NHL Power Rankings: the 20 Toughest Players to Ever Play the Game

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIMay 25, 2011

NHL Power Rankings: the 20 Toughest Players to Ever Play the Game

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    Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins had a thsound mile stare, and was one of the tougest guys to play the game.Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    This is not a list of the top 20 fighters of all time.

    While there will be fighters on this list, this is more of an examination of guys who embodied toughness and determination in their own ways.

    Is Mike Modano as tough as, say, Stu Grimson, because he played through a severe injury en route to a Stanley Cup Championship?  Some would argue that, while he doesn't take punches for a living, Modano was every bit as tough as Grimson—just in a different way.

    He embodied toughness and determination.

    When you look down a team's bench, who has the fire burning in their eyes when it matters most?  When there is a call to be answered?

    For this list I am going to do my best to consider everything.  But what counts the most here is the guts to take hit after hit and keep coming back.  To constructively play a tough, hard edged game and find an important place on your team.

    Fighters have found their way here.  Tough Captains who never said die are on the list as well.  Road block type defensemen, and impossible-to-slow-down power forwards are here as well.

    Creating a list with some many variables has been daunting, but fun.  I'm sure every person's list would be a bit different, and feel free to let me know why you think I am spot on or way off base in the comments.

    Without further delay, I present to you the 20 toughest players in NHL history.

Ron Hextall

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    In an age where the League seems to be filled with goaltenders ready to take the big plunge every time they get touched, Ron Hextall stuck up for himself and his paint every night—all hope abandon, ye who enter here kind of stuff.

    As far as the NHL goes today, Hextall is a player who would have spent half of every season suspended, but in the context of the time period he played the dude was just an angry player who wasn't about to be pushed around.

    Some of his stick work is deplorable, but there is little doubt the Hextall is one of the fiercest competitors to have played the game.

    Oh, and he was a pretty decent goaltender there for a while too. 

    He is one of the few players on a losing Stanley Cup Finals team to win a Conn Smythe, and even scored a few goals.  He was one of the pioneers of mobile goaltenders, acting as a third defensemen in most cases and undoubtedly inspired some of the best masked men in the league today.

    For influencing the game the way that he did, while not being a flopper of a goaltender and sticking up for himself, Hextall makes this list

Zdeno Chara

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    Zdeno Chara is a tower of a man, and has enough wing span to play the defensive position all by himself should a teammate find themselves out of their place.

    While he hasn't been dropping the gloves as often since arriving in Boston, Chara isn't afraid to stick up for himself or for members of the Bruins.

    Just ask Scott Hartnell.

    He's 6'9", and as such is the tallest player to ever play in the NHL.  And he uses that size wisely.  Lets be honest:  If he wanted to he could destroy a player legally with a body check every shift he took if he wanted to.  But he doesn't.

    Chara is a bit of a sleeping beer.  Disturb him, and you're going to look kind of foolish and ragdollish.

    There is probably a reason he doesn't fight more, and that is a lack of willing opponents.  Why would you want to drop 'em with this guy?

    He's a minute munching blueliner, who has a cannon for a shot.  One of the hardest ever, actually.  105 miles per hour.

    Sheesh.

    For being a hard hitter, a willing combatant, and a physically imposing presence constantly, Chara makes the list. 

Tony Twist

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    My Hockey Gods.  That right hand is terrifying.

    I think Tony Twist is one of the few fighters who could merely pretend to throw a punch with a small flinch and send his opponent jumping backwards. 

    Two for flinching?  How about a trip to the infirmary?

    Hockey fights are generally fun to watch—boxing on ice at best.  Twister threw punches that made onlookers grimace at the sheer force of the impacts.  Every single fist he tossed seemed able and likely to dismember.

    Twist was probably more fit for the UFC than the NHL—he fought with reckless abandon, and bloodied many a foe.  Twister made a career out of protecting Brett Hull in St. Louis, who (oddly enough) generally went unbothered as he went about his goal scoring ways. 

    While he probably wouldn't be able to play in the NHL today, as there are few "just" fighters left, Twist carved a name for himself in tough guy lore by packing bricks for hands and never backing down from an opponent.

    For a sick, sick right hand, and for putting on some of the best fights ever, Twister makes the list.

Mark Messier

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    Mark Messier makes this list for his leadership and determination. 

    There are few players you'd rather have wearing the C for your club.

    His never said die attitude and intensity pushed players to new heights, and inspired teammates and fans alike.  He is the only professional athlete to ever captain two separate teams to a Championship, and was a competitor down to the last fiber in his being.

    He was also a feared player on the ice, and played with a physical edge.  Read: he had a penchant for throwing elbows and could definitely bring the aggression when it was needed.

    A beloved player in Edmonton and New York, Messier goes down as one of most inspiring and tough players ever,  And for that, he makes this list.

Steve Yzerman

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    No one can deny that Steve Yzerman's ability to play through pain make him one of the toughest, most competitive players to ever lace up a pair of skates.

    In 2001-2002, Yzerman willed his way through the playoffs after missing 30 regular season games with a knee injury.  After winning the Cup on for the third time in his illustrious career on one leg, he underwent knee alignment surgery.

    The procedure is called a osteotomy.  For those wondering why coming back from this makes him tough, feel free to check out the description here.

    If you're pressed for time, the procedure is more or less meant to help older people with arthritis simply walk again.  After missing 66 games to rehab from the osteotomy, no. 19 returned to the lineup to play a professional hockey game.

    Then in a 2004 playoff game, Yzerman caught a deflected slap shot to the face, shelving him for the remainder of the postseason.  Ouch.

    After undergoing surgery on his shattered orbital bone, he returned for one more season in 2005.  This is impressive to me because this is clearly a guy with little left to prove.  I won't list the accolades here, but the list is long.

    He loved the game.  More than he loved his own health and well-being.  And for that, Steve Yzerman makes this list of tough guys.

Wendel Clark

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    Wendel Clark is one of the most beloved Maple Leafs to ever play the game.  And it would be one thing if he were a Florida Panther.  But Clark was born to play in Toronto.

    And did the fans of the team ever take notice.

    This was a guy who did everything it took to win, and then some, when a franchise needed it the most.  Never backing down from a battle—be it in the corner for a puck, in front of the net for position, or in a scrap, Clark embodied the kind of hockey Canadian hockey fans had been hurting for in Toronto.

    He stuck up for teammates whenever he could, and his most famous bout came while sticking up for Doug Gilmour in 1993.  I get goosebumps, watching the all-heart Clark go all out for a teammate like that.

    For bringing true grit along with talent to Toronto, and playing the game the way it was meant to be played, Clark makes the list of all-time great tough guys.

Cam Neely

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    Cam Neely is considered to be the prototypical power forward. 

    If you have a big guy with that scoring touch that doesn't seem to quite get it, you sit him down and have him watch tapes of Neely playing the game.

    Neely was a player who could terrify an entire hockey team at once.  Opposing forwards didn't want to get hit by him, defenses didn't want to get burned by him, and goaltenders didn't want to look silly at his expense. 

    He made a career out of doing all three.

    Standing at 6'1" and weighing in at 215 pounds, Neely rocked players with his body checks, and bewildered goaltenders with his quick and accurate shot.  He has the fourth best goals-per-game average of all time, coming in behind the likes of Gretzky, Lemieux, and Hull (Brett).

    And none of those guys were known for fighting and aggressive play like Neely was. 

    Because he put up points as well as PIMs, and was such an all-around threat on the score sheet, Cam Neely makes the tough guy list as the power forward you wish a guy on your favorite team would play like,

    (And Ulf Samuelsson is a hack.)

Jarome Iginla

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    Few forwards in the League today bring to the table all the tools like Jarome Iginla. 

    Like players Neely, and Brendan Shanahan before him, Iginla has a rare mix of skill, toughness, and charisma that make him leader material at any level of the sport.

    The thing I like most about him as a player is his class.  The way he takes of his helmet before fights, doesn't talk smack in the media, and plays the game with honor and sincerity.  I have a feeling that he'd be the same kind of guy if you talked to him in a bar as he displays on the ice.

    h\He's a supremely talented individual.  Iginla was one of the most consistent scorers of the 90's and early 2000's—between the span of 1998 and 2008, only Jaromir Jagr scored more goals than Iggy.

    There are not a lot of players who deserve a Cup ring more than the career long Flame, and I hope one day he gets to lift the mug. 

    He has represented Canada nationally on numerous occasions, and has two Olympic goal medals. 

    For his immense class, skill, and grit, Iginla makes this list of all time tough guys.

Dave Semenko

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    Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

    Dave Semenko was charged with protecting the greatest player to ever wear a sweater in the NHL, and he did it well.

    But Semenko was much more than a bodyguard—he was a charismatic staple in one of the best hockey dynasties of all time.  When he wasn't sticking up for his more talented teammates on the Edmonton Oilers in the 80's, he was usually standing in front of the net creating screens.

    He only had 65 goals in 575 games, but where would Gretzky have been in opposing teams could have taken liberties with the hard-to-hit, but still smallsh Great One? 

    One could argue that No. 99 may not have been quite as effective had a defensemen not had to worry about getting his face mashed in by Semenko for laying out Gretzky.  To show his appreciation for protecting him, and for his friendship off the ice, Gretzky gave the car he won as the all-star game MVP in 1983 to Semenko. 

    Now that's friendship!

    Semenko was there to protect the best player ever, and everyone else on one of the best teams ever assembled.  And for that, he makes this list as one of the toughest guys ever.

Scott Stevens

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    When you think open ice hit, odds are a Scott Stevens check comes to mind.  If you are thinking of a top ten list of the hardest hits you've ever witnessed, two or three probably belong to Stevens.

    Stevens laid waste to any player who came across his blueline with their head down—he was most well known for catching unsuspecting players cutting across the ice as they entered the defensive zone. 

    Say what you will about his hits being on the dirty side.  Trust me, I have no love lost for the guy.  But he played hard every shift, picked his spots, and was rarely caught out of position.  he anchored some of the better defensive units in recent memory on the Devils,

    He Captained the Devils to four finals appearances in nine years, and won the Cup three of those times.  He finished his career a plus-393, racked up over 900 career points and has the most PIMs out of any player currently in the Hall of Fame.

    C'mon.  You'd have loved him if he had been on your team.

    For his icy stare on the ice, his war-bringer hits, and his outstanding record in the playoffs, Stevens makes this list.

Joe Kocur

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    Few players could hit harder than Joe Kocur.

    He throws knock out punches with the frequency of Joe Thornton's assists.

    I think this quote from Donald Brashear  from a March 2007 interview really says it all:

    "Yes, once I had a scrap with Joey. I tried to stand for him, but he was punching and punching me. Kocur was hitting me in the helmet like a power hammer and in the end the helmet split! I remember the next day I had a terrible pain, my gums on the left side of my head were hurting even though he was hitting me on the right side of my face. I couldn't chew anything. I wonder what it would be if I did not have a helmet? Too scary."

    Brasher isn't an also-ran as far as being a tough guy goes—I'll give him the benefit of the doubt here.

    Kocur was also a member of Detroit's famed Grind Line, and could net timely goals.  He did just that while helping the Red Wings during their semi-dynasty years in the 90's.

    Because few not named Tyson hit harder, Kocur makes this tough guy list.  And if you don't think he deserves a spot, you can go tell him yourself.

Bob Probert

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    Bob Probert is one of the most frightening fighters to ever play in the NHL.  When he was on the ice, his intentions were generally clear:  to make an opponent regret some transgression against his team.  And he was good at his job

    Perhaps good is an understatement.

    The guy was the definition of a loose canon through out his career, even fighting players on his own team during practices.  At the end of the day, the message was clear:  don't mess with Probie or the guys wearing the same color as him.

    He had long standing rivalries with Wendel Clark, Stu Grimson, and Tie Domi, and was involved in some of the best hockey fights ever—including this classic with Marty McSorley.

    While clearly known for his fighting, he was still an effective hockey player before fighter-net presence hybrids were the rage that they are today.  He had 384 points in his career, including a few 40 point efforts with the Red Wings and Blackhawks in the 90's.

    Which is impressive, considering he spent a remarkable 3,300 minutes in the penalty box—good for fifth all time.

    Because Probert could hurt you in separate ways as a player (fighting and scoring), he makes this list.

Dale Hunter

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    Warrior.

    That's the word that comes to mind when Dale Hunter is mentioned.

    A warrior who would do anything it took to win, and wasn't outside of cheap-shots and nasty plays.  But that's what warrior does.  Tries his damnedest to win wars.

    He was arguably the most talented pest type player since Bobby Clarke, and his numbers prove it.  He is the lone man to ever play in the NHL to amass 300 goals, 1,000 points, and 3,000 PIMS.  Pretty astounding, all things considered.

    He was an excellent two way forward that excelled in the defensive zone, and stirred the pot at any opportunity with his downright mean spirited play.  He gained as much notoriety for his dirty plays as he did for his nose for the net.

    The most famous incident occurred when attacked Pierre Turgeon after he scored a goal in the playoffs that all but sealed the fate of Hunter's Capitals. 

    Now that's unsportsmanlike.  That's a guy who hates nothing more in this life than to lose.

    And while I don't excuse that kind of play, his iron approach to the game, along with his ability to play the game well land Hunter on this list.

Brendan Shanahan

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    Brendan Shanahan was Cam Neely reincarnate.  If Neely had been allowed to finish out his career, he'd have probably ended up with Shanahan-like numbers.

    But as it stand now, Shanny is the only NHL player ever to record over 600 goals and yield 2,000 PIMS.  Perhaps it was his Irish temper, but he had a way of getting into a bit of trouble on the ice without ever crossing the line.

    He fought when he needed to, hit when he needed to, and could score with the best of them.

    Shanahan was the player that pushed the Detroit Red Wings over the edge when they won their Cup in 1996, and quickly became a fan favorite at the Joe.

    He is also a member of one of the most elite clubs in hockey, the Triple Gold club, in that he has won an Olympic Gold, a gold medal in the World Championships, and a Stanley Cup.

    Because of his place among giants as a 600 goal scorer, and his place amongst warriors with over 2,000 PIMs, Shanahan makes this list.

Chris Pronger

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    Chris Pronger is an equal opportunity hater.

    And all the guy does is win.

    (Yeah.  I hate him too.)

    There are fans in 29 cities that Pronger doesn't play for, and I'm sure if given the opportunity every single one of them would hit him with a foreign object, be it a snowball or a steel chair or a moving car. 

    And there is a reason for that.

    The guy plays on the edge, and can be counted on to cross it at least once a season.  Everything that he does seems to have a purpose, ranging from stealing pucks to cross checks, to knowing what to say to a player, he is tends to be a step ahead in the mental games department.

    And no one knows how to wear a team or player down, both mentally and physically, through a seven game series like Chris Pronger.  No one.

    (Yeah...  I really hate him too.)

    Aside from eliciting hate from opposing players, fans, and members of the media, Pronger finds time to be a pretty darn effective hockey player as well.  He has played in 171 playoff games, and scored 121 points through those all important games.

    For reasons that I am not allowed to print (both due to the explicit nature of the comments, and my fear that he would find out and come find me) Chris Pronger makes the list of the toughest players ever.

Tiger Williams

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    It wouldn't be a list of tough guys without Tiger Williams.

    Best known for being the all-time leader in PIMs with a 3,966 during the regular season, Williams could also play a productive role in the offensive zone.  He had 513 points to go along with the PIMs in 962 games played.

    As a guy who left it all out on the ice, he was also a driving force in the locker room as well.  Williams had no issue telling guys when they were slumping, or having a bad game.  This made the Tiger mentality a contagious ones, and the teams he played for had reputations for being hard working, productive clubs.

    Because he could score goals, make those around him better with his attitude and accountability, and spent more than two and a half days of his life in the penalty box, Tiger Williams makes this list.

Dave "The Hammer" Schultz

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    Some say that Dave Schultz was the most notoriously bad man in NHL history.

    I'm inclined to agree.

    Any member of the Broad Street Bullies could make this list, but the Hammer and Clarke are prime examples of what kind of hockey the Flyers were playing through the 70's.

    There must have been something to their style, since they won back-to-back Cups in '74 and '75.

    Which is ironic, since Schultz has been so outspoken against reckless hockey violence since his retirement.  Though when he played, he was as tough a middle weight as could be found.  He wasn't the best fighter, even on his own team, but the fact was he still dropped the gloves and took the heat for his teammates.

    He is the only player to ever break the 400 PIMs in a season mark on two separate occasions,  The first time he did so was in the '74-'75 season, when he broke (and still holds) the record for most penalty minutes in a season with 472.

    472.

    To put that in perspective, it has taken Matt Cooke 14 NHL seasons to double that number.  So, in summary, The Hammer racked up the PIMs in a single season that took an agitator like Cooke seven years to match.

    For the reason, Dave Schultz goes down as one of the baddest players ever, and makes this list with ease.

Eddie Shore

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    Eddie Shore started play with the Boston Bruins in 1926, and showed people in the United States what hockey was all about.

    The hard working, physically intense, rough and tumble side of the game, along with the grace and beauty of it, all rolled into one perfectly timed package of a player.

    He was fearless, tough, and supremely talented.  He was also known as a player who could skate for an entire hockey game, sometimes spending over 50 minutes out on the ice without leaving the ice—unless it was for a penalty, of course. 

    Shore has a drive to make those around him better (something a lot of players on this list have in common), and would always spend time during practices helping players improve their skating and shots.

    For showing United States fans what hockey was truly all about—selflessness, talent, grace, brutality, work ethic, and determination—Shore makes this list.

Bobby Clarke

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    Where to begin.

    He was the Captain of the Broad Street Bully era Flyers in the 70's—probably the toughest hockey team to ever take the ice.  The team followed their leader's example, and played a rough, kill or be killed brand of hockey on their way to two Stanley Cup Championships.

    Clarke was the kind of player who could win the Hart trophy and fill up the net with goals.  He was also the kind of player who would do anything to avoid losing.  The most famous example of this came in the '72 Summit Series, where he slashed out the ankle of opponent Valeri Kharlamov—a play that remains controversial to this day.

    1,210 points in 1,144 games.  And a whopping 1,453 PIMs.

    For an illustrious playing career that filled his mantle, and a tougher than nails game that inspired a generation, Clarke makes this list.

Gordie Howe

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    You don't earn, and then maintain, the nickname Mr. Hockey for no reason.

    Gordie Howe could do it all.  Maurice Richard said it after his retirement.

    Howe's number hangs from the rafters of Joe Louis Arena, his name is engraved on the Stanley Cup four times, he won six Hart trophies, lead the NHL in scoring on five separate occasions, and was a top-five NHL scorer in 20 consecutive seasons.

    Ridiculous.

    While there was no player up until Gretzky who matched Howe's talent, no one player has ever fused both toughness and ability into one package.

    Howe was known through his 32 year career (!) for his tendency to elbow the bejesus out of anyone who dared approach him while he was carrying the puck—by most accounts, you were more likely to stop a freight train than Howe.

    And is there a more fitting tribute to a player than the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick?" 

    When a basketball player triple-doubles, is isn't called the Michael Jordan Accomplishment.  When an MLB player launches a walk off homer, it isn't deemed a Babe Ruth Home Run.

    Yet in hockey, if you have one goal, one assist, and one fight, you have completed a very noteworthy sequence of events.  Few things will light up the blogsphere like a Gordie Howe hat trick.

    Because players like this don't come along.  Ever.

    And because of his generational transcendence, and because he played like this through and dominated three generations of hockey, Gordie Howe is the toughest NHL player of all time.