For most people, a ranking of the toughest players in hockey would include the typical enforcer.
A names spring immediately to mind, like the late Bob Probert, Tiger Williams, Marty McSorley and Tim Hunter.
Then there were guys who were eminently talented, but could still throw down if need be, such as Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Stevens and current Toronto Maple Leafs President and Hall of Fame forward Brendan Shanahan.
Yet another definition of a tough guy is a player who overcomes obstacles and plays through some nasty injuries. All are correct, and all those players are tough in their own rights.
For the sake of argument, we’ll talk about the 20 toughest players in NHL history that were not classified enforcers. What some of these guys did, deserves the respect of anyone who follows hockey and understands its history.
20. Jaromir Jagr
At age 45 (soon to be 46) and in his 24th season with the Calgary Flames, it may finally be the end of the line for ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr. He’s played 22 games, has seven points but has been a healthy scratch lately, leading to speculation he and the Flames will mutually part ways soon. The man who suited up in his first game long before most of his current peers were even born has epitomized tough in his 1,733-game career. As durable as they come, he even played all 82 games with the Florida Panthers last year, at an age (44-45) when most former hockey players have their feet up on a chaise lounge near a pool somewhere warm. A shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and the recipient of multitude of awards like five Art Ross trophies and a Hart for MVP, Jagr received his first Masterton for perseverance in 2016 after becoming the oldest player to surpass 60 points in a season (66), which paced the Panthers in scoring.
19. Max Pacioretty
A full on collision with a big defenceman in the NHL can be pretty bad, getting bounced off a stanchion by 6’9″, 250 lb. behemoth Zdeno Chara can be catastrophic. It was for Max “Patches” Pacioretty, the current Montreal Canadiens captain who was stretchered off with a fractured vertebra and a concussion after being leveled by Chara in a March, 2011 game. Deemed a dirty hit, Chara never did receive supplemental discipline beyond a game misconduct. Pacioretty, to his credit, returned in time to start the 2011-12 season and has missed just 19 games in the last seven seasons since that career-threatening injury. Now in his 10th season with the team, the Connecticut born Pacioretty is a leader on and off the ice for the Habs, and as he proved, one tough cookie.
18. Brian Boyle
Just maintaining the fitness level and having enough talent to stick in the NHL is hard enough. It’s made even harder if a player has a life threatening illness like leukemia. Current New Jersey plugger Brian Boyle was diagnosed with a rare form of the illness called Chronic Myeloid Leukemia in September, yet there he was not much more than a month later, skating in a NHL game. The resurgent Devils sure are thankful that the 33-year-old veteran has shaken off his diagnosis enough to have what could be a career year. The tough-as-nails centerman and two-way player said he cried a little after scoring his first goal of the season on Nov. 9 and since then he’s potted 10 more and added six assists in 31 games. He is on pace to crack the career high 21 goals he scored with the Rangers in 2010-11, as well as the 35 points he tallied that year, too.
17. Bryan Berard
Depth perception is a huge part of a NHL defenceman’s game, in that the majority of forwards are good skaters and can change direction on a dime. Bryan Berard, unfortunately, found out how difficult it is to judge depth perception when he nearly lost an eye to an on-ice incident. The NHL’s 1997 Calder Trophy winner as top rookie was playing in a game for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Ottawa Senators on Mar. 11, 2000. During a four-on-four situation, he got too close to the Sens’ Marian Hossa, who was attempting to one-time a shot, missed and his follow through accidentally struck Berard in the right eye. It ruptured his eyeball and he endured a series of surgeries just to get his eyesight in that eye back to the league mandated minimum of 20/400. The excellent two-way defenceman missed a full season after the incident and came back to play all 82 games with the New York Rangers in 2001-02, recording 23 points. In all, he would compete in 329 games post-eye injury, scoring 42 goals and adding 123 assists.
16. Cam Neely
Long before he was the memorable “Sea Bass” in a troika of Farrelly Brothers movies including ‘Dumb and Dumber’, Cam Neely was one of the toughest wingers ever to skate in the NHL. Possessed of good size (6’1″, 218 lbs.), belligerence and a wicked wrist shot, Neely started lighting up NHL goaltenders soon after being drafted ninth overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 1983. A one-sided deal that sent him to Boston in 1986 — where he quickly became a fan favorite — boosted his fortunes. He scored a career high 55 goals during the 1989-90 campaign and followed it up with another 51 in 1990-91. During the Bruins run to the Wales Conference finals against Pittsburgh (which they would lose 4-2), Neely suffered the knee injury that would mar his career, but not keep him out all together. He was hit knee on knee by notorious dirty player and Pittsburgh defenceman Ulf Samuelsson in game 6 and injured severely. He developed a chronic condition in that same knee and missed all but 22 games the next two seasons. However, the resilient Neely came back in 1993-94 to score an incredible 50 goals in just 49 games. However, the future Hall of Famer would only play another 91 games with Boston before retiring in 1996.
15. Gary Roberts
For all intents and purposes, former NHL tough guy and sniper Gary Roberts was nearly done as hockey player at the ripe old age of 27 in 1994. He had degenerative nerve damage so severe that he could barely lift a two-pound weight above his shoulders — pretty bad for a guy who tussled with other muscular NHLers on a regular basis and who was one of few NHLers to have over 200 penalty minutes and over 50 goals in the same season. He had two surgeries, came back briefly in 1995-96 (42 points in 35 games) and promptly retired when his neck didn’t seem to improve. As fate would have it, Roberts was put in touch with a chiropractor with an interesting physiotherapy routine that increased his overall mobility. Roberts, who now trains other hockey players with a furious regimen of his own design, spent a year rehabbing and getting ready. And ready he was, the reformed and rugged winger playing another 11 years in the league before packing it in for good in 2009.
14. Adam Graves
Early in his career, the Detroit Red Wings thought so little of 1986 second round pick Adam Graves that they packaged him up with veterans like Petr Klima and Joe Murphy to Edmonton for Jimmy Carson and a couple of other players in a one-sided trade. Graves, who had a hard-earned reputation as a grinder with hands, would blossom a little more with the Oilers and help them win a Stanley Cup in 1990. It wasn’t until he went to the New York Rangers that the hard-headed Graves would come into his own, scoring 280 goals (including a then franchise record 52 in 1993-94) and 507 points in 772 games with the Rangers over 10 seasons. ‘Gravy’ along with former teammate Mark Messier, was also a catalyst in New York’s first Stanley Cup in decades in 1994, scoring 10 goals and seven assists in 23 playoff games. No wilting daisy in the corners, Graves had 1,224 career penalty minutes and according to hockeyfights.com, dropped the gloves 53 times, including bouts with fellow tough guys Joel Otto, Garth Butcher and Gord Donnelly.
13. Borje Salming
Just how tough was Hall of Fame defenceman Borje Salming? How about 250 stitches to the face after being accidentally stepped on while prone in front of his own net during a game in 1986. Swedes, with a reputation for being less than tough propagated by the likes of Don Cherry, weren’t given much respect during the first wave of them in the 1970s. Salming, who would play 1,148 NHL games and record 1,344 penalty minutes and 787 points, did much to prove the naysayers wrong. Salming absorbed that terrible cut, which came from the skate of current Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, and didn’t stay out too long despite looking like Frankenstein. The exact count of stitches that Salming needed is still in doubt, as a plastic surgeon had to work from the inside out, too.
12. Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu was never the biggest guy on the ice and wasn’t known as a scrapper, but few commanded the respect he did throughout the league during his fairly illustrious career. The speedy Finn debuted with Montreal in 1995 and gained a reputation as a creative playmaker. However, six years in to his career, a still young Koivu was hit with a cancer diagnosis, non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, the same one that befell Mario Lemieux. His subsequent battle with the cancer hit his teammates and fans hard but ended up being a rallying point, especially when he came back late in the 2001-02 season (when he was supposed to sit out the entire campaign). He came back to a standing ovation on April 9, 2002 which lasted over five minutes and played three total games. For that bit of courage, he was awarded the Masterton Trophy. Koivu went on to play 11 more seasons, packing it in at the age of 39 after the 2013-14 season.
11. Kris Letang
Longtime Pittsburgh Penguins Kris Letang is like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going. The eminently talented offensive defenceman and two-time Stanley Cup winner was tough enough to shake off the effects of a stroke during the 2013-14 season to come back and play, a mere three months after suffering the stroke. A perennial Norris Trophy candidate, Letang received his second All-Star nod two seasons later and was a puck-moving catalyst for Penguins during their second Stanley Cup run in seven years in 2016, scoring 15 points in 23 games and logging almost 29 minutes of ice time per contest. He is proving his toughness again in 2017-18, returning to full-time game action after missing half the 2016-17 season and the 2017 Cup run with a neck injury.
10. Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall has been plagued by injuries since he came into the NHL in 2010-11, after being selected first overall in the 2010 draft. His first season in Edmonton was marred by injury, as he sustained a high ankle sprain during a fight with Columbus’ Derek Dorsett and missed the last 17 games of the season. That scrap was part of his first ever “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” as he also had a goal and assist in that game, which probably gained him some cred in the dressing room. The next year, he sustained a cut to the face by a teammate’s skate that needed 30 stitches to close (he was on the ice four days after that) and then later injured his shoulder, with surgery prematurely ending a superb sophomore season. Early in the 2016-17 season, after being traded to the New Jersey Devils, Hall added to his growing legend by returning to skate a week after surgery to repair a torn meniscus, when it was expected he’d be out three to four weeks.
9. Steven Stamkos – Tampa Bay Lightning
One of the world’s best players has battled through some pretty serious injuries. On November 11, 2013, Steven Stamkos was back checking and in a battle to the front of the net, when he slid into the goal post with some speed. He ended up breaking his leg on the play. He had surgery to repair his broken leg and said he would be back before the 2014 Olympics to play for Canada. It was a bold statement, and an extremely aggressive timeline. When Canada announced their roster, Stamkos was indeed named, but even though he was game, he wasn’t ready and wasn’t cleared to play. He was back on the ice skating, but the injury had not healed and even when he did come back, he wasn’t 100%. The injury bug wasn’t quite done with the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner, when, early in the 2016-17 season he got tangled up and fell awkwardly. He tore the lateral meniscus in he right knee and was sidelined for the last 65 games of the season. He came back with a vengeance this season, though, and had 52 points through his first 43 games.
8. Glen Hall
Glenn Hall played 502 consecutive games as a goalie, which in this day in age is unheard of. A big season for a netminder in today’s NHL would see them appear in around 70 games. Put it this way, it’s practically impossible for any player to play 502 games in a row, let alone a goalie. If you include the playoff games he played during those seasons between 1955-56 and 1962-63, the Hall of Famer played an astounding total of 551 straight games. During his era in the NHL, the six-team league featured Hall of Fame goalies such as Terry Sawchuk, Johnny Bower, Jacques Plante, and Gump Worsley playing against him on a nightly basis. He held his own against those luminaries, enough to cop the Rookie of the Year in the 1956, be named to the First or Second team All-Stars in six of the seven seasons and win a Vezina (the first of three) in the last season of that big streak. He was also part of an unexpected Stanley Cup run by the Blackhawks in 1961.
7. Jacques Plante
Known as the first goalie to ever wear a goalie mask, Jacques Plante fought through getting hit in the face with a puck during a game to return between the pipes. On November 1, 1959, what started out as a normal game against the New York Rangers turned into a historical moment in hockey and Canadian history. At the 3:06 mark of the first period, Plante was struck in the face by a shot from Andy Bathgate. After a 21-minute delay, Plante was back on the bench. He went over to Canadiens coach Toe Blake and said he was ready to go back in the game, but he would be playing with a mask. Plante finished the game, and the Canadiens won 3-1. The next game, Toe Blake said Plante would be playing, but without his mask. Planted reacted and said, “If I don’t wear the mask, I’m not playing.” And with that the goalie mask became a more accepted piece of equipment, changing styles frequently over the years to what they are now.
6. Paul Kariya – Anaheim Ducks
In the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, the underdog Mighty Ducks of Anaheim faced off against the mighty New Jersey Devils. The Mighty Ducks were never expected to make it past the first round of the playoffs, let alone all the way to the final series. In a pivotal game game 6 at home (New Jersey was up 3-2 in the series) offensive sparkplug Paul Kariya was leveled by the train that was New Jersey Devils defenceman Scott Stevens. Deemed a clean hit in open ice, Kariya would lay motionless for several minutes afterward. When he finally got to his feet again, he was taken to the dressing room, his wobbly gait betraying concussion-like symptoms. In today’s NHL, Kariya would have had to undergo concussion protocol and likely wouldn’t have been been permitted back on the ice. But, embroiled in a game six of a Stanley Cup final, nothing was going to stop him from going back out. Not only did he come back and play, but he scored the fourth of five goals (as well as adding two helpers), helping force a game 7 back in New Jersey. They ultimately lost the series and the Cup, but that gutsy performance by Kariya is an indelible NHL moment.
5. Ryan Getzlaf – Anaheim Ducks
Picture this: It’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a player takes a frozen puck to the face. He then gets patched up, grabs some head gear to offer a modicum of protection, then heads back out on the ice. If it sounds like some old school mucker from the 1950s, think again, because it was current tough guy Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks who did that in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It happened during the Ducks’ first round series against the Dallas Stars, where Getzlaf took a deflected puck to the face. He went down, left the game, and got patched up. He missed the rest of the game, but he was back on the ice for the next game with a jaw protector affixed to his helmet. The Stars didn’t go easy on the veteran when he did come back out either. He would get a smelly face wash during a game the Ducks would ultimately lose. The Stars won that battle, but the Ducks won the war, winning the series behind some great play from a stitched-up and fired up Getzlaf.
4. Bobby Baun – Toronto Maple Leafs
Bobby Baun of the Toronto Maple Leafs was so tough, he played with a broken leg during game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings. The game was tied 3-3, when “Mr. Hockey”, Gordie Howe, took a shot that rugged defenceman Baun blocked. Baun was subsequently stretchered off the ice and taken to the infirmary where they froze his foot. He was back out on the ice shortly after, and in overtime, he scored the winning goal to tie the series at three games apiece, sending it to a decisive game 7 back in Toronto. Only after the Leafs won the Stanley Cup did Baun consent to an x-ray, which revealed a hairline fracture in his fibula. That bit of moxie forever etched Baun’s name in Leafs’ lore.
3. Steve Yzerman – Detroit Red Wings
The 2001-02 season was a difficult one for Steve Yzerman. He missed 30 games during the regular season after re-aggravating a knee injury. It was also an Olympic year, with Canada in the midst of a 50-year gold medal drought. Yzerman, wonky knee and all, was a key cog in the Canadian machine that beat the Americans in the Gold Medal game. The tough as nails superstar played the entire Olympic Tournament basically on one knee, and didn’t wuss out the remainder of the NHL season either, battling on that same injured limb. He then skated in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he was even able to crank his game up a notch and help Detroit capture the 10th Stanley Cup in team history, recording 23 points in 23 games. It would be his last championship and a capper to a memorable season for one of the game’s classiest — and toughest — individuals.
2. Mario Lemieux – Pittsburgh Penguins
Mario was one of the most notable players to battle cancer, including list-mate Saku Koivu, and still continue his NHL career. In addition to the cancer diagnosis, Lemieux also had the misery of chronic back pain that plagued most of his career. Going into the 1992-93 season, Mario Le Magnifique had already missed 100 games due to the back pain. Then, on January 12, 1993, the Penguins and Lemieux announced to the hockey world that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease (now known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma). He left the game to receive treatment, returning just a few months later. On Mar. 2, 1993 against the Philadelphia Flyers he received a standing ovation from the fans and then went out and scored a goal and an assist in a losing effort. What made his return even more spectacular was the fact he played just 60 games that season and still scored 69 goals and 91 assists, winning his second straight Art Ross Trophy. Truly astounding.
1. Patrice Bergeron – Boston Bruins
The 2013 Stanley Cup run by the Boston Bruins was infamous for a couple of different reasons. The first being the that huge comeback in game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. The second is what center Patrice Bergeron, who scored the winner in OT against Toronto, went through on an individual level. In game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals against Chicago, it was found that Bergeron had been playing through a few different injuries after he landed in a Chicago hospital to get checked out post-game. The injuries included a broken rib, as well as a punctured lung, broken nose and a separated shoulder. He went from that Chicago hospital and ended up playing in Boston in game 6. He didn’t just play a limited role, either, logging 17:45 minutes of ice time in what would be a heartbreaking loss. After that, he again went to a Boston hospital for treatment. A truly tough guy, that Patrice Bergeron.