Love it or hate it, fighting is as much a part of hockey as Zambonis and shaking hands at the end of a playoff series.
In the past, the only way to make sure your star player received fair treatment was the threat of retribution. The prevailing philosophy was, “If you hurt our best player, we’ll make sure you wish you didn’t.” As recently as the late ‘90s, teams would be crazy not to keep at least one enforcer on their roster.
While today’s NHL emphasizes speed and skill, players like Derek Boogaard and Donald Brashear are still employed for the same reasons Tony Twist and Tie Domi were kept around: Protect the stars.
But on a franchise known more for scoring goals than KO's, finding enough players to fill out a top 10 list was hard enough. Ranking them only exacerbated the situation.
When it comes to goonery, the Detroit Red Wings are one of the last teams that come to mind. However, if you look at their roster over the decades, you can compile a who’s who of NHL pugilists.
The only player on this list still with the organization, Downey’s two seasons with the Wings were productive from a pugilistic point of view. The year before Downey’s arrival, Detroit took a total of six fighting penalties. In Downey’s two seasons, he accounted for nine of the team’s 19 fights.
Downey was a locker room favorite, and Coach Mike Babcock always had high praise for Downey’s energy, attitude, and willingness to stand up for teammates.
He only played 40 games for the Wings this past season, but May’s history as an enforcer certainly preceded his arrival.
May did most of his damage, ahem, work in Buffalo. Playing in 425 games for the Sabres, May racked up 1,323 penalty minutes, and many memorable fights.
In Detroit, he was simply insurance for players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. May averaged just under seven minutes a game, and was sent back down to Grand Rapids in early February.
“Terrible” Ted was a member of the famous “Production Line,” along with Gordie Howe and Sid Abel. Being on a line with the 6’1”, 205-pound Howe, an enforcer wasn’t necessary, but that didn’t stop Lindsay.
Lindsay earned his nickname with his physical play. His hits became so notorious, the league singled him out as the primary reason for adopting elbowing and kneeing penalties.
In 862 career games with the Red Wings, Lindsay amassed 1,423 penalty minutes
McCarty gained his fan favorite status as the enforcer for the Wings from 1993 to 2004. Being the most physical member of the “Grind Line,” he was no stranger to the other team’s toughest.
Perhaps his most memorable and endearing fight was that against Claude Lemieux on March 26, 1997. Avenging Lemieux’s previously questionable hit on Kris Draper in the prior season’s playoff run, McCarty took Lemieux to the ice and proceeded to give every Wings fan what they desperately wished they could do themselves.
After the 2004-05 lockout, the team cut ties with him due to salary cap restrictions, but he remains one of the fans’ most beloved Red Wings.
Best known for holding the NHL’s scoring record, Howe’s early career wasn’t all highlight reel goals and setting records.
With the necessary size and strength, Howe was a physical presence on the ice. To go with his scoring and playmaking ability, he routinely got into fights. He fought so much his rookie season, then-coach Jack Adams had to pull him aside and tell him, “I know you can fight. Now show me you can play hockey.”
It was this all-around ability on the ice that gave way to the term “Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” referring to any player who scores a goal, records an assist, and gets into a fight in the same game.
“Mr. Hockey” could indeed do it all.
Despite spending only 68 games with the team, “The Grim Reaper” helped maintain the reputation passed down from previous legends, Bob Probert and Joey Kocur: The Wings are skilled, but won’t back down from a fight.
Grimson amassed 165 penalty minutes in his stay with the Wings, building rivalries with noted fighters Darren Langdon, Enrico Ciccone, and Randy McKay. He also helped pave the way for future fan favorites, Darren McCarty and Martin Lapointe.
While he only suited up for 55 games with the Wings, you simply cannot have an “All-Time Enforcers” list without Williams.
Easily the most feared fighter of his era, Williams still managed to find willing opponents and rack up penalty minutes. During that 1984-85 season with Detroit, Williams amassed 158 penalty minutes.
He's still the all-time leader in penalty minutes.
Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay aside, the names on this list had one primary objective: Defend the Wings’ best players and intimidate the opposition. While Martin Lapointe certainly did that, he also had some skill in front of the net and could actually produce a goal or two.
Three years after getting his first shot at the big time, Lapointe proved he was more than just a fighter. He not only played his role as co-enforcer, but spent plenty on time on the power play. Playing the role that Tomas Holmstrom now occupies, Lapointe had five straight seasons of at least 15 goals, netting 27 in his last season with the Wings.
With Stu Grimson on the team, the pair made quite an impression on the opposition. Grimson received most of the penalty minutes, but that could be attributed to Lapointe’s strength and fearsome right hand.
While NHL pugilists are known for being the strongest men on their team, Lapointe was on another level. His fights usually ended one of two ways: His opponent thrown to the ground, or knocked out.
One half of the “Bruise Brothers,” Kocur helped police a Red Wings’ team that languished around the .500 mark all season. While there may not have been a whole lot to play for, he was more than willing to fight to make sure his team received some respect.
After playing four years in the WHL and AHL, Kocur was determined to make an impact if he ever got to the NHL. In his first extended stay with the Wings, he posted nine goals, six assists, and 377 penalty minutes.
Kocur’s right hand was devastating. In an interview with Kocur, noted tough guy Donald Brashear told him that during a fight, Kocur had cracked Brashear’s helmet and left him so sore he was unable to eat for a couple days.
Kocur is still second on the Wings’ all-time list in penalty minutes with 1,963.
For eight years, Probert was one of the most feared men in the NHL. And good thing too, because there wasn’t much else to fear on those Red Wings teams.
Outside of stars Steve Yzerman and Adam Oates, those Wings’ rosters didn’t boast the talent and skill of today’s team. Most of Probert’s fights during this era resulted from ongoing feuds with the likes of Tie Domi and Stu Grimson.
As unlikely a sight as it was, Probert was named to the 1987 All-Star Game, recording an assist on a Wayne Gretzky goal. That season, Probert finished with 29 goals, 33 assists, and 398 penalty minutes.
In 474 games with the Wings, he accumulated a team-record 2,098 penalty minutes
Despite moving to the rival Blackhawks in 1995, he remained a fan favorite.