Many hockey purists will complain from time to time about the disappearance of the body check. They will say that the rules have handcuffed players from going for a body check out of fear of suspension. The advent of replays from cameras aimed at every corner of the ice makes a body check that was once seen as legal, is now scrutinized by every official at the NHL disciplinary office.
Another complaint that many analysts make to explain the decline of the hockey body check is the unwritten code among hockey players. This code has evolved to the point where any physical contact that is perceived as crossing the line now mandates a response from the entire opposing team. This often takes the form of fighting so guys who have a tendency or interest in stepping up and laying out a solid body check are discouraged from doing so because they know that they will have to fight immediately afterwards.
These complaints do have some merit, but hockey has not changed that much from its inception and body checking is still a big part of the game. It is an important factor in helping teams win through intimidation and puck possession.
Like every aspect of hockey, body checking is not a skill unto itself and is used in conjunction with other aspects to help win the game. Over time body checking has been referred to as "hitting" or "crushing" which simplifies this element of the game into pure violence. A player who has perfected the body check understands that this play serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it is a defensive tool, preventing an opposing player's progress towards your own goal. Secondly, a body check separates the player from the puck, giving your team the chance to regain possession and turn your attention to offense. Lastly, a good, solid and legal body check will sting the opposing player. Putting a little sting into someone is best described as making a player feel discomfort for a short period of time, forcing them to catch their breath and recover on the bench. When a player has felt that sting the natural reaction is to avoid contact for the rest of the game so they avoid going close to your net where physical contact is likely to occur. This player becomes less of a threat to score, increasing your chances of winning. It is especially for this last reason that hard body checking is so valued and always will be.
Here is a list of the top 20 hardest body checkers in NHL history.
20 20. Adam Foote
If a player's face ever resembled how he played the game it was Adam Foote. When he played, Foote had a glare that could frighten the monsters under your bed and his nose looked like it had been pushed through a garbage disposal once or twice. It was the look and face of a steadfast, no-nonsense defenceman. He was the leader on the back end of those great Colorado Avalanche teams of the late 1990's and early 2000's. When playing those teams you had to deal with the tremendous skill of players like Sakic and Forsberg up front and worry about how to score on the great Patrick Roy in net. In between you had to fear for your safety that you wouldn't run into an Adam Foote shoulder check.
19 Raffi Torres
Raffi Torres was selected 5th overall by the New York Islanders in the 2000 NHL entry draft. Torres was a prolific scorer in junior; a strong skater with a bit of a mean streak he was seen as a valuable prospect. Torres put up some decent offensive numbers in the NHL but the mark he left on the league was his punishing open ice checks. He had a tendency to leave his feet when he landed a body check which created controversy and sometimes garnered lengthy suspensions, but his wide body and the speed he was able to generate meant that when he checked another player, they felt it each and every time.
18 Garnet Exelby
To the casual fan, they may be asking "who is Garnett Exelby?" Unfortunately for this heavy hitter, he played in Atlanta for the majority of his NHL career, on some awful Thrasher teams so his body checking prowess was buried in hockey Siberia. Exelby was the type of player that could land a body check in any area of the ice against any opponent. He had a rare ability to even land a devastating body check standing still and allowing another player to skate right into him. Whether he was initiating the contact or just having other players bounce off of him, it was something to see.
17 Jordin Tootoo
They call him the Tootoo train and when he played in Nashville the fans would whistle like a train every time he stepped on the ice. He is built like a bull terrier and that is what he must look like when he's got an opposing player in his sights for a big body check. He uses his small stature to his advantage, crouching low while generating speed and then exploding through bigger players and knocking them off the puck. There is no doubt when they heard the whistle in Nashville, players where looking over their shoulders for the Tootoo Train.
16 Zdeno Chara
The tallest and possibly the strongest player in the NHL is big Z. Patrolling the Boston Bruins blue line, Chara stands 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds. His huge wing span allows him to poke the puck off of players' sticks well before they can reach him, but if they somehow manage to avoid his stick, his massive frame is there to punish them with a ferocious body check. Players can still sometimes be hesitant whenever challenging the Bruins' captain.
15 Cal Clutterbuck
It's not only about the one check that defines a player and sometimes quantity does count for more than just quality. Cal Clutterbuck is the energizer bunny of body checking. He routinely is among the league leaders in body checks and never seems to end a shift without finishing at least one or two. It's a testament to his endurance, strength and pain threshold that Cal can submit his body to such punishment day in and day out and continue to play such a physical brand of hockey.
14 Bryan Marchment
Bryan Marchment is another player that wears the scars of a player who enjoys a good bodycheck on his face. Marchment has a nose that looks as if it's trying to make a right turn away from the rest of his face. Marchment was a lethal open ice body checker. There were points in his career when other players and league officials felt he had crossed the line and his brand of body checking was dangerous to the players he hit, but Marchment was straight forward in his style. He was a strong, smooth skating defenceman who was able to skate stride for stride with any player and then when the time came, he would stick his hip and torso into them with great efficiency and regularity.
13 Alex Ovechkin
Ovechkin is such a great goal scorer that many people overlook the physical aspect to his game. Offensive players generally have the puck on their stick or they are around the puck that they are often on the receiving end of body checks, absorbing the contact instead of initiating it. All you need to know about how hard Ovechkin hits is in one sequence during the 2010 Winter Olympics in a game between Russia and the Czech Republic. One of the game's greatest players in Jaromir Jagr was gliding through the neutral zone and Ovechkin was there to meet him with an open ice body check that will make any observer cringe in pain.
12 Vladimir Konstantinov
It wasn't that long ago that North American hockey pundits disparaged European players as being soft and unable to handle a physical brand of hockey. Early NHL Europeans were able to squash that prejudice with their tenacity and willingness to meet any challenge thrown at them. It was however players like Vladimir Konstantinov that showed hockey dinosaurs that European players could not only take it, they could dish it out also. Vlad was the fiercest member of the Russian Five that Detroit had in the mid 1990's. Unfortunately, his career was cut short in a tragic car accident immediately after the Red Wings won the 1997 Stanley Cup.
11 Wendel Clark
Wendel Clark will always be remembered as the heart and soul of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was drafted 1st overall in 1985 and quickly endeared himself to the Maple Leaf faithful. Playing on some bad Toronto teams, Clark provided Leaf fans with something to cheer about with some thundering body checks on opposing players. Clark was such a feared checker that you could tell other teams made sure not to upset the Leafs star and hoped he was not in a bad mood when he stepped on the ice.
10 Dion Phaneuf
It can sometimes be difficult for physically dominant players in junior to establish that part of their game in the NHL. That wasn't the case for young Dion Phaneuf. It was a seamless transition for Phaneuf who went from manhandling players in junior to bulldozing grown men in the NHL. Phaneuf is deceptively quick and has the ability to close the gap on forwards that believe they have room to get past him and then they only realize what a mistake they have made when Dion lowers the boom.
9 Niklas Kronwall
It must have been extremely intimidating being a young Swedish defenceman walking into the Detroit Red Wings dressing room and seeing Nicklas Lidstrom. That was just the case for Kronwall who no doubt idolized his fellow countryman who played the same position as he does. It is a testament to Kronwall who was surely tempted to play a similar elegant style to Lidstrom as a younger player, but instead stayed true to his abilities and established himself as a rugged defenceman. Kronwall has kept players honest and with every body check, dispelling the false notion that the Red Wings are not a tough team.
8 Mike Peca
Mike Peca did not look like a typical hard body checker. Off the ice he often sported eye glasses and he was under six feet tall and his playing weight was listed at 181 pounds. Breaking into the NHL during the late 1990's when the trend at the time was bigger players meant better players, Peca was at a disadvantage right from the get go and he was very much unheralded while in the Canucks organization. It was not until Peca joined the Buffalo Sabres where he blossomed into a Selke Trophy winner as the league's top defensive forward. It was in Buffalo that Peca became a leader and fan favorite. Despite his small stature he was able to put every inch and pound of his frame into body checks that would leave Sabres fans ooohing and awwwing.
7 Larry Robinson
The Montreal Canadiens have always been known as a team made up of highly skilled players. In the 1970's the Habs and Flyers were the antithesis of one another in terms of finesse versus brawn. In order to manage the powerful Flyers, the Canadiens turned to the player lovingly referred to as Big Bird. Robinson was one of the largest players in the league during the 1970's and his play was marked with great skill and talent as his Hall of Fame status would attest, but he was also responsible for letting teams like the Flyers know that the Canadiens would hit back and he did.
6 Denis Potvin
The New York Islanders of the early 1980's are one of sports most under appreciated dynasties, if such a thing is possible. They had the misfortune of winning four straight Stanley Cups just after the Canadiens had won four straight and then the Gretzky led Oilers went on to win four in five years directly afterwards. The captain of those great Islanders teams was Denis Potvin. Patrolling the blue line, Potvin was feared by talented forwards that at any moment he could step into them with a body blow to send them sliding across the ice.
5 Tim Horton
The name is now known more for the doughnut and coffee combo, but the restaurant holds the name of a once great NHL defenceman. Horton was a classic hockey player from the 1950's. Prior to the ascension of Bobby Orr, defencemen were told their place was to defend their own zone and nothing else. Horton with his crew cut that matched the period and style in which he played was infamous around the 6-team NHL as being as strong as a bull and his body checks left many players bruised and sore by the end of the game.
4 Rob Blake
Rob Blake was the type of defenceman that made others who played the position jealous. He had every trick in the book, he was big, strong, he had a smooth, lengthy skating stride and a big booming slap shot. He was also a devastating body checker. Blake almost invented a new form of body checking by incorporating his rear-end like no other player before him. An approaching forward would try and find room between Blake and the boards and the big hulking defenceman would make a few quick sharp movements to increase his speed and violently squeeze the forward between the boards and Blake's own backside. He changed the method of body checking for future generations to come.
3 Eric Lindros
The Big E or E-Train, either nickname gives an accurate impression of the type of body checker Eric Lindros was. In an era when players were getting bigger and stronger than ever before, Lindros was the behemoth of them all. There are images stuck in the mind of those that watched him play where he races into the end zone to establish a forecheck and he plasters a poor defenceman against the boards in such a complete fashion that for a moment you only see Lindros and the glass and you just have to trust that the other player will reappear from under Lindros.
2 Darius Kasparaitis
He may not have invented the hip check, but he certainly perfected it. Kasparaitis got under the nerve of every player he played against and for good reason. No one likes to be skating down the ice and then suddenly they are sent flying through the air head over feet and landing on their back, sliding into the boards. That is what a Kasparaitis hip check did to a lot of players. Kasparaitis made the hip check his signature move and turned the body check into an event that had to be seen.
1 Scott Stevens
Of course the number 1 hardest body checker of all time was Scott Stevens. Stevens was just a big, mean defenceman that was born to hit. He looked like a heat seeking missile at times, just searching for targets while on the ice. Stevens had a knack of anticipating when a player had their head down and was unsuspecting that contact was imminent. Some players on this list have one body check that they are remembered for, but Stevens has at least half a dozen including famous hits on Lindros, Ron Francis and Paul Kariya. The king of the body check was undoubtedly Scott Stevens.