Dropping the gloves and going toe-to-toe with your opponent doesn’t necessarily make you a tough hockey player, especially in this era of staged fights. What makes a hockey player tough is his ability to dish out and take bone-crunching body checks on a consistent basis as well as a combination of durability and skill. There have been many tough guys in the NHL who could throw their fists, but didn’t have the talent to do much else. A good tough forward shines in both ends of the rink, can set up his teammates and also knows how to put the puck in the net himself. Tough defencemen use their bodies to block shots and clear out the front of the net while some of them also have fine offensive skills.
Another sign of toughness is being able to play through pain and injuries. Some of the toughest players in history have endured major pain during their playing days, but it was tough to keep them away from the rink. It’s often hard to compare different eras in sports, but a tough guy back in the 1940s was just as tough or tougher than the tough guys of today. Many of the bygone players suited up in a six-team league, didn’t wear a helmet and wore flimsy equipment at best.
There are easily dozens of candidates for this list, but after narrowing it down these are 15 of the toughest sons of guns to ever lace up a pair of skates in the NHL. They’re each as tough as nails and possessed the essential skills needed to succeed at the elite level.
15 Borje Salming
Sweden’s Borje Salming lasted 17 years in the NHL when most players would have packed their bags and gone home. Salming was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent in 1973 and became an instant target for the league’s goons. A lesser player would have caved, but Salming withstood everything that came his way and gave as good as he got until retiring in 1990 after a final season with Detroit. If the skilled defenceman didn’t stand his ground four decades ago we may never have had the influx of European players we have today. This Hall of Famer is the Leafs all-time scoring leader for defencemen and retired with 787 points on 150 goals and 637 assists in 1,148 games and had 1,344 minutes in penalties. He threw his body in front of hundreds of shots, played through an assortment of injuries including a broken kneecap and returned to action a few games after taking a skate to the face for 400 stitches. A true warrior with elite skills and athleticism who added 49 points in 81 playoff battles with another 91 PIM.
14 Red Horner
Red Horner was a physical defenceman who patrolled the blue line between 1928 and 1940. He led the NHL in penalty minutes for seven of his dozen seasons while playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Hall of Famer from Lynden, Ontario retired after appearing in 490 games while racking up 152 points on 42 goals and 110 assists and serving 1,254 minutes in penalties. Horner accrued an additional 170 PIM in playoff action and also added another 17 points in 71 outings.
13 Bob Baun
Bob Baun was just 5-foot-9, but you’d never know it by the way he dished out thunderous body checks. The defenceman played with the Maple Leafs, Oakland Seals and Detroit Red Wings from 1956 to 1973 and racked up 224 points in 964 contests as well as 1493 minutes in penalties. He’s best remembered for breaking a bone in his leg during the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit in 1964 and returning to the ice in the same game to score the winning goal for the Leafs in overtime in Game 6. Baun had another 171 PIM in the postseason to go along with 15 points in 96 games.
12 Clark Gillies
At 6-foot-3 and well over 200 lbs., the oft-bearded Gillies was sometimes regarded to as a gentle giant. However, you didn’t want to wake and rile this guy up due to the consequences that followed. This Hall of Famer was an ultimate power forward between 1974 and 1988 with the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres. The left winger finished his career with 319 goals and 378 assists for 697 points in 958 games and also served 1,023 minutes in penalties. Gillies was also a fine playoff performer and helped the Islanders win four Stanley Cups with 94 points in 164 contests and another 287 PIM.
11 Jim Schoenfeld
Former Buffalo Sabres captain Jim Schoenfeld was one of the most underrated defencemen in history. Schoenfeld wasn’t overly skilled offensively, but this guy could do it all in his own zone. He was probably the NHL’s greatest shot-blocker and a scary opponent when dropping his gloves. Schoenfeld and Wayne Cashman of the Bruins went at it one night in 1973 at the old Buffalo Auditorium in one of the league’s all-time classic fights. Both players crashed through the end gate and Schoenfeld proceeded to land haymakers on his opponent in the rink’s hallway next to the Zamboni.
Schoenfeld played 14 years with the Sabres, Detroit and Boston and scored 255 points in 719 games to go along with 1,132 minutes in penalties and a plus-237 rating. He served 151 PIM in 75 playoff games, added another 16 points and rarely lost a fight.
10 John Ferguson
Ferguson made a name for himself as a tough guy while acting as the Montreal Canadiens’ policeman between 1963 and 1971. He wasn’t a prolific goalscorer, but finished his career with 145 goals and 158 assists for 303 points in 500 regular season games. He also racked up 1,214 penalty minutes by protecting the team’s stars. His presence gave the more skilled players room to operate and the Habs won five Stanley Cups during Ferguson’s eight seasons in Montreal.
9 Tie Domi
Tie Domi was a small sparkplug at just 5-foot-10, but he took on all of the NHL’s heavyweights during his career from 1989 to 2006. His most memorable bouts were with Bob Probert and the right winger had enough skill to score 104 goals and 141 assists in 1,020 games while serving 3,515 penalty minutes. Domi was the enforcer for several teams during his day including the first incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets along with the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. He served another 238 PIM in 98 postseason encounters and chipped in with 19 points. Domi’s reputation as a tough guy earned him a couple of suspensions as he went over the edge at times and he ranks third all-time on the PIM list.
8 Cam Neely
Cam Neely managed to play in 726 regular season games with the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins between 1983 and 1996, but may have reached 1,000 if it wasn’t for injuries. Neely served 1,241 penalty minutes, but had plenty of skill to chip in with 694 points on 395 goals and 299 assists. Neely’s a Hall of Fame power forward who hit the 50-goal mark three times and captured the 1994 Masterton Trophy for perseverance. Neely hit hard and punched even harder when he had to drop the gloves and managed to score 50 goals in 49 games during the 1993-94 campaign. He also appeared in 93 playoff contests where he had 89 points and another 168 PIM.
7 Wendel Clark
Clark is another tough guy who started his NHL career in Toronto. The defenceman-turned-winger was the number one overall draft pick in 1985 and quickly learned a reputation as a fierce fighter and body checker. Clark had one of the best wrist shots the league has ever seen and hit the 30-goal mark six times during his career which lasted until 2000. Clark also skated with the New York Islanders, Quebec Nordiques, Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks and spent 1,690 minutes in the penalty box. His tough-playing style resulted in numerous injuries, but Clark managed to play 793 games with 330 goals and 234 assists. He added 69 points in 95 playoff games with another 201 PIM.
6 Maurice 'Rocket' Richard
Rocket Richard was a hockey legend with the Montreal Canadiens between 1942 and 1960. The Hall of Fame winger played 978 regular-season games and scored 544 goals and 421 assists for 965 points. He also served 1,285 minutes in penalties while making the All Star Team eight times and taking home the 1947 Hart Trophy. Richard was well known for his fiery temper which sometimes got the better of him. He earned a long suspension for hitting a linesman back in 1955 and this season-ending ban eventually resulted in a riot at the old Montreal Forum. Richard fought his own battles even though he was just 5-foot-10 and played through several injuries. He also appeared in 133 postseason matches where he racked up 126 points and 188 PIM.
His eyes said it all.
5 Scott Stevens
Scott Stevens was definitely one of, if not the best body checker the NHL has ever seen. His career lasted 1,635 games and he racked up 2,785 penalty minutes in them along with 196 goals and 712 assists for 908 points. Stevens played with the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils between 1992 and 2004. The Hall of Famer’s bone-jarring body check on Eric Lindros will never be forgotten as Lindros was out cold before he hit the ice. Stevens took the Conn Smythe Trophy home in 2000 when the Devils took the Cup. His legendary open-ice hits were generally clean and devastating and opponents had to keep their heads up whenever he was in their vicinity. Stevens added 118 points in 233 playoff games with another 402 PIM.
4 Mark Messier
Mark Messier is regarded as one of the NHL’s greatest leaders and scorers, but he was also as tough as they come. Messier played 1,756 regular-season games with the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks between 1979 and 2004. He retired with 1,887 points including 694 goals and 1,193 assists and served 1,910 minutes in penalties. The Hall of Famer captured the Hart Trophy twice and a Conn Smythe Trophy with the Oilers in 1984. Messier dropped the gloves when he had to and possessed a bit of a vicious mean streak which was quite unpredictable, resulting in several suspensions. Messier added 295 points in 236 postseason contests and had another 244 PIM in them.
3 Bob Probert
Probert lasted 16 seasons in the NHL between 1985 and 2002 and earned many of his 3,300 penalty minutes by taking on the league’s top enforcers. Probert skated for the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks and also displayed a decent scoring touch. He retired with 163 goals and 221 assists for 384 points in 935 games and managed 29 goals and 33 assists in the 1987-88 season. Probert also hit the 20-goal mark in 1991-92 and had 19 in 1995-96 with the Blackhawks. He added 48 points in 81 playoff games along with 274 more penalty minutes.
2 Tiger Williams
Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams may be best known as the NHL’s all-time penalty minutes leader, but the native of Weyburn, Saskatchewan could also play some hockey. The 5-foot-11 winger broke into the league with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1974 and retired as a Hartford Whaler in 1988. In between he also played for the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings. Williams hung up his skates with 3,966 minutes in penalties under his belt (most in NHL history) in 962 games along with 241 goals and 272 assists for 513 points. The unpredictable enforcer hit the 20-goal mark four times with his best season coming in 1980-81 with Vancouver when he had 35 goals and 27 assists. Williams also reached the 15-goal plateau 10 times, added 35 points in 83 postseason contests and served another 455 minutes in penalties in the playoffs.
1 Gordie Howe
There’s a reason Gordie Howe is known as Mr. Hockey. This guy could do it all. Howe could skate, pass, shoot, score, hit and fight at an elite level. He was incredibly durable and owned just about every NHL record imaginable until Wayne Gretzky came along. Howe played in the NHL from 1946 to 1971 with Detroit and then spent six years in the WHA. He returned to the NHL in 1979-80 with the Hartford Whalers and finally hung up his skates at the age of 51 after 32 major pro seasons. He finished his career with 1,767 regular-season games played and scored 1,859 points on 801 goals and 1,049 assists. He also served 1,685 penalty minutes. Howe would undoubtedly have spent more time in the penalty box, but after a few seasons in the league everybody had the sense to stay away from him, especially after he destroyed New York Rangers tough guy Lou Fontinato in a gruesome fight. The Hall of Famer added 160 points in 157 postseason games along with another 220 PIM. To this day a goal, assist and a fight is known as a Gordie Howe hat trick.