hodgson struggled to find his game with the Sabres during his three-and-a-half seasons there, and tried to find his game again by joining the Nashville Predators in 2015-16. Hodgson played just 39 games and announced his retirement prior to the 2016-17 season. He did find a job in the Predators organization, but it was a surprise for many to see a 26-year-old give up on his career, despite staying remarkably healthy throughout his entire NHL tenure.
11. Theoren Fleury
Theoren Fleury was one of hockey’s purest goal scorers during the ’90s. Despite his small frame (5-6, 180 pounds), he was an eight-time 30-goal scorer, helped the Calgary Flames win the 1989 Stanley Cup and guided Canada to gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. But if you read his book, Playing With Fire, you know the sad story about a player who had a dark, tragic past and tried to escape it with alcohol and drugs.
Fleury wasn’t able to concentrate fully on his career, and had problems fighting his addictions. As a result of his issues, he was suspended for the end of the 2003 season, and effectively retired from the NHL. Fleury would play hockey overseas in Ireland and Alberta, and tried reaching the NHL again in 2009, but failed to earn a contract.
But seeing a 34-year-old retire with plenty of hockey left was a surprise to many. Thankfully, Fleury was able to take care of himself and is alcohol free while becoming a motivational speaker to those who suffered from sexual abuse, alcohol and drugs.
10. Adam Deadmarsh
Adam Deadmarsh was a key part of the Colorado Avalanche powerhouse of the ’90s that won the 1996 Stanley Cup. He was a five-time 20-goal scorer and posted a respectable 373 career points in just 567 career games. That being said, Deadmarsh was one of the many stars on this list that suffered a concussion.
Deadmarsh missed all of 2002-03 and 2003-04 with concussion injuries. He also didn’t get to return for the 2004-05 season, since it was lost to a lockout. Deadmarsh eventually retired prior to the 2005-06 season at the young age of 30. Again, this was during a time when we weren’t sure just how severe concussions were, especially in NHL players.
With Deadmarsh out of hockey for four years and still being just 30 years of age, it was a surprise to many to see the superstar retire early. Then again, we now can look back and give Deadmarsh credit for putting safety first.
9. Brian Rafalski
The three-time Stanley Cup champion was one of the league’s best offensive defenceman during his days with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings. Brian Rafalski led the powerhouse Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup and solidified a dominant backend that also included the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom.
Despite missing 19 games in 2010-11, the 37-year-old Rafalski scored 48 points and appeared to have at least a couple more strong seasons in him. The Red Wings fell to the San Jose Sharks in seven games during the second round of the 2011 playoffs.
Rafalski caught many by surprise when he announced his retirement in the offseason, citing back injuries while also wanting to spend more time with his family. Those are easy reasons to understand, but we didn’t expect a star to retire in his prime while playing for a Cup contender.
8. Cam Neely
The guy who played Sea Bass from Dumb and Dumber was tougher on the ice than he was in the movie. Cam Neely’s size (6-1, 218 pounds), made him one of the league’s toughest players to go against. Neely scored 395 goals and 694 points in just 726 career games. He would have easily doubled those totals, but a bad knee injury prevented Neely from playing up to his full potential.
He missed all of 1996-97 and 1997-98 with his ongoing knee injuries, and tried to come back during the 1998-99 season. Neely said that the pain was so severe and there was simply no way he could continue, and he was forced to hang up the skates.
Neely was only 33 years of age, and like Deadmarsh, one would think the long time off would eventually help him make a full recovery. Unfortunately, Neely’s body wasn’t able to give in, and one of the NHL’s top stars of the ’90s had to retire early.
7. Mike Richter
The 1994 Stanley Cup champion netminder with the New York Rangers had a remarkable career, finishing with 301 career wins on teams that weren’t always that great. Nonetheless, Mike Richter also almost carried Team USA to a surprise gold medal at the 2002 Olympics, but Team Canada had other ideas.
Richter played with the Rangers until the 2002-03 season. Sadly, he had to retire early after suffering a skull fracture and concussion. Richter was 37 years of age, not necessarily that old for a goalie if you see what Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek accomplished.
It’s never been common for NHL goalies to suffer from concussions, and Richter was generally healthy for most of his career. The Rangers certainly weren’t expecting Richter to retire when there was plenty of hockey left in him, but the man simply had to do what was best for his health. You can’t fault him for that.
6. Scott Niedermayer
It shouldn’t usually be shocking when a 37-year-old retires. But it was a different case for Scott Niedermayer, one of the greatest defencemen of his generation. If it weren’t for Nicklas Lidstrom, he’d probably have at least seven Norris Trophies.
Niedermayer is the biggest winner in hockey history. He’s the only player to win a Memorial Cup, World Junior Gold, World Championship Gold, the World Cup of Hockey, Olympic Gold and the Stanley Cup. Did we mention he has two Olympic gold medals and four Stanley Cups?
Any who, Niedermayer retired at the age of 37 in the summer of 2010 with NOTHING left to prove. But he did score 10 goals and 48 points with the Anaheim Ducks, and showed he had plenty of great hockey left in him.
I remember watching NHL Network, and they cut their broadcast with Niedermayer making his retirement out of nowhere. There were not many, if any, indications leading up to the announcement that he was ready to hang up the skates. That’s what made this a surprising retirement.
5. Pat LaFontaine
One of the most gifted talents of the ’90s, Pat LaFontaine put both the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres on the hockey map during his career. He was a nine-time 30 goal-scorer, and posted a remarkable 148-point campaign during the 1992-93 season. LaFontaine finished with 1,013 points in 865 games, leaving his mark as one of the greatest American NHL players of all-time.
What’s sad is how the man was only 33 years old when he was forced to retire. LaFontaine suffered a concussion during the 1996-97 season. The Sabres refused to clear and let him play, but LaFontaine was against retiring. He was traded to the New York Rangers, and he scored 23 goals and 62 points in just 67 games in 1997-98.
Sadly, LaFontaine suffered another concussion after colliding with a teammate, and was forced to finally retire for good. The NHL lost one of its top players due to a concussion that he tried fighting through for a year. You have to give him credit for staying dedicated that long.
4. Mike Bossy
Mike Bossy was the cornerstone player of the New York Islanders dynasty that won the Stanley Cup four years in a row from 1980 to 1983. Just how dominant was Bossy? Basically Wayne Gretzky dominant.
EVERY season from his rookie year in 1977-78 to 1985-96, Bossy scored at least 50 goals (including five 60-goal seasons), and easily posted over 100 points in all but two of those campaigns. Even his final season (1986-87), Bossy scored 38 goals and 75 points in just 63 games. There was simply no reason for the man to retire, because he was on the level of Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
But Bossy dealt with back injuries and sat out the 1987-88 season. The Islanders offered to trade him to Montreal where he could be close to his home, but he refused and simply retired. At 31 years of age and still an elite force, Bossy’s retirement shocked many, even though he was battling injuries. You just don’t see players retire that young with so much stardom left.
3. Mario Lemieux
What can we say about Mario Lemieux that hasn’t been said? He could have been greater than Wayne Gretzky if he was healthy. 690 goals and 1,723 points in 915 goals is pretty amazing. He guided the Pittsburgh Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups and won six scoring titles along with three Hart Trophies.
We all know that Lemieux had to step away from hockey for a brief time in 1992-93 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, though he came back to win the scoring title that same year. But Lemieux’ first retirement following the 1997 retirement was a huge shocker.
That year, he had 50 goals and 122 points, and the Penguins were among the NHL’s top teams. He was only 31 years of age and at the top of his game when he retired. Now, Lemieux would be number one on this list and all, except he returned to the NHL four years later and would again until retiring during the 2005-06 season.
2. Ken Dryden
Ken Dryden was meant to the Montreal Canadiens backup, but the young netminder won all six games in the 1970-71 season with a .957 save percentage and 1.65 goals against average. This gave him the starting nod for the playoffs, and all he did was lead the Habs to the Stanley Cup while picking up the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
Next thing you knew, Dryden won five Vezina Trophies as the league’s top goalie in the ’70s and won six Stanley Cups with the Canadiens. Dryden went a ridiculous 258-57-74 with a career 2.24 goals against average and .921 save percentage.
Dryden’s final season was 1979, where he won the Vezina and Stanley Cup. He was only 31 years of age when he retired. He was still in his prime and could have easily added more to his legacy. But did he really have anything else to play for? Dryden then went into a successful career in politics and even tough my somewhat cool sister at McGill!
1. Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk was one of the NHL’s purest goal-scorers in the 2000s and 2010s. He had nine 30-goal seasons and shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla in 2003-04. He also had a pair of 52-goal seasons, and was one of the greatest Russian players we ever got to witness.
The New Jersey Devils wanted to build a franchise around him, and signed Kovalchuk to a 15-year deal worth $100 million in the 2010 offseason. Kovalchuk would play the first three years of the deal, then made a shocking retirement announcement after the 2012-13 season.
Kovalchuk expressed his desire to play in Russia and left $77 million on the table at the young age of 30. To sign that much money, to be in your prime and to make the decision out of nowhere sent the league and its fans in a wave of shock. Kovalchuk has since enjoyed like in the KHL. It was a $77 million decision, so he must have no regrets at all.
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