We all know that professional athletes are tough. They train hard, play hard, and must wear a game face through all kinds of situations in front of an international audience. But no athlete in the world is tougher than the professional ice hockey player. And hockey players prove that on a daily basis.
There are literally thousands of examples of players at all levels showing “hockey-toughness.” It’s not uncommon to see hockey players lose a tooth (or multiple teeth), break their nose, or get on-the-fly stitches on their face and continue to jump in the play, crash the net, throw big hits, and lay down to block shots. After nearly every playoff series, fans tune into press conferences to find out which players had continued playing while concealing major injuries.
Hockey is a game played on a hard, slippery surface, where fast moving athletes carrying sticks and wearing blades on their feet crash into each other at top speed; where a small piece of frozen rubber flies around at up to 100 MPH; where dropping the gloves and engaging in fisticuffs is an accepted part of the game; where fear and hesitation are not tolerable, and where sacrifice and pain are required for success. It’s no wonder that the game of hockey has given us some incredible stories of toughness.
I’ve put together a slide show of ten of the most amazing examples of hockey-toughness that I could think of. As I said though, there are thousands of other examples, so feel free to share them in the comments as well.
The 2000 Stanley Cup Finals match-up between the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars was a physically brutal series. Players on both sides showed tremendous grit and determination to win the Cup at all costs. The series was eventually decided by an overtime goal in Game 6 by New Jersey’s Jason Arnott, who just two games earlier had suffered a concussion and had four teeth knocked out of his jaw. But one of the more incredible examples of hockey-toughness came in the desperate play of Dallas’ Darrly Sydor.
In the first period of Game 6, Sydor missed a hit on Scott Gomez and went awkwardly into the boards. It was immediately obvious that he was badly hurt, as his leg twisted under him and face writhed in agony. He attempted to get up, but quickly collapsed to the ice, unable to put any weight on his leg. But Sydor wasn’t about to let the pain, nor the inability to skate, keep him from playing hockey. While play continued around him, Sydor determined he was useless lying off to the side, so he used his arms and his one good leg to drag his body through other players towards the front of the net in an attempt to block shots.
Now, you would expect most players, in most situations, when hurt in such a way would try their best to stay out of harm’s way and protect themselves until the whistle finally blew. But this was the Stanley Cup finals, and Sydor’s team was facing elimination. So, to the amazement of those watching, Sydor ignored the pain, dismissed the risk of further injury, and purposefully dragged himself into the most dangerous part of the ice, solely in the hopes that he might get in the way of a 100-MPH slap-shot and help his team.
Check out the video on youtube:
Make a list of the top enforcers in the history of the game, and Dave Semenko should be on there, somewhere near the top. Semenko spent 10 years with the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA and NHL, and was a key reason Wayne Gretzky had as much room to skate as he did. Unofficially dubbed “Gretzky’s bodyguard,” Semenko threatened to pummel anyone who got too rough with the superstar, and proved his fighting talents many times on the ice. But on June 12, 1983, Semenko proved that he could fight off the ice as well. And he could fight with the best of them.
An exhibition, three-round boxing match was staged between Semenko and heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali. Yes, THE Muhammed Ali. While Semenko had plenty of fighting experience on the ice, his inexperience in the ring showed. He recalled in his autobiography, Looking out for Number One:
“I didn't know what I was supposed to wear and didn't have a boxing wardrobe kicking around the house. I didn't have boots like Ali, so I got a pair of old black high-top runners. He had his zippered sweat suit to wear into the ring. I wore a crimson-and-silver terry-towel bathrobe. We hadn't even thought about it, but I'd been wearing the robe when they laced the gloves on me. So there we were, standing in our corner with the opening bell about to ring and I couldn't get the damned bathrobe off over those great big sixteen ounce boxing gloves. So Rocky stood real close to me, trying to block out everybody's view, while he hacked the sleeves off my bathrobe with a pair of scissors.”
The fight had no knockouts and no official winner announced, though onlookers claimed Semenko held his own against the Champ. While Gretzky must have been relieved his bodyguard wasn’t hurt, players on other teams must have dreaded facing him even more after that night.
Scott Stevens will always be remembered as one of the hardest open-ice hitters in the history of the game, leaving in his wake a long line of semi-conscious opponents wondering what just happened. Joining that line in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals was Anaheim’s Paul Kariya.
During the second period, Stevens caught Kariya watching his pass in the neutral zone and put the biggest hit of the series on the Mighty Duck’s star forward, laying him out flat on his back. As the whistles blew and the referees maintained order, Kariya laid motionless on the ice. After several seconds, Kariya’s eyes popped open and his face shield fogged over as he suddenly gasped and regained consciousness. Eventually, teammates and trainers helped him off the ice and into the locker room, and there was little doubt that the Ducks would have to continue without their captain. Because of Kariya’s past troubles with concussions, and because of the severity of the hit, many feared he would be out for the remainder of the series.
As it turned out, Kariya would not miss Game 7. In fact, he only ended up missing 11 minutes of Game 6. To the shock of everyone, including Stevens, Kariya returned to the ice to continue play only 11 minutes after being knocked out cold. But he wasn’t done there. With the crowd roaring, Kariya took the puck into the offensive zone and fired a shot from the faceoff circle past Devils’ goaltender Martin Brodeur to help the Mighty Ducks to victory and force Game 7.
Check out the video:
Jeremy Roenick played much of his career with a target on his back. He knew it and he welcomed it. Roenick not only agitated other players and teams with his physical style of play, but his off-ice comments repeatedly got him in hot water as well. He would hit anyone who got in his way on the ice, and would not hesitate to speak his mind off it.
When Roenick and the Phoenix Coyotes went into Dallas to play the Stars on April 14, 1999, the target on his back was glowing bright red. Earlier in the season, Roenick had put a big hit on Stars legend Mike Modano, knocking Modano out of the game. “Retribution” was the hot word of the night. And the Stars went after Roenick hard.
While on the power play in the first period, Roenick took the puck behind the Dallas net, moving fast along the boards. Stars defenceman Darian Hatcher saw his opportunity to put the huge hit on JR, and he took big time advantage of it. Hatcher charged in, left his feet and led with his elbow, smashing Roenick’s face hard into the glass, breaking his jaw in multiple places. Roenick stayed on the ice for only a few seconds before getting back up on his skates. As Hatcher was being ejected from the game, Roenick skated back to the bench, spat out a mouth full of blood, then stuck his fingers into his mouth and adjusted the shattered remnants of his jaw. Then he skated back out to take another shift. It was later revealed that a moment earlier in the same play, Roenick had taken a slash and also broken his thumb. While it was obvious he was continuing to play with a badly broken jaw, he didn’t let on to anybody, even his own teammates about the thumb until after the game.
As previously mentioned, Scott Stevens was one of the hardest hitters in the history of the game. Just ask Eric Lindros about it, and he’ll probably tell you he can’t really remember too much. But ask any player of the era that didn’t suffer brain loss at Stevens’ hands, and they’ll likely tell you he scared the crap out of anyone who dared touch the puck while he was on the ice. Stevens already contributed to this list when he laid out Paul Kariya in tough moment No. 8. But consider this fact while watching the video of that tremendous hit: that hit occurred a couple weeks AFTER Stevens had suffered a career-ending head injury.
Stevens retired on September 5, 2005 after missing half of the ’03-’04 season due to a concussion, and the ’04-’05 season due to the lockout. The concussion was diagnosed in January of 2004. The concussion actually occurred, however, when Stevens was hit in the head with a slapshot in Game 3 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Semifinals. So, after sustaining a career ending concussion, Stevens finished one playoff series (scoring the game-winning goal in Game 4), completed two more, set a new record for playoff games played by a defenceman, put one of the biggest hits in Stanley Cup Playoff history on Kariya, won the Stanley Cup, went through an entire off-season, training camp, and half of the next season before finally being convinced by doctors that he had been hurt.
Mario Lemieux was simply one of the best. Many will argue that he was the best, even though Wayne Gretzky owns the NHL record book. In the 1992-’93 season, though, Lemieux proved that even elite scorers can also show amazing hockey-toughness.
Early in the 1992-93 season, Lemieux was on pace to break Gretzky’s records of 92 goals and 215 points. But on January 12, 1993, he shocked the hockey world by announcing he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the blood cells. As he began energy-draining aggressive radiation treatment, not only were his return to the season in doubt, but many doubted he would be able to return to the NHL at all. The treatment would last at least two months, and the time needed for recovery, if he was to recover, could be much longer. In his absence, the Penguins struggled and Buffalo’s Pat LaFontaine passed Lemieux up for the League’s scoring lead.
As it turned out, Lemieux’s recovery time would be surprisingly brief. On the last day of his radiation treatment, he left the hospital and made straight for the airport, flying to Philadelphia for the Penguin’s game against the Flyers that very night. Everyone, even his teammates, were shocked to see him in the locker room. Lemieux scored a goal and an assist on his first game back, and was named first star of the game. He even got a standing ovation from the Philadelphia fans, a truly rare feat for a player in a Pittsburgh sweater.
Lemieux was not done there. The cancer and his absence from the game had not slowed him down. If anything, they lit a fire under him, as Lemieux scored at an amazing 2.67 points per game pace after his return, and led the Penguins to 17 consecutive victories and a first overall finish. Lemieux also passed up LaFontaine and won the scoring title with 160 points (69 goals, 91 assists) in just 60 games.
We’ve all heard the expression, “When you fall off a horse, you’ve got to get right back on.” In 1989, Buffalo goaltender Clint Malarchuk took that sentiment to a whole other level, following one of the most horrifying moments in televised sports history.
On March 22, 1989, the Buffalo Sabres were hosting the St. Louis Blues. Near the end of the first period, St. Louis’ Steve Tuttle and Buffalo’s Uwe Krupp both crashed into Malarchuk at full speed while chasing the puck. In a freak accident, Tuttle’s skate blade caught Malarchuk in the neck and sliced open his interior carotid artery. As players, fans, and personnel looked on in horror, blood sprayed from the goalie’s neck and quickly formed a large pool on the ice below him. Dozens of fans in attendance became physically ill at the sight, and several reportedly passed out. Television announcers were at a loss for words and could only plead to the cameramen to cut away. Trainers and medical staff on hand quickly set into motion and rushed to the ice to help. Malarchuk rose under his own power, and with a trainer’s help, skated for the nearest door off the ice, which was just behind the net. Luckily, this door led to where the on-site emergency room was located, though Malarchuk later revealed he had no intention of reaching the team doctor.
Malarchuk claimed that he was only trying to get off the ice and away from the TV cameras as quickly as possible because he knew that his mother was watching the game on TV, and he didn’t want her to see him die. He was so convinced he was about to die he told an equipment manager to call his mother and tell her that he loved her, and then asked for a priest. Instead of a priest, Malarchuk got quick-working medical staff, who were able to halt the bleeding and stabilize him for transport to a local hospital. Three-hundred stitches later, the wound was closed, and Malarchuk had survived, though quite narrowly. Had the cut occurred 1/8 of an inch higher on his carotid, doctors estimate he would have been dead in minutes. Also, had the accident happened in the second period, with Malarchuk at the opposite end of the ice from the medical room, he probably would not have made it.
While Malarchuk’s toughness surely played a role in his survival, real credit belongs to the trainers and medical staff who acted quickly to save his life. His toughness, though, came into play a surprisingly short time later. A mere four days after nearly dying on the ice, Malarchuk reported back to the Sabres for practice. A week after that, he was back between the pipes for a game against the Quebec Nordiques. “Doctors told me to take the rest of the year off,” he said. “But there’s no way…I play for keeps.”
WARNING: The following video of Malarchuck’s injury is extremely graphic. If you have a weak stomach or don’t like the sight of blood, you probably shouldn’t watch it. The second video is an interview conducted a few days later, which is rated G.
The injury: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dR-wA4SmbO4
The post-injury interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5ek_3zo8XM
The Chicago Blackhawks joined the NHL in 1926, and for their first several years set up camp at the bottom of the league standings. Things began to look up for the Hawks in the early 30’s, though, thanks to their star goaltender, Charlie Gardiner. In the 1933-’34 season, the Hawks made the playoffs with an admirable record, thanks largely to Gardiner’s solid 1.73 GAA and 10 shutouts. As the season wore on, however, those close to Gardiner noticed bazaar changes in his mood and behavior. Gardiner was suffering from a chronic tonsil infection, though he successfully hid it from everyone, including his teammates and family. The infection may have affected his behavior, as he became short tempered and intensely obsessed with winning.
The Blackhawks advanced through the playoffs and into the Stanley Cup finals, where they faced the Detroit Red Wings. The longer the playoff run lasted, however, the sicker and more fatigued Gardiner got. It began to show to his coach, Frank Gorman, who quietly shared his concerns with Gardiner’s teammates. The pain Gardiner was in began to show, but he became more and more obsessed with winning the Cup, and would not be told to sit out.
The Hawks won the first pair of games in the best-of-five series, and found themselves one win away from the team’s first Stanley Cup. After losing Game 3 by a score of 5-2, Gardiner told his teammates in the locker room, “Look, all I want is one goal next game. Just one goal and I’ll take care of the other guys.” Fighting through fatigue, illness, and pain, Gardiner kept his promise, and held off every Wing attack through 60 minutes of regulation play. The third period ended in a 0-0 tie. Gardiner continued to battle and keep the game scoreless through the first overtime, and into the second. The Chicago goalie weakened as the game dragged on, but he still found the strength to turn aside each Detroit shot that came his way. After 90 minutes of courageous play by the ailing goalie, his team finally pulled through for him and scored the game winner. The Chicago Blackhawks had won their first Stanley Cup. Charlie Gardner died in a Winnipeg hospital less than two months later.
As Jeremy Roenick proved earlier in this slideshow, hockey players can tough out a broken bone or two without problem. But broken bones in the face and broken bones in the leg are two very different stories in a game played on skates.
In 1964, the Toronto Maple Leafs faced the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Leafs entered Game 6 of the series down three games to two, and needed a hero to keep their Cup dreams alive. They got that hero in the form of defenceman Bobby Baun.
Late in the third period, Baun blocked a Gordie Howe shot with his ankle and immediately crumbled to the ice. He tried to get up, but could not put any weight on the leg. He eventually was carried off the ice on a stretcher, and everyone assumed he was out for the remainder of the series.
In the locker room, Baun refused to go to the hospital for x-rays, and insisted the doctor simply freeze his ankle, tape it tightly, and let him back out on the ice. The game ended in a tie, and as the teams skated out for the overtime period, Baun came out of the locker room ready to play. Two minutes into overtime, Baun took the puck across the blue line and ripped a shot past Terry Sawchuk to win the game and tie the series.
After Game 6, Baun would not allow his ankle to be x-rayed. He knew from the excruciating pain that x-ray results could very well force him to sit out Game 7, and he had no such intentions. So he taped it up tightly again, took some pain-killers, and laced up his skates for the deciding game. Baun didn’t miss a shift in Game 7, and the Leafs, riding the momentum from his overtime winner the game before, coasted to a 4-0 victory, and their third consecutive Stanley Cup. After the series was over, Baun finally reported to a hospital, where x-rays revealed his ankle had been badly broken.
There’s no question Maurice “the Rocket” Richard was one tough guy. He set a single-game scored record (eight points) after spending all day moving his family across town and telling coach Dick Irvine he was too tired to play. He decked a goalie and scored a goal with a 210 lb. defenceman on his back (literally on his back, with both arms and legs wrapped around him). He was infamously suspended for punching out a referee. He battled through injuries, prejudice, death threats, and every goon opposing teams could send after him to become the first player to score 50 goals in a season and 500 goals in a career. But on April 8, 1952, Richard provided us with the image that is the very definition of hockey tough.
It was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals between the Montreal Canadiens and their hated rival, the Boston Bruins. These were the days before players wore helmets, and this lead to a very scary moment for the Canadiens. As Richard drove hard towards the net, he was upended by a Bruins defenceman, and fell to the ice head-first. Blood pooled around his head as the crowd let out a collective gasp, and Richard laid motionless on the ice. Richard soon regained a state of semi-consciousness and was helped by teammates off the ice and into the locker room. As doctors stitched up the large gash on his forehead, fans feared what would become of the Habs without their star scorer.
Late in the third period, with the game tied at one a piece, Richard shocked the fans and his team mates by reappearing on the Canadiens’ bench, a bandage covering his forehead and his sweater stained with blood. Concussed and dazed, Richard then hopped over the boards and chased down the puck in the defensive zone. With blood still trickling down his face from the freshly-stitched contusion, Richard skated coast-to-coast, stick-handling through the entire Bruins team and then beat Bruins goaltender Sugar Jim Henry to score the series-deciding goal. Many have called it “the greatest goal in the history of the game.”
A remarkable photo was snapped immediately after the game, as the players met at center ice to shake hands. The photo shows Richard, blood trickling down his face and onto his sweater, shaking hands with Henry, who had two black eyes and a broken nose from injuries suffered earlier in the series. The timeless photo stands not only as the definition of sportsmanship, but also of hockey toughness.