There's a certain level of aggression that any hockey player needs to bring to the rink on a nightly basis if they want to be successful in the National Hockey League. The cramped ice-surface with no out-of-bounds to run is akin to a bumper car track, only instead of other "cars" harmlessly bumping into you, there are five opposing players looking to knock you into next week.
The physical attribute of the sport adds a level of excitement and, let's be honest, beauty, to the fastest game on Earth, because it forces hockey players to be incredibly agile, alert, and strong. Some players make the NHL not because of their speed or skill, but because of their ability to intimidate, play a physical style and simply be downright nasty pieces of business. Those players bring an intangible value to their respective teams: they agitate, provide energy, and often times provide a needed spark or momentum shifting play that can make or break a single play, game, or even a season.
A by-product of these players intensity, though, is the occasional "blown fuse" moment, where a player either toes over or completely blows by the line that separates agitating the opponent and infuriating the opponent. This can be done a number of ways; hard slashes over the wrist, finishing a body check that didn't need to be finished, a second hard slash over the wrists, and even vicious, personal insults.
And then there's these guys: our Top 25 dirtiest players in NHL history, players who, while (mostly) productive, we're also considered the scum of the Earth by opposing teams players, coaches, and fans, who not only crossed the figurative line, but lived on the other side of it. These 25 names will not trigger memories of dazzling talent, but rather gruesome and often times scary incidents.
25 Ron Hextall
Ron Hextall may not have been the dirtiest player of all time, but he certainly was one of the fieriest players to ever play in the NHL. He didn't have as many opportunities to let out his anger seeing as he had to focus on stopping pucks, but he was always good for a wicked hack across the back of the legs, sending a message to opposing forwards that he would not tolerate anyone getting in the way of him doing his job. He could also be classified as the pioneer goalie enforcer, as he was always ready to drop to gloves; not to mention his revenge attack on Chris Chelios in the 1989 playoffs.
24 Chris Pronger
Chris Pronger will always rank among the best NHL defensemen of all-time. Not many guys his size could skate like he could and we're as solid in all facets of the game as Pronger in the prime of his successful career. However, he earned a reputation as a dirty player for his high elbows and most famously his run in with Ryan Kesler during the 2008 playoffs, where he stomped on Kesler's foot with his skate. If my word isn't enough, Pronger was voted one of the dirtiest players in the league by his peers in 2009 and he's been suspended 9 times.
23 Jarkko Ruutu
Jarkoo Ruutu was a pest in every sense of the word. Not only was he an aggravator with a reputation as a late hitter, but he truly carved out his legacy with his ability to piss off opponents in any number of ways - be it with a knee on knee hit, like the one he delivered on Marty St.Louis, or even more famously, his bite on Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters, perhaps the dirtiest of dirty plays one can pull on a hockey rink.
22 Dan Carcillo
Dan Carcillo developed his reputation as a dirty player very early on in his professional career. He's the kind of guy you love to have on your roster because he will be the first one in a scrum and will always defend a teammate, but he's also the guy who will make you shake your head and cost your team when he does things like slamming then Oilers defenseman Tom Gilbert into the board or assaulting a referee during an Eastern Conference Final game.
21 Raffi Torres
Raffi Torres, like Carcillo, is a guy you love to have on your team because he's a hard-nosed, no-nonsense type that every team needs. Torres, though, developed a reputation as a ruthless, violent player with no regard for the safety of his opponents. His track record is as long as it gets, but the most notable incident was the 25-game suspension for his destruction of Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, a hit that some argue set in motion the recent emphasis on player safety and the reduction of headshots.
20 Dave Schultz
Dave Schultz, simply put, was one bad, bad man. You needed to be if you wanted to play for the Philadelphia Flyers during the 1970's. That team set in motion the wolfpack mindset of intimidating and pounding the opponent into submission, as opposed to beating them with speed and skill. Schultz isn't higher on this list because back in his day, his style of play was common - the game was much more violent before we knew about concussions and the dangers of head trauma, so it wasn't considered as "dirty."
19 Dave "Tiger" Williams
Dave "Tiger" Williams spent the equivalent of nearly three days in an NHL penalty box over the course of his career. Williams is not higher on this list because most of his PIMs were the result of fights, but he usually did something to spark those fights. While Williams was more of an agitator than anything else, it would be hard to explain leaving the most penalized player in NHL history off of a list celebrating guys who made a living breaking the rules.
18 Steve Downie
Steve Downie very nearly ended up higher on this list, but he gets a bit of a pass for toning down his reckless abandon out on the ice. His preseason hit on Dean McAmmond in 2007 was absolutely brutal, and earned him a 20-game ban, all of which was deserved. His antics date back to his junior days, were he was even taking cheap-shots in practice, most notably his cross-check to the face of teammate Akim Aliu while the two played for the Windsor Spitfires.
17 Bryan Marchment
Bryan Marchment was a pain in the you-know-what to play against no matter where he was playing throughout his journeyman career. Hockey players are often given credit for "answering the bell" after taking out an opponent, and Marchment was no different; but it almost seemed like he took pleasure out of stirring up a ruckus, specifically by sticking out a knee to hurt or seriously injure an opposing player. He even managed to collapse a lung belonging to Mike Gartner as revenge for a high stick earlier in a game between the Whalers and the Rangers.
16 Jesse Boulerice
Jesse Boulerice was (is) the definition of a goon. He was on an NHL roster for one reason and one reason only: to fight, to intimidate, and to beat up on smaller, more talented players. His most famous incident, without a doubt, was the vicious cross-check to the jaw of then Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler, who took the shaft of Boulerice's stick right in the mouth in a game the Canucks were handily winning against the Flyers - the incident earned him 25 games and essentially ended his days as an NHL enforcer.
15 Dave Brown
Dave Brown was just as tough and as ruthless as Dave Schultz, but was a big fan of freewheeling with his twig more than any hockey player should have ever been. Besides the standard Broad Street Bullies attitude, Brown was one of the most feared (and because of this, respected) enforcers of all-time. His violent cross-check to the face of Tomas Sandstrom, though, earns him a spot on this list, because a 15-game suspension back in Brown's day was unheard of, so you know his hit was dirty.
14 Todd Bertuzzi
I don't think anyone can ever forget the image of Todd Bertuzzi injuring Steve Moore on March 8th, 2004. The play had all the ingredients for a premeditated attack; Moore's hit to the head of Mats Naslund earlier in the year, Moore refusing to drop the gloves to answer for it, and Todd Bertuzzi simply losing his mind on the ice. Bertuzzi could have been an angel the entirety of his career and still would have landed on the list because of this incident; but he was no angel, and his sucker punch on Moore has cemented him on this list.
13 Patrick Kaleta
Patrick Kaleta could aggravate a Care Bear if he really wanted to. He started out as another aggravating plugger, living on the Sabres lower lines, but in the past few years he has turned into an absolute monster on the ice, and not in the good way. Late hits, notably his charge on Jack Johnson that landed him a ten-game suspension, along with a general greasy demeanor and his generally reckless style of play, combined with his ability to aggravate opponents land him higher on this list than most might expect.
12 Sean Avery
You know you've made it as a dirty player in the NHL when not only do opposing players and fans hate your guts, but your teammates do as well. Avery was an excellent agitator, but he often crossed way over the line, not only on the ice but off the ice as well. From his late hit on Milan Lucic, his sucker punch on Ladislav Smid, his antics in the crease of Marty Brodeur or his derogatory comments towards black players and women, Avery truly was a dirty player in every sense of the word.
11 Darcy Tucker
Darcy Tucker was no doubt one of the most aggravating players the NHL has ever seen, which is why many celebrated when he crushed by Alex Kovalev near the end of his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tucker was no doubt a fierce competitor, but he often played way over the edge, and it led to notable incidents that earned him his reputation, such as his brutal hits on Michael Peca and Daniel Alfredsson. There's never any love lost for a guy who goes for the knees.
10 Ken Linseman
Any guy who earned the nickname "The Rat" is bound to end up on a list like this one. Besides the fact that he was a notorious yapper on the ice, driving opponents crazy with his mouth, he was also earned his reputation as one of the dirtiest players of all-time because of his penchant for his vicious slashes, clutch-and-grab style of play, along with the standard high elbows and habit of charging his opponents in an attempt to not only get under the skin of opposing players, but to also start melees and bruise as many bodies as he could along the way.
9 Claude Lemieux
Claude Lemieux antagonized opposing players like few others could. His legend was born during his time with the Montreal Canadiens, and while he will always be known as one of the greatest playoff performers of all-time, he will also always be labelled as one of the dirtiest, peskiest and aggravating players to ever lace up a pair of skate in the NHL. His reputation was cemented by his legendary battles with the Detroit Red Wings starts during his time with the Colorado Avalanche, highlighted by his violent hit on Kris Draper during the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs.
8 Chris Simon
Chris Simon was always considered one of the dirtiest players in the history of the league, but he also earned himself a reputation as a less-than-intellegent player for some of his antics on the ice. His most notable incidents include stomping on the aforementioned Jarkko Ruutu and the notorious slash to the face of Ryan Hollweg that effectively ended his NHL career with an indefinite suspension.
7 Eddie Shore
There is no video evidence of the pain Eddie Shore would put his opponents in, but it is well documented. Playing in an era where violence was predominant in hockey, Shore was the baddest man in town. Shore was known for extracting revenge and harboring vendettas, and has a list longer than this one of broken bones and bruised egos. His most infamous act of violence ended the career of Maple Leafs star Ace Bailey after Shore fractured his skull with a devastating hit.
6 Dale Hunter
Dale Hunter, simply put, would not put up with anyone's nonsense. Hunter was a productive player throughout his career, and a leader on his Washington Capitals, but he played with an edge to his game that would make even the toughest of player think twice about messing with the Petrolia, Ontario native. His most notorious incident resulted in his own defensive lapse, when he turned over the puck to Islanders star Pierre Turgeon, who subsequently scored. As Turgeon celebrated Hunter blindsided him, separating his shoulder and essentially triggering the beginning of the end of Turgeon's brilliant career.
5 Bobby Clarke
Bobby Clarke was another example of a talented, productive hockey player who played with a nastiness that was paralleled by few. Ask Valeri Kharlamov, who had a broken ankle to show for it in the 1972 Summit Series. Clarke broke the Russian star's ankle with a vicious slash that rendered him essentially ineffective the rest of the series, proving Clarke's intense competitiveness and his violent mentality to do anything necessary to win, which he carried over from an NHL career where he carved out a niche as one of the nastiest players in league history.
4 Marty McSorley
Marty McSorley is mostly known for his role as Wayne Gretzky's personal bodyguard. Normally, a superstar center has talented wingers at his sides, but McSorley, from an early age, was charged with protecting the greatest player to ever live from any wrongdoing from opponents. McSorley earned his place as a dirty player mostly from his brutal slash to to head of enforcer Donald Brashear, knocking him out with a hard stick to the face which resulted in Brashear leving the ice on a stretcher. McSorley was already a well-known tough guy, but his vicious attack on Brashear just validated his spot on this list.
3 Gordie Howe
Surprised? You shouldn't be. Gordie Howe was one of the best players ever, which is how he earned the nickname "Mr. Hockey." However, part of that persona came from his no prisoners approach to the game. Howe took care of himself, and was often the one dishing out the punishment: violent slashes, and of course his wild-flying elbows, earned him a reputation as one of the most vicious players of all-time. He got into his fair share of fights, too, which is why a goal, assist and a fight are known as the Gordie Howe hat-trick.
Talk about a complete player.
2 Matt Cooke
Matt Cooke nearly earned the top spot on this list, and probably will get there one day if he ends up ruining another career. Besides his generally dirty style of play, various incident involving devastating head-shots (notably on Marc Savard and Mike Richards), combined with his often wayward knees - which most recently took out Tyson Barrie - and various other cheap-shots, Cooke is the definition of a dirty player, and while he stayed clean for awhile, he proved that people never really do change.
1 Ulf Samuelsson
If any player were to grow up aspiring to be the most hated, ruthless, dirtiest player in the NHL, they would have to look no further than Ulf Samuelson for someone to look up to. Samuelson was a known knee-hunter and a generally dirty hockey player who was disliked by all. He effectively ended Cam Neely's career in 1991, to the point where Neely came out in public to tell the world how little he though of Ulf. He was as effective an agitator as anyone before or after him, and he is by the most notorious dirty player in the long history of a violent sport.