The 10 Most Despised Players in the NHL Since 2000

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2021

The 10 Most Despised Players in the NHL Since 2000

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    Bruce Bennett/Associated Press

    Some are whiners. Some are bullies. Some live to get under your skin.

    The common thread: Some NHL players are simply loathed.

    Hockey history is full of tales of players who didn’t get along with opponents, fans or even their own teammates. The past two-plus decades have had no shortage when it comes to lightning rods.

    Given that criteria, the B/R hockey writing clique decided one way to find common ground was to compile a list of the most despised players since 2000 based on the heinousness of their infractions, the intensity of their irritations and by just how simply unpleasant it was to have them around.

    Here, then, is that list, and with it an invitation to lob a verbal grenade or two in our direction via the comments section.

Marty McSorley

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    uce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

    He played exactly 17 games in the 21st century.

    But the controversy caused by Marty McSorley's actions in the last of those 17 games—not coincidentally the last of his NHL career—makes him a permanent fixture on any list of the league's infamous villains.

    Already among the most recognized enforcers of his era, he crossed into all-time status when he violently swung his stick into the head of Vancouver's Donald Brashear with three seconds left in a Feb. 21, 2000, game between his Boston Bruins and Brashear's Canucks. Brashear suffered a severe concussion and McSorley was suspended for a year, found guilty of assault and served 18 months of probation.

    He never returned to the NHL.

Todd Bertuzzi

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    RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

    Make no mistake, Todd Bertuzzi was an effective NHL player.

    He finished a 1,159-game career with 314 goals and played in two All-Star Games.

    Nevertheless, he, like McSorley before him, is recalled as much for one ugly incident as anything else.

    Then with the Vancouver Canucks, Bertuzzi pursued Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind during a March 8, 2004, game and viciously punched him in the back of the head. Bertuzzi then fell on top of him as Moore crumpled to the ice. Moore was left with a concussion, facial lacerations and several broken vertebrae.

    Bertuzzi was suspended by the NHL for the rest of the 2003-04 season and penalized, too, by the International Ice Hockey Federation, which left him ineligible to play in Europe during the lockout-scrapped 2004-05 NHL season. He returned in 2005-06, however, and played in the NHL through 2014.

    Moore never played again.

Matthew Tkachuk

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    Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

    If you're a Calgary Flames fan, Matthew Tkachuk is "effective" or "a competitor."

    If you're nearly everyone else, he's just a pain in the neck.

    "I'm pretty sure he might be [the most hated player in the league]," Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, a frequent target of Tkachuk's antics, told Sportsnet in 2018. "I have lots of friends on other teams, and they don't love him either. But whatever. That's how he plays. All it does is fire guys up, and guys take over games when that happens."

    An elbow here, a little stickwork there, a few choice incendiary words during scrums.

    That's the M.O. for the 23-year-old, who's scored better than 100 NHL goals since arriving in 2016 and grew up alongside a pretty fair player, too, in father Keith. The elder Tkachuk played 1,201 games and scored 538 goals in a career that stretched from 1992 to 2010. Dad amassed 2,219 penalty minutes, too, leaving the youngster a mere 1,868 behind entering Sunday's games.

    Hate father, hate son.

Milan Lucic

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    At 6'3" and 231 pounds, Calgary Flames winger Milan Lucic is built like a dump truck.

    A dump truck, incidentally, whose driver has no hesitation to barrel over pedestrians if the time is right.

    A second-round pick by the Boston Bruins in 2006, Lucic has been plying his rough-hewn trade on NHL ice for more than 1,000 games with four teams since arriving in 2007.

    He's been a worthwhile power forward for much of that time, reaching double digits in goals eight times (entering Sunday's games) while amassing a total of 215 goals.

    He's the type of player teammates love and opponents loathe, instantly jumping to the defense of the guys on his side when conflicts arise and doing nothing to tamp down the fiery behavior once it begins. In fact, Lucic left then-Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov in a heap with a blindside punch in his first game with the Flames in 2019-20, earning penalty box time for both instigating and fighting—a 10-minute misconduct.

    All par for the course for the 32-year-old, who's averaged 1.16 penalty minutes for each of the 1,009 NHL games he's played through Saturday night.

Brad Marchand

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Elections don't lie.

    OK, let's be clear: We're talking about NHL elections here. And specifically one conducted by The Athletic, which solicited player opinions on a variety of topics and got predictably far-flung results.

    When it came to "dirtiest player," though, there was something approaching consensus.

    Nearly 30 percent of the 392 responses named Brad Marchand.

    The pesky but prolific winger is a master of the little transgressions that add up to significant enmity among his peers—shoulders and elbows to the chin, whacks across the back of the legs with the stick—in addition to a perpetually chirpy mouth.

    "It's disgusting what the league lets Marchand get away with," one voting player said. "He's got no respect for anybody. Makes me sick."

    Problem is, if you're waiting for him to outlive his usefulness, don't.

    Now 32, Marchand is in the midst of one of his best statistical seasons, scoring 28 goals and 67 points in just 52 games for the Bruins through Saturday night. That 1.29 point-per-game clip is sixth in the NHL, trailing only Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin and Auston Matthews.

    He was ninth in the league in the same stat last season (1.24 PPG), among players with at least 50 games. 

    So get used to it. 

Chris Pronger

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    PAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

    Chris Pronger spent parts of 18 seasons in the NHL and played for five teams.

    So he had a lot of chances to annoy people in a lot of places.

    Mission accomplished.

    The towering defenseman with the movie-star looks was different things to different players and fanbases. He irritated some with his over-the-line physicality, others with his petulant trade demands and still others after the NHL's curious choice to anoint him as director of player safety after his on-ice career ended.

    He's particularly infamous for elbowing Dean McAmmond unconscious during a Stanley Cup Final game in 2007, stomping the leg of a prone Ryan Kesler during a tie-up in 2008 and waving his hand in front of goalie Miikka Kiprusoff just before a goal (nullified by a penalty) in 2010.

    And that's without mention of his insistence to leave Edmonton mere days after the Oilers lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. Pronger engineered a trade to the Anaheim Ducks, who won the Cup the following season. The Oilers, meanwhile, began an NHL-record 10 seasons without a postseason appearance.

    Time heals some wounds, anyway.

Sidney Crosby

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Sidney Crosby has been the best player in the NHL since he arrived in the league in 2005.

    And even at age 33, he continues to be one of the best players in the NHL.

    But he's clearly among the most loathed as well.

    In fact, a Google search of the phrase "Sidney Crosby most hated" yields more than 1.3 million returns, with links titled "Why Hockey Fans Hate the Pittsburgh Penguins' Captain," "Why Most Hockey Fans Seem to Dislike Crosby" and "Why do fans hate Sidney Crosby so much?"

    Why? A variety of reasons.

    Primarily, it's because he's that good.

    The No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft has lived up to every bit of his pre-arrival hype, winning two MVPs, two scoring titles and three Stanley Cups in his first 15 seasons. And he's on his way to even more in season No. 16, with a scoring rate (1.13 points per game) that's among the league's best and he has helped the Penguins to first place in the East Division and a third-place tie overall through Saturday's games.

    And, well, he's sort of annoying too.

    The Pittsburgh captain rarely misses a chance to embellish a wrongdoing against him, flopping, grimacing and recoiling in dramatic fashion to match the circumstance. Nor is he shy about sidling up to a referee to voice his opinion on a missed whistle or even full-on engaging said official in a full-blown tirade.

    Either way, it's just Sid being Sid.

Matt Cooke

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    NIKLAS LARSSON/Associated Press

    And we're back to the controversial intersection of effective and dangerous.

    Rugged winger Matt Cooke was both of those things during an NHL career that consisted of 1,046 games across 17 seasons with four teams. He scored 10 or more goals 10 times, topping out at 19 in 2011-12 and finishing with 167 overall, alongside 13 more in 110 playoff games that included a Stanley Cup win.

    But his rap sheet was just as memorable as his scoresheet.

    Cooke was one of the catalysts for the league's push to protect players from head hits, racking up multiple suspensions for those sorts of infractions.

    He's perhaps best remembered for a shot to Boston's Marc Savard that forced the Bruins forward to miss two months. Cooke also sat for 10 regular-season games and the first round of the 2011 playoffs after an elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers.

    He publicly promised to change his game in the aftermath of the McDonagh hit and did see his penalty minutes plunge from 129 in 2010-11 to just 44 the following season while playing 15 more games. His peak one-season goal total came during that season as well. He topped out at 54 penalty minutes in his final full NHL season in 2013-14 with the Minnesota Wild.

Sean Avery

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    Ah, Sean Avery.

    Where do we begin?

    Avery was as notorious a pest as the NHL has had in the 21st century, with transgressions ranging from intentionally waving his hands and stick in front of a goalie—in this case, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur—during a playoff game to insulting both his former girlfriends and opposing players they were since dating.

    The former prompted the league to create the "Sean Avery Rule" to ban what was deemed unsportsmanlike conduct, while the latter earned him a six-game suspension for conduct "detrimental" to the league and signaled the end of his run with his then-team, the Dallas Stars.

    Avery's myriad other run-ins, with Toronto Maple Leafs leukemia survivor Jason Blake and former New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, among others, resulted in near-universal condemnation and dislike.

    An unnamed Rangers player said Avery initiated a pre-game scuffle with the Maple Leafs in 2007 by making unsavory comments toward Blake, who at the time had been recently diagnosed. Avery, who was fined $5,000, denied making the comments. As for the no-nonsense Tortorella, the two predictably bumped heads while Avery was on the team, and Avery, whose career ended in 2012, tweeted in March 2013 that the team should fire its "clown" of a coach.

    Tortorella was fired two months later, and Avery was in the mood to celebrate, saying he "had a huge smile" upon hearing the news, per Larry Brooks of the New York Post.

    After the conclusion of his career, which spanned 580 games and yielded 247 points, Avery said it was all play acting. 

    "It's difficult to explain to a fan, but your life as a professional athlete is colored by uncertainty. You worry about making a bad play, taking a bad penalty, missing a golden chance to score a goal. ... I handled the pressure partly by inventing a characterthe tough, ornery Sean Avery that you think you knowand I'd put his game face on before I left for the rink, and I'd take it off when I got home," he told The Players' Tribune.

    "It was my way of handling all the demands on us to win. And to keep my job. I needed people to hate me. I needed players to come after me in order to stay motivated."

Tom Wilson

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Perhaps it's the immediacy bias.

    Or perhaps Tom Wilson is just not a nice person.

    Either way, if you happen to walk by gaggles of hockey fans talking about disliked players these days, chances are pretty good they are going to mention Wilson.

    The mammoth Washington Capitals forward is currently public enemy No. 1 around the NHL thanks to a list of transgressions most recently highlighted by a May 3 game at Madison Square Garden in which he punched New York Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head while he was face down on the ice.

    Buchnevich's teammate, Artemi Panarin, jumped on Wilson's back and was subsequently flipped to the ice, which the Rangers said caused an injury that forced last season's MVP nominee out of the following three games. Wilson was fined $5,000 but not suspended, a decision the Rangers criticized—and were fined $250,000 for doing so.

    Among his other greatest pushing-the-envelope hits, he delivered blows in the 2017-18 playoffs that left Columbus center Alexander Wennberg with a concussion and Pittsburgh center Zach Aston-Reese with a broken jaw. Later that year, it was St. Louis center Oskar Sundqvist suffering a concussion from a head hit in the 2018-19 preseason, resulting in Wilson getting tagged with a 20-game suspension.

    Incidentally, he scored 22 and 21 goals in those two regular seasons and has 13 more through 46 games in 2020-21, but his obvious offensive prowess is overshadowed by the extracurriculars.

    "He's a reckless player with little regard for the safety of opponents, fitting the requirements of the role in which he's been cast," ESPN columnist Greg Wyshynski wrote. "He's going to really cross the line again at some point, and the department of player safety is going to justifiably drop the hammer on him. Believe me: They want to. They're as sick of this circus act as much as you are."