The sport of hockey may now be at odds with the ongoing role of the enforcer in the modern game, but throughout the game’s history fighting has played an integral role. Referees are limited in their powers to punish players for illegal or dangerous behavior and fighting was used by players to police these offenses themselves. In the age of NHL Disciplinary Committee reviews and video replay, this role has been diminished, but fighting can still serve as a valuable tool for players to use to motivate their teammates and get the crowd back into a game.
Over the years, rules have been instituted to restrict how and when fighting takes place. The “Third Man In” ejection rule was implemented in 1977 to prevent all out line brawls that plagued the NHL throughout the early 1970s. The league further curtailed fighting before the 1992 season by implementing an “instigator” penalty for players that deliberately provoke opponents into a fight. Yet fights, both premeditated and spontaneous still break out routinely in hockey games, as players attempt to adhere to “The Code” that is kept among themselves.
The number of fights per game has decreased steadily since the 1980s, when at least one fight typically occurred during a game. In the current season, fights have occurred in only 38% of NHL games, the lowest of any point since the 1968-69 season. While the NHL’s restrictions have certainly curtailed fighting significantly, the role of the enforcer remains a valuable asset for teams to have. This list features the best fighters in the history of the sport, many of whom had an impact and provoked changes to the rules of the game. These men have had a lasting legacy on the sport of hockey and sacrificed immensely to defend their teammates.
20 Gordie Howe
The Gordie Howe hat-trick is a goal, assist, and a fighting major in a single game and the namesake of it must be included in any list mentioning great NHL fighters. Howe was not the most frequent fighter, due to his immense skill at doing just about everything else on the ice, but Gordie was certainly not afraid to drop the gloves. Howe’s most famous fight came against Maurice Richard in a rare battle between superstars that is still widely talked about today. Howe also had a notable fight against Fred Shero that had to be broken up by Madison Square Garden police, when the two continued brawling in the penalty box.
19 Dave Semenko
Dave Semenko was entrusted with protecting Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and, most importantly, Wayne Gretzky during his time with the Edmonton Oilers. Semenko joined the Oilers before they joined the NHL and went on to serve as the enforcer on one of the most memorable teams in league history. Semenko had notable feuds with Tim Hunter and Basil McRae, and also fought an exhibition bout with boxing legend Muhammad Ali. During his ten seasons, he fought 87 times and lifted the Stanley Cup twice. Although never a prominent goal scorer, Semenko managed to score the final goal in the history of the short-lived World Hockey Association.
18 Marty McSorley
Early in his NHL career, Marty McSorley was given an opportunity to serve as the enforcer assigned to protect Wayne Gretzky. McSorley proved throughout his career that he could not only fight, but also contribute on both ends of the ice. McSorley won two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, where he racked up 32 fighting majors over the two campaigns. McSorley would go on to lead the NHL in penalty minutes during the 1992-93 season, where he had 15 fighting majors. McSorley was also a participant in an epic 100 second duel with Bob Probert that is one of the greatest fights in hockey history. Unfortunately, McSorley had a habit of taking things too far, which he did in 2000 by assaulting Donald Brashear with a stick, ultimately leading to McSorley’s suspension and retirement.
17 Tony Twist
While never much of a contributor on the offensive end of the ice, Tony Twist mastered the art of throwing hands. Despite his limited ice time, Twist still managed to put up six 10-fight seasons including a career-high 15 fights during the 1992-93 season. Twist was known to battle with the league’s biggest and baddest fighters, taking on fellow enforcers like Rob Ray, Bob Probert, and five fights against Bob McKenzie. His NHL career was ended when he broke his pelvis in a motorcycle accident, but during his time in the league, few were as feared as Tony Twist.
16 Donald Brashear
Donald Brashear is one of the most entertaining and dominant enforcers of the modern NHL era. Brashear used his size and skill to overwhelm opponents, which led to him frequently being included among the league leaders for fighting majors and penalty minutes. He was involved in over 200 fights in his NHL career and continues to ply his trade in the Swedish Hockey League. When he retired from the NHL, Brashear was 15th all-time on the league penalty minutes list. Brashear has also participated in boxing and MMA matches, utilizing his considerable hand skills off of the ice.
15 Matthew Barnaby
Matthew Barnaby was one of the best agitators and provocateurs in the history of the NHL. Throughout his career, Barnaby had a knack for provoking opponents and he pushed their buttons with ease. Barnaby was involved in 205 fights over the course of his career with 7 different teams. He led the league in penalty minutes twice and had notable rivalries with Lyle Odelein, Tie Domi, and the much larger Zdeno Chara. Following his NHL career, Barnaby has become a television personality and a co-owner of a construction business with former teammate, Rob Ray.
14 Dave Brown
During the heyday of enforcers during the 1980s, Dave Brown entered the scene as an immediate heavyweight contender. Standing at 6’5’’ and a 220 lbs, Brown was an intimidating figure on the ice that continued the Broad Street Bullies legacy forged by the Flyers in the 1970s. Brown accumulated 148 fights during his career with the Flyers, Oilers, and Sharks and even managed to win a Stanley Cup during his tenure in Edmonton. Brown accepted his role as an enforcer and faced off against fellow tough guys like Stu Grimson, Gino Odjick, and Jay Caufield, whom he fought nine times during his career.
13 Terry O’Reilly
Terry O’Reilly spent his entire career protecting his teammates while playing for the Boston Bruins. During that time, he watched the back of legends like Phil Esposito, Ray Bourque, and Bobby Orr. O’Reilly was fiercely protective of his teammates, but also had a scoring touch that he used to net 204 goals and 402 assists during his career. O’Reilly famously led the Bruins charge over the glass at Madison Square Garden to protect teammate Stan Jonathan. O’Reilly fought five bouts against Dave Schultz, Torrie Robertson, and Tiger Williams, which proved he was capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the toughest players in hockey history.
12 Clark Gillies
Throughout his career, Clark Gillies may not have been the most frequent fighter, but he made a tremendous impact for the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres. Alongside Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, he helped the Islanders win four Stanley Cups in the early 1980s. Gillies had remarkable goal scoring ability in addition to his fighting skill and toughness, netting 304 goals during his time in the NHL. One of Gillies’ biggest achievements was his battle with Terry O’Reilly during the 1980 Playoffs. After their first bout ended in an O’Reilly victory, Gillies recovered to wreck O’Reilly in the second bout, which sparked the Islanders to victory. Gillies was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002.
11 Rob Ray
Rob Ray created the fighting technique where players would remove their jersey and shoulder pads to prevent their opponents from grabbing ahold of them. Ray used this practice to enormous success during his career until the practice was banned. Even after his namesake technique was banned, Ray continued his dominance as one of the game’s best enforcers. Ray finished his career with 241 fights and led the league in penalty minutes during two seasons. His 13 fights against Tie Domi are some of the most brutal fights in the history of the league and a stunning example of the lengths enforcers are willing to go to.
10 Stu Grimson
Stu Grimson was the NHL’s heavyweight champion of the 1990s. Standing at an intimidating 6’5’’ and 240lbs, The Grim Reaper took on all comers during his time in the league playing for eight different teams. Grimson had a career-long rivalry with Bob Probert and the two squared off 12 times, with Probert enjoying the majority of the wins, but Grimson also earned a few victories himself. Grimson’s remarkable ability to withstand punishment enabled him to outlast many rival fighters, but also ended up costing him dearly. A concussion suffered during a fight with Georges Laraque in 2001 ended Grimson’s career, and Grimson he has moved on to fight his battles in the courtroom as a lawyer.
9 Joey Kocur
The other half of the “Bruise Brothers”, Joey Kocur fought 217 times during his NHL career. Best known for playing with the Detroit Red Wings, Kocur was an intimidating figure with a devastating right hand that he used with great frequency. Kocur established himself by earning the most penalty minutes in the NHL during his first season. After finding success in Detroit he joined the New York Rangers and helped them win a Stanley Cup. He would contribute goals to help the Red Wings win two Stanley Cups over a decade later in his second stint with the team and add another as a coach. An impressive amount of hardware for any enforcer.
8 Dale Hunter
Dale Hunter is one of the most controversial and skilled enforcers in the history of the National Hockey League. Hunter was incredibly skilled with the puck and earned 1,020 points during his career. Hunter also finished with 3,565 penalty minutes, the 2nd most of any player and if that is not enough to certify his villain status, just look to the cheap shot he delivered to Pierre Turgeon, which earned him a 21 game suspension. Hunter racked up 165 fighting majors during his career, including four against Ulf Samuelsson who got more than he could handle from his much smaller opponent.
7 Rick Tocchet
Rick Tocchet entered the league as one of the most fearsome fighters, quickly racking up two 20 fight seasons in his first three years in the NHL. Tocchet then developed into one of the game’s premier power forwards, with five 30 goal seasons. Despite these newfound abilities, he continued to fight throughout his career racking up 173 fights in terms with the Flyers, Kings, Penguins, Bruins, Caps, and Coyotes. He remains the Flyers all-time leader in Gordie Howe hat tricks and holds the league record for them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
6 Tie Domi
What Tie Domi lacked in stature, he made up for in pure toughness, by becoming one of the most fearsome and entertaining enforcers in the history of the game. Domi started his career with Toronto, before making an impact for the New York Rangers and leading the league in penalty minutes after being traded to Winnipeg. Domi moved back to Toronto, where the most known part of his career took place. He eventually retired with the third most all-time. Domi finished his career with 274 fights, but his most memorable did not even count because it came against a Philadelphia Flyers fan that fell into the penalty box.
5 Craig Berube
Craig Berube entered the NHL with a chip on his shoulder. After going undrafted, Berube broke into the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers and quickly established himself as an enforcer by fighting Bob Probert three times. The Chief fought the league’s best fighters with frequency, including multiple bouts with Tie Domi, Bob Boughner, and Marty McSorley. When it was all said and done, Berube had fought 250 times, retiring with the third most fighting majors of any player and the 7th most career penalty minutes. Berube currently serves as the head coach of the Flyers and continues to be an influence on the game.
4 Chris Nilan
Chris Nilan earned the nickname “Knuckles” by fighting more often that every player in NHL history, except for Tie Domi. Nilan dreamed of playing for the Boston Bruins growing up, but was drafted as the enforcer for their rival Montreal Canadiens. Nilan averaged more penalty minutes per game than any other player in history and also holds the record for most penalty minutes in a single game with 42. He is one of only nine players to pass the 3,000 penalty minute mark.
3 Dave Schultz
Dave Schultz earned his nickname “The Hammer” by being one of the greatest enforcers in the league during their golden era in the game. Schultz holds the all-time record for penalty minutes in a season with 472, which he earned during the 1974-75 season, when he won the Stanley Cup with the Philadelphia Flyers. Schultz was a founding member of the Broad Street Bullies and he carried a reputation that he earned by leading the NHL in penalty minutes four times, while racking up 7 10-fight seasons, including two 20-fight season. Schultz brawled with the game’s best including five duels with Terry O’Reilly. Schultz began wearing boxing wrist wraps in order to prevent injury to himself while fighting, but the league quickly outlawed the practice when it began to catch on.
2 Bob Probert
1 Dave “Tiger” Williams
Dave “Tiger” Williams is the career penalty minute leader with 3,966 and that is a number that will likely remain for the rest of time. Williams was a capable contributor on the offensive end, but he excelled when it came to fighting and he racked up fighting majors at an alarming pace. Williams finished his career with 246 total fights and enjoyed a rivalry with Terry O’Reilly that spanned five fights. Williams led the NHL in PIMs three times during his career, always eager to prove his toughness, often against much larger opponents. Despite all of this, his most significant contribution to the game came with his invention of the riding the stick celebration.