10 NHL Greats Who Retired Too Early

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistNovember 14, 2013

10 NHL Greats Who Retired Too Early

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    On Wednesday, the Buffalo Sabres announced that they'd appointed Pat LaFontaine to the new position of president of hockey operations, as reported by Fox Sports. His return to his old team spurred some fond memories of the playing days of the former Sabres captain.

    After starting his career with the New York Islanders, LaFontaine played six seasons in Buffalo. He scored 53 goals in 1992-93 but became one of the early poster children for post-concussion syndrome, which eventually forced him into retirement.

    Whether it was due to injury issues, homesickness or simply a desire to try something new, here's a look at 10 NHL greats who left the game earlier than fans would have liked. 

Bobby Orr

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    Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 657 GP, 270 goals, 645 assists, 915 points

    Retired: 1978, age 30, due to a chronic knee injury

    Arguably the best defenseman ever to play the game and one of the greatest players of all time, Bobby Orr is the quintessential example of a player whose potential was derailed due to injury.

    During his 10 years as a Boston Bruin, Orr won eight Norris Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, three Hart Trophies and two Conn Smythe Trophies, as he led his team to the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972. Orr was notorious for his end-to-end offensive rushes, but when he crashed into the net during one of those rushes during his rookie season, he injured his left knee and set the stage for a career full of hurt.

    By the age of 27, Orr's knee was limiting his game action, and surgeries weren't making the situation any better. The superstar was damaged goods by the time he moved on to Chicago and hung up the skates for good after just 26 games in a 'Hawks uniform over three seasons, including missing the entire 1977-78 season.

Ken Dryden

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    Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 397 GP  258 wins, 57 losses, 74 ties, 870 goals against

    Retired: 1979, age 31

    Ken Dryden arrived like a thunderbolt in the National Hockey League in 1971.

    Originally drafted in 1964, the goaltender elected to forgo professional hockey at the time to pursue a degree in history at Cornell University while playing NCAA hockey.

    He joined the Montreal Canadiens near the end of the 1970-71 season and played well enough through the end of the regular season to earn the starter's job in the playoffs. The rookie cemented his place in Habs history, as he won the Conn Smythe Trophy and Montreal captured the Stanley Cup.

    Over the course of his career, Dryden added five more championships, a Calder Trophy and five Vezina Trophies to his collection. The Habs of the '70s made it seem so easy that the always curious Dryden continued to look elsewhere for stimulation.

    Unhappy with the contract he was offered in 1973-74, Dryden sat out for a year and pursued his law degree, then retired for good in 1979 after Montreal's fourth straight Cup win. He has gone on to become an author, a broadcaster, a politician and a Toronto Maple Leafs executive.

Mike Bossy

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    Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 752 GP  573 G, 553 A, 1,126 PTS

    Retired: 1987, age 30, due to a chronic back injury

    As a pure goal scorer, not many were better than Mike Bossy. He's the NHL leader in average goals scored per regular-season game and one of only five players ever to score 50 goals in 50 games.

    Bossy's stat line is unbelievable. He broke into the league in 1977-78, scoring 53 goals and winning the Calder Trophy, then scored 50 or more for the next eight consecutive years, setting a record that stands to this day.

    He also lit it up in postseason when the New York Islanders won their four Cups from 1980-83. Bossy is the only player with consecutive Stanley Cup-winning goals, in 1982 and 1983.

    After the Islanders dynasty ceded to the Edmonton Oilers, the team began to decline. Bossy logged two more 50-goal seasons before his back problems got the better of him, and he was forced to retire after the 1986-87 season.

Hakan Loob

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    Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 450 GP, 193 G, 236 A, 429 PTS

    Retired: 1989, age 28, to return to Sweden

    Not as high profile as most of the other players on this list, Hakan Loob was an offensive talent who was a key part of the Calgary Flames' best years in the late '80s.

    Loob came to the NHL at a time when European players were still quite rare. He scored 30 goals and 55 points in 1983-84, was named to the All-Rookie team, then became the first Swede ever to score 50 goals in 1987-88.

    Loob brought a sniper's touch to a talented Flames squad and was a key part of their trip to the finals in 1986 and their Stanley Cup victory in 1989.

    Despite his solid career and the Flames' promising future after their Cup win, Loob elected to leave Calgary that summer and return to Sweden, where he played seven additional seasons with Farjestad BK.

Mario Lemieux

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    Craig Jones/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 915 GP, 690 G, 1,033 A, 1,723 PTS

    Retired: 1997, age 31, due to lymphoma (1,494 points in 745 games)

    Returned in 2000 and retired a second time in 2006, age 40

    Mario Lemieux was 40 years old when he hung up his skates for good in 2006, but he makes the list because we all thought he was finished in 1997.

    Lemieux struggled through a mountain of adversity in his NHL career, missing more than 500 games during his playing days. His issues included back problems, tendinitis and Hodgkin's lymphoma, yet he still dazzled on the ice.

    Lemieux won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992 as well as numerous individual awards: the Calder Trophy, Lester Patrick Trophy, Masterton Trophy, three Hart Trophies, six Art Ross Trophies and two Conn Smythe Trophies. He won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and played on one of the greatest teams in Canadian history at the 1987 Canada Cup. 

    When Lemieux first retired in 1997, he was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and by 1999 he had purchased a stake in the Penguins. He returned to the ice in 2000 as a player-owner for the encore portion of his career and retains the majority stake in the team to this day.

Vladimir Konstantinov

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 446 GP, 47 G, 128 A, 175 PTS

    Retired: 1997, age 30, after a car accident during Stanley Cup celebrations

    A great NHL career ended tragically in the wee hours after the Detroit Red Wings' Stanley Cup parade and celebration on June 13, 1997. Wings defensemen Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov hired a limousine to get themselves and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov home from the party. Unfortunately, the driver lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree. 

    Fetisov escaped with a punctured lung and broken ribs. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov both suffered serious head injuries and each spent significant time in a coma. Over the years, Konstantinov's condition has improved, and he has regained some mobility, though he still has trouble speaking and walking.

    It was a sudden end to a great career and to the esteemed "Russian Five" group of Red Wings: Konstantinov and Fetisov, along with forwards Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov.

Pat LaFontaine

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    Ian Tomlinson/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 865 GP, 468 G, 545 A, 1,013 PTS

    Retired: last game 1998 (age 33), officially retired in October 1999

    With an average of 1.17 points per game in his NHL career, Pat LaFontaine is one of the best Americans ever to play hockey. He helped set the stage for the strong contingent of U.S.-born players now making their mark as part of the next generation.

    LaFontaine started his career in 1983-84 with the New York Islanders, just as their championship dynasty was ending. As the core group was aging, he was looked upon as the key to the next generation.

    He had a solid career with the Islanders, though they did not get back to their winning ways. LaFontaine may be best remembered for his quadruple-overtime game-winning goal against the Washington Capitals in 1987.

    LaFontaine suffered his first serious concussion from an open-ice hit by the New York Rangers' James Patrick in the 1990 playoffs. Unable to agree to a new contract with the Islanders a year later, he was traded to Buffalo in October of 1991.

    His first full season with the Sabres was magical. In 1992-93, LaFontaine scored a career-high 53 goals and 148 points, the most ever by an American-born player. 

    LaFontaine never played a full season again. He suffered six major concussions over the course of his career and finally hung up his skates for good after a collision with his teammate Mike Keane in 1998.

Pavel Bure

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    Mike Powell/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 702 GP, 437 G, 342 A, 779 PTS

    Retired: last game 2003 (age 32), officially retired in November 2005 due to a chronic knee injury

    At age 41, Jaromir Jagr is the best forward on the New Jersey Devils early in the 2013-14 season.

    Just one year older than the big Czech, Pavel Bure recently returned to the city where his NHL career began to have his number retired, already 10 years removed from his last game.

    Like a race car or a rocket, Bure's explosive speed wore down his body before its time. Pavel's game was all about dynamic end-to-end rushes, weaving his way through defenders at top speed, then finishing with creativity that left goalies shaking their heads in disbelief.

    As a young player with the Vancouver Canucks, Bure was a fearless machine, but his magic started to evaporate after he suffered a knee injury near the start of the 1995-96 season that knocked him out of action for the year.

    Bure led the NHL with 60 goals in 1993-94 and went on to win the Rocket Richard trophy two years running after he was traded to the Florida Panthers, but he was never quite the same as before the injury.

    A series of health issues slowed him down in Florida. He was traded to the New York Rangers in March of 2002 but soon suffered another knee injury and managed just 51 games on Broadway before hanging up the skates for good.

Eric Lindros

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    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Career Stats: 760 GP, 372 G, 493 A, 865 PTS

    Retired: 2007, age 34, due to chronic injury issues including concussions

    At 6'4" and 240 pounds, Eric Lindros was a monster of a man with the skills that were supposed to allow him to dominate the hockey world.

    The story didn't pan out quite that way.

    Lindros' pro career got off to a rocky start when he refused to report to the Quebec Nordiques, who drafted him first overall in 1991. Then, Quebec traded his rights to two teams on the same day. Lindros would eventually move on to the New York Rangers for three seasons, but first he spent eight seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers.

    Early returns were promising. Lindros was putting up big points and using his size to his advantage as a member of the Flyers' "Legion of Doom" line with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. Lindros won the Hart Trophy in the lockout shortened 1994-95 season as the NHL's most valuable player and led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 1997.

    But his playing style took a toll on his body. In 1998, Lindros suffered the first of a series of concussions over a two-year period that would destroy his relationship with the Flyers and eventually derail his career.

    After sitting out the entire 2000-01 season rehabilitating and waiting for a trade, Lindros was unable to return to his previous form. His production began to drop, other injuries crept in, and retirement became a reality following a middling 2006-07 season with the Dallas Stars.

Ilya Kovalchuk

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    Career Stats: 816 GP, 417 G, 399 A, 816 PTS

    Retired: 2013, age 30, to return to Russia

    Despite the scandalous way that Ilya Kovalchuk left the NHL last summer, he deserves a spot on this list.

    A point-a-game player on mostly poor teams, Kovalchuk signed the biggest NHL contract of all time with the New Jersey Devils just three years before tearing it up to return to his native Russia.

    In February 2010, New Jersey gave up three players and two picks to Atlanta for a package that included Kovalchuk, Anssi Salmela and a pick.

    That summer, the Devils signed him to the infamous 15-year front-loaded contract that was rejected by the NHL. Adjustments brought the $100 million deal into compliance, but New Jersey will surrender their first-round pick in 2014 as part of their punishment—still paying the price after their asset is long gone.

    Kovalchuk was a part of the Devils' unexpected run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, but that's a small return for New Jersey's massive investment.

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