The Montreal Canadiens are an organization that has never been known for their fighters. Historically they have prided themselves on skill, speed and finesse. Rarely mentioned in the histories are the players who have to handle the fighting for Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
Those players do however exist. During Dick Irvin's tenure as coach from 1940 until Toe Blake was brought in to replace him in 1955 he made an active attempt to recruit more physical players and to encourage a more passionate style of play.
During the 1980s, and especially in the battle of Quebec years, the Canadiens team was often among the league leaders in fighting majors.
This is my attempt to rank the men who were the toughest fighters in Montreal Canadiens history. The players are ranked according to toughness, fighting ability, the length of time they took on this role in Montreal, and how often they fought. As with any list like this a great deal of subjectivity comes into the ranking.
Thanks to Trent Frayne and his book The Mad Men of Hockey for stories of some of the fighters from the earliest days in Montreal. Also thanks to DropYourGloves.com for the fighting numbers, from the earliest NHL years to today.
The Montreal Canadiens signed Georges Laraque as a free agent to be their enforcer in 2008.
He had been plying that trade for a decade in the NHL and certainly while in Edmonton had developed a reputation as one of the best fighters in hockey.
His two years and 51 regular season games in Montreal saw him score one goal, five points and accumulate 89 minutes in penalties. He was in 13 fights in Montreal.
By the time Laraque came to Montreal the former NHL heavyweight champ seemed to be having a problem with the role he was being asked to play.
Laraque was certainly one of the toughest fighters ever to play in Montreal, but he was not that when he played in Montreal.
Defenceman Terry Harper had the role of enforcer thrust upon him in the late 1960s. It was never one he was suited for.
While strong and a reasonably sized, physical defenceman Harper possessed very few fighting skills. The tough but gangly Harper would invariably hang on to his opponent and try to keep him close, leading to a large group of wrestling matches.
Terry Harper was a tough NHL fighter, he just was not a very successful one.
On occasion opponents would get loose on him and pound him pretty thoroughly. Harper though had the ability to absorb that punishment and still come back every time.
Thankfully the Montreal Canadiens finally found John Ferguson to take over the fighting duties for the often overmatched but willing Harper.
Terry Harper and Bob Pulford were famed as the players who continued their fight in the penalty box and led to the institution of separate penalty boxes in the NHL for members of each team. It is hard to imagine modern players sitting together peaceably in the same penalty box.
Marcel Bonin was famed as one of the strongest players in the league when he played in the '50s and '60s.
While a capable fighter, his reputation preceded him and he rarely had to fight during his time in Montreal.
The powerful winger saw most of his scraps in Montreal uniform devolve into wrestling matches.
Bonin spent five years with the Montreal Canadiens, often playing on their top line with Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion.
His career highlight came in the 1959 playoffs when both Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau missed most of the playoffs with injuries. Bonin scored 10 goals that playoff year to lead the team and had 15 points in 11 games.
He scored the the cup-winning goal that year and likely would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy had it been around back in 1959.
Doug Risebrough was a tough checking forward who played his first eight NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens from 1974-82.
The scrappy Risebrough was an agitator who was also perfectly willing to fight. Despite his size he would take on all comers.
Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Stan Jonathon and Jim Schoenfeld were among the players he fought.
Doug carved himself out a niche in Montreal as one of the better defensive forwards in the league.
Yvon Lambert was a top quality power forward at the AHL level. While not the force in the NHL he was in the AHL, he still managed to put together a good offensive NHL career.
He was a physical force throughout his career and on those '70s Montreal teams that fought little and scored much, he was on called to fight on occasion; Yvon always answered the bell.
He provided a physical presence while also giving his team 20-plus goals and 50-plus points a season. While he didn't fight often, when called on, he managed to with aplomb.
Mike McPhee was one of a crowd of Montreal Canadiens called on to handle some of the fighting during the 1980s in Montreal.
This period coincided with the addition of the Quebec Nordiques to the NHL and it was one of the few times in hockey history where the Montreal Canadiens were among the league leaders in fights.
McPhee did most of his fighting in his first two seasons in Montreal. Throughout his nine-year career in Montreal he could always be counted on to drop the gloves if he had to.
The fearsome fighter was the first ever to pile up 200 penalty minutes in one season; he led the NHL in penalty minutes three times, and once with Montreal.
He came to Montreal in the deal that sent Hall of Fame offensive-defenseman Doug Harvey off to New York.
Lou Fontinato was one of the toughest fighter ever to play for the Montreal Canadiens but he only lasted two seasons with the Habs. He suffered a career-ending injury that left him temporarily paralyzed and he was never able to play at an NHL level again.
If his time in Montreal had been longer he would have ranked much higher on this list, perhaps in the top five.
The able fighter, like Pierre Bouchard, is best known for the fights he lost, in this case to the legendary Gordie Howe.
Erwin Graves "Murph" Chamberlain was brought in by Canadiens coach Dick Irvin for the 1940-41 season to add toughness.
The physical Murph spent eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and was among the top 10 in penalty minutes for most of his career.
Chamberlain was seen as a hard man by contemporaries. He has been compared to Sprague Cleghorn, another Montreal Canadien tough guy from an earlier era.
Sheldon Souray spent five-and-a-half seasons in Montreal. The talented defender was a huge boon on the power play, where his scary shot often cleared out the front of the net.
Souray never fought a lot and injuries he has gotten fighting make you think he shouldn't fight at all, but while in Montreal when he fought, he won.
He has often been accused by detractors of being a guy who picked his spots to fight. One epic scrap with Derian Hatcher certainly let you know that he didn't always pick his opponents carefully and the fact that he won that fight let you know he didn't have to.
Souray always seems to be bigger than you think he is when he gets in a fight. He reminds me of Vincent Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla—he's a very talented player who is also a heck of a fighter.
Donald Brashear was a rarity in Montreal history: a legitimate heavyweight NHL fighter.
One of the toughest men and best fighters ever to put on a Canadiens uniform, he would have ranked much higher if he had stayed in Montreal longer.
He played 111 regular season games in his first four years in the league with Montreal. It was only 1995-96 that saw him get a chance to play in a significant number of games.
During those 67 regular season games in 1995-96 he put up 223 penalty minutes. According to HockeyFights.com he had 22 fights that year.
He generally fought all the other teams fighters and almost always to a decision. He was never one to hang on and pray until the linesman came in.
Emile "Butch" Bouchard was one of the strongest, toughest men ever to play hockey for the Montreal Canadiens.
After his first season in the league Bouchard rarely had to fight—his intimidating presence was often enough. He was as tough a hitter as there has been in this league.
The Hall of Famer spent his entire 15-year NHL career with the Canadiens.
Lyle Odelein spent the first seven years of his career in Montreal, and he fought more often with the Habs than any other team in his next nine seasons in the NHL.
Odelein was a tough, physical defenseman in Montreal. The stay-at-home defender was like many of the men who fought for the Canadiens—not a legitimate heavyweight.
He was busy in his tenure in Montreal taking on such all time tough men as Dave Brown, Bob Probert, Chris Simon, Marty McSorely and Tim Hunter.
He had his share of wins and losses and is one of the busiest fighters ever to drop the gloves in Montreal.
Shayne Corson was a Montreal Canadiens first-round pick (eighth overall) in 1984. He spent the first six years of his career in Montreal as a developing power forward.
He was around for most of the battle of Quebec years when Montreal and the Quebec Nordiques were uncharacteristically among the most fight-happy NHL teams..
Corson wasn't as big as most of the people he fought. Still he fought a lot, was fearless and reasonably successful.
Ken Reardon was a hockey Hall of Famer who didn't get there solely based on talent—Kenny was known for his toughness.
He was brought into the Montreal Canadiens fold by another Hall of Famer, coach Dick Irvin, who saw Kenny as a way to alleviate what he felt was a lack of passion and toughness in Montreal.
Ken Reardon had toughness in spades. He played a full speed ahead North-South game of hockey with never a sideways step.
Despite a three-year hiatus when he served with the Canadian army during WW II Reardon still managed a quality seven-year NHL career in Montreal.
Reardon was the childhood hero of modern day commentator Don Cherry, which probably tells you everything you need to know about his style of play.
Reardon was among the league leaders in penalty minutes every season he played. He was willing to drop the gloves and fight anyone who came his way.
Larry Robinson was one of the great defenseman ever to play the game. He was tough defensively, an offensive force, and he could fight.
Larry didn't fight a lot, but when he did, you noticed. A big man, with a ton of reach, he could and did take on the best fighters of his era.
He was too valuable to spend his time fighting but he would on occasion drop the gloves to make a point.
Pierre "Butch" Bouchard was a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens, and his father Emile "Butch" Bouchard had been a legendary Hall of Fame defenseman for the same team.
He was chosen third by the fans in a survey of the best "tough guys" of the first 100 years of Montreal Canadiens hockey.
Bouchard was the fourth or fifth defenseman on the Montreal Canadien legendary dynasty of the '70s.
On a team with no established designated fighter he was often thrust into that role versus the big bad Bruins and the Broad Street Bullies of that era. He fought everyone in the league at that time, and not always successfully.
When he fought the other team's goon he kept the much more valuable Larry Robinson from taking on fighting duties. His willingness to take on anyone, including Dave "The Hammer" Schutlz and Wayne Cashman, made up for the fact that he didn't fight a lot. He did suffer some epic losses, especially one to the much smaller Stan Jonathon.
He was a strong physical defenseman who carved out a role for himself in Montreal in the shadow of his Hall of Fame father. On occasion he had to fight to maintain that role.
Maurice Richard was known for his fiery passion for the game and his goal-scoring.
Again, Hall of Fame Coach Dick Irvin, who had already made several moves to toughen a Canadiens team he felt was too soft, is often credited with unleashing Richard's passion.
When that passion was unleashed it was often impossible to get it back under control.
Most of his passion was spent on his single-minded trek to the net as he became the most prolific scorer in NHL history. In 1952 he broke the career NHL scoring record.
Richard was also perfectly willing to fight all comers. In 1955 he had a particularly bellicose season. After a fight with Bob Bailey of the Maple Leafs he struck a linesman and received two misconduct penalties and a $200 fine.
Sprague Cleghorn was a legendary Montreal Canadiens defenseman who played for them in the early years of the NHL. He was known at the time as one of the most vicious players ever to play the game.
The '20s were a time when hockey was a violent a game as it ever was; reminiscent of the early years of boxing, it was definitely a bloody sport.
Despite joining brother Odie in Montreal and being named team captain he still insisted on assaulting all opponents with vigor.
He seemed to enjoy tormenting his former teammates from Ottawa; he put three Ottawa Senators out of a game in 1922.
As Trent Frayne reports in the chapter he dedicated to Cleghorn in his 1974 McClelland and Stewart Limited published book,The Mad Men of Hockey, he was one of the more universally despised opponents in hockey.
John Kordic's life had a tragic trajectory. He broke into the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the '85-86 season.
He ended up playing in 18 of Montreal's 20 playoff games that year as they won the Stanley Cup, and was brought in while Chris Nilan was still the reigning heavyweight enforcer in Montreal.
When Nilan was moved to the Rangers in 1988 Kordic looked poised to take over that role in Montreal. Instead Kordic himself was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs early the next year for tiny, talented Russ Courtnall.
John had a distinctive fast paced fighting style where he threw rapid-fire punches and was always moving forward. It allowed him to meet and beat some of the biggest heavyweights in the game at the time.
His tragic early death, at the age of 27, has left many wondering if John Kordic couldn't have been done more for the teams he played for.
Chris Nilan was one of the greatest fighters in Montreal Canadiens history. He played most of nine seasons in Montreal and came to them as a 19th round draft pick (231st overall) in 1978.
A slow skater, Chris made his living in the NHL fighting all comers. He was responsible for keeping other teams' tough guys in check and from messing with the team's goal-scorers.
Nicknamed "Knuckles" for the role he played on those Montreal teams, he developed some hockey skills with the ice time that his enforcer role granted him. In his last three full seasons in Montreal he scored 15, 21 and 19 goals and led the league in penalties in the first two of those years.
Chris has encountered problems in life during and post-hockey but refuses to attribute it to his tough-guy hockey days. His name is one that comes up when the fighting in the NHL debate heats up.
He was recently unfairly characterized in a negative fashion by the increasingly erratic Don Cherry on the nationanally broadcast (in Canada) "Coaches Corner."
Chris had a horribly tough role to play and he would take on all comers. He was as good a fighter as anyone who ever filled that role in Montreal.
John Ferguson was the NHL's undisputed heavyweight champion from the moment he entered the league in 1963 and until he left after Montreal's Stanley Cup season in '70-71.
He was not a big man by today's standards for a designated enforcer, but he was the best, most fearsome fighter of his era.
He earned 67 fighting majors among his 1,214 penalty minutes in 500 regular season games.
Ferguson could play the game. His 20 goals and 42 points were third on the team in '66-67, the last year of the six-team NHL. After expansion he managed a career-best 29 goals and 52 points in '68-69.
Ferguson's biggest role, however, was that of an enforcer. He ensured that the Montreal Canadiens' talents were free to play the game without fear of assault or injury.
He has sometimes been called the first enforcer, the first NHL player brought on to a team solely for his ability to fight.
I don't quite believe that, especially considering the offensive output he managed to generate, but he certainly made it possible for Montreal fans to embrace latter day fighting specialists like John Kordic and Chris Nilan.