The 13 Meanest Players in NHL History
Hockey has always been a tough, physical game, especially at the NHL level. It takes a certain type of toughness to play the game well and, in some cases, even a certain amount of meanness.
Here is a look back at 13 players, a baker's dozen if you will, who were known for playing a mean and tough style of hockey. Quite simply put, these are the meanest players in NHL history.
It's not easy to make this list. If there are only 13 players on here, some pretty mean hombres are going to be left off the list. So guys like Tiger Williams, Matthew Barnaby, Bob Probert and Joe Kocur did not make the final cut here.
Meanness goes beyond just dropping the gloves. It requires going beyond just playing tough or dropping the gloves. It requires an extra level of hatred, a willingness to violate the game's unwritten rules and codes of conduct.
Here are the 13 meanest players in NHL history. Feel free to comment on players you feel belong on this list and tell us why they should be there.
Sit back and enjoy the NHL's 13 meanest players.
13. Bryan Marchment
Bryan Marchment had a well-earned reputation as a guy who played a reckless style of hockey, and it often seemed like he was trying to injure opposing players, especially on knee-to-knee hits.
The NHL suspended Marchment 13 times during his first 12 seasons in the league. Among the players who were injured on hits by Marchment were Pavel Bure, Mike Gartner, Peter Zezel, Doug Weight, Paul Kariya, Joe Nieuwendyk, Wendel Clark and Mike Modano.
In his NHL career, Marchment accumulated 2,307 penalty minutes in 926 career NHL games. He played 17 seasons in the league because he was tough, physical and not afraid to hit opponents even if the league and many opponents felt his hits sometimes crossed the line.
12. Ron Hextall
Ron Hextall was different from most goalies. He liked to play the puck and even to try to shoot it down the ice to score a goal, and he wasn't afraid to get physical with opposing players.
Hextall checked opponents and used his stick or pads to attack them. The result was several suspensions, including the above incident which took in the 1989 playoffs against Montreal when Hextall attacked Chris Chelios after the outcome of the series had already been decided. The result of this incident was a 12-game suspension to start the following season.
Hextall was also suspended for a slash on Edmonton's Kent Nilsson during the 1987 Stanley Cup Final and another incident with Jim Cummins.
Twice during his career, Hextall accumulated more than 100 penalty minutes in a season—unprecedented for a goalie.
His battling style left its mark on the NHL and helped Hextall make our list.
11. Mark Messier
Mark Messier may have be second on the NHL's all-time points list, but he also patterned his playing style on Gordie Howe and was known for throwing elbows at the head of opponents who dared to skate down his wing.
Here is a clip of "The Moose" elbowing the head of a Soviet player during the 1984 Canada Cup. He earned that nickname because of his size and physical style of play.
One could only imagine how many games Messier would be suspended by Brendan Shanahan if he made a hit like this during an NHL game today.
10. Marty McSorley
Marty McSorley spent most of his career in the NHL as Wayne Gretzky's body guard. Whenever anybody threatened "The Great One," McSorley would be sent out to mete out justice.
He finished his NHL career with 3,381 penalty minutes and dropped the gloves often during his 17-season NHL career.
McSorley cemented his place on this list for the play that ended his career: when he struck Vancouver's Donald Brashear in the head with his stick. A clip of the incident is shown here.
The result was a conviction for assault with a weapon and a suspension that would last the rest of the 1999-2000 season.
McSorley would never play another game in the NHL after this incident.
9. Ted Lindsay
It's hard for younger fans to believe that Ted Lindsay is just 5'8" tall because he earned the nickname "Terrible Ted" for his tough and physical playing style. It also resulted in more than 750 stitches during Lindsay's NHL career.
In fact, Lindsay's play was so groundbreaking back in the 1940s and '50s, that the NHL actually changed the rules to discourage players from hitting opponents using their elbows and knees like Lindsay often did.
At the time of his retirement, Lindsay was the NHL's all-time penalty-minute leader. He was also a fine hockey player who scored 379 goals, played in 11 All-Star Games and helped lead the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup titles.
8. Billy Smith
Billy Smith played for the expansion Islanders in 1972-73, a team that set a new record for futility.
Because of the poor defense in front of him and his own competitive personality, Smith learned to protect the area in front of his own crease by swinging his large goalie stick at the ankles of opponents as he did to Wayne Gretzky in the clip included above. His attitude earned him the nickname, "Battlin' Billy."
Smith was also very good, and the Islanders got better around him. By 1980, Smith and the Islanders were on top of the hockey world and won the first of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles.
Smith was so competitive, he chose not to participate in the series-ending handshakes because he felt it would be hypocritical. He remains one of the few NHL players who refused to take part in this time-honored hockey tradition.
Smith was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993.
7. Ulf Samuelsson
Mention Cam Neely to Bruins fans and the name Ulf Samuelsson will come up shortly thereafter. It was a dirty, knee-on-knee hit delivered by Samuelsson that caused an injury to Neely that caused his career to end early.
While Samuelsson finished his NHL career with 13 seasons of 100 penalty minutes or more, he was better known for agitating and delivering hits that crossed the line and many considered dirty.
Stars center Mike Modano told Jon Scher of Sports Illustrated this about Samuelsson, "His job is to hurt people. He goes for the knees a lot. He takes runs at you, and really all he's trying to do is hurt you and knock you out of the game."
That summed up how a lot of people and fans felt about Samuelsson.
On the flip side, he was an effective defenseman and won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992.
6. Dale Hunter
Dale Hunter was the type of player hockey players hated to play against but loved to have on their team.
He was a gutsy, tough center who would do almost anything to win and often pushed the envelope between legal and dirty. He finished his NHL career with 3,565 penalty minutes, second most in NHL history.
His most infamous moment is shown above. During the deciding game of a 1993 playoff series between the Islanders and Capitals, Hunter attacked Pierre Turgeon of the Islanders with his stick several seconds after Turgeon scored a goal for the Isles. He received a 21-game suspension for the attack, which was then an NHL record.
Hunter took over as coach of the Capitals in the middle of last season but resigned after leading them to the second round of the playoffs. He is presently a co-owner of the OHL's London Knights.
5. Sprague Cleghorn
Sprague Cleghorn was a star defenseman in the very early days of the NHL. He played for the original Ottawa Senators, Toronto St. Pats, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.
Cleghorn was considered one of the dirtiest players in the early days of the NHL. In 1923 while playing for Montreal, Cleghorn hit Ottawa's Lionel Hitchman over the head with his stick. He was convicted of assault and fined $50 by the judge.
The following quote is from the book, The Ottawa Senators: The Best Players and Greatest Games by J. Alexander Poulton and describes Cleghorn's actions in a 1922 game against the Senators, who had just let him go after the previous season:
Cleghorn did little to hide his contempt for his former club after the puck was dropped. He started by viciously checking Senators captain Eddie Gerard and then slashing him on the head, opening up a cut above Gerard's eye that required five stitches to close. A short while later, Cleghorn set his sights on Ottawa's top scorer, Cy Denneny, and gave him a nasty cut above the eye that spurted blood all over the ice. Not yet satisfied, Cleghorn set his sights on the Sens' Frank Nighbor. Cleghorn got his chance when Nighbor had the puck in the corner with his back to the play. Cleghorn rushed into the corner and slammed Nighbor down to the ice, landing on his elbow hard enough that Nighbor couldn't play the rest of the game. Cleghorn had single-handedly removed three of the Senators' best players from the match. Ottawa police on hand that night offered to arrest Cleghorn and make him spend the night in jail for his obvious assault on the Senators players, but the referees persuaded the police to let the NHL handle its own discipline. For his offences, Sprague Cleghorn received a match penalty, a warning from the league president Frank Calder and a $15 fine.
While modern fans don't remember Cleghorn well, his vicious record speaks for itself.
4. Dave Schultz
Dave Schultz revolutionized the role of an enforcer in the 1970s as the lead fighter on the original "Broad Street Bullies."
In 1974-75, "The Hammer" set an NHL record that still stands when he accumulated 472 penalty minutes in a single season.
He was a key contributor to the Flyers' Stanley Cup title teams in 1974 and 1975.
During his fights, Schultz would punch around and over linesmen who were trying to break up fights or resort to tactics like head butting or hair pulling. An example of the hair pulling can be seen in this clip from Game 7 of the 1974 semifinals against Dale Rolfe of the New York Rangers.
3. Bobby Clarke
Bobby Clarke was the captain and ringleader of the "Broad Street Bullies" of the 1970s who literally brawled their way to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975.
Clarke wasn't usually a fighter, but he had a reputation of antagonizing opponents and delivering cheap shots and then letting Dave Schultz, Don Saleski or other Flyers tough guys brawl with his victim.
His most famous cheap shot came during the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union when he broke Valeri Kharlamov's ankle with his stick. Kharlamov was one of the USSR's best players.
Clarke was a competitor and wanted to win badly. He overcame diabetes to become an NHL star and a Hall of Famer. But he was also a mean player who would do almost anything to win.
Former Maple Leafs Coach Red Kelly told Ray Kennedy of Sports Illustrated in 1976 that he didn't consider Clarke dirty, "just mean."
Mean enough to earn the No. 3 spot on our list.
2. Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe earned the nickname "Mr. Hockey" because he personified everything the game was about from scoring to checking to dropping the gloves.
Howe had a great memory and always found a way to get even with opponents. Howe was quick to use his stick or his elbows to send a message to any player who skated down his wing or took a shot at him.
In a 1964 Sports Illustrated article, author Mark Kram wrote of Howe, "Despite an even temperament and a real distaste for combat, there is a part of Howe that is calculatingly and primitively savage. He is a punishing artist with a hockey stick, slashing, spearing, tripping and high-sticking his way to a comparative degree of solitude on the ice."
Howe didn't fight often, but he was very strong and earned a reputation as somebody opponents did not want to trifle with. His 1959 fight with Lou Fontinato of the Rangers left his opponent's face a bloody mess and gave him a very badly broken nose.
Nobody doubts Gordie Howe's greatness, and few doubt his meanness on the ice either.
1. Eddie Shore
Eddie Shore was one tough, mean hockey player.
How mean was Shore? He asked his teammates not to have marital relations with their wives before games because it would hurt their on-ice performance.
On the ice, Shore was involved in an infamous incident with Ace Bailey of Toronto. Shore hit Bailey from behind and the Leafs star nearly died from his injuries, which included a broken skull. While he survived the hit, Bailey's hockey career was over.
Shore's toughness and temper were legendary. He tangled with two teammates in practice and nearly had his ear ripped off in the process. When a doctor moved to reattach the ear, Shore used a mirror to watch the doctor stitch him up.
When his career was over, Shore bought the AHL's Springfield Indians. He was known as a cheap and tyrannical owner. One example of his meanness included the way he treated his goalies. Shore hated when netminders flopped down on the ice or wandered from their crease, so in practice, he tied a noose around their necks so if they disobeyed him, they would choke.
Shore personified "Old Time Hockey," according to the movie Slap Shot, and he wins the title as the meanest player in NHL history.