Fighting in hockey, much like pileups in racing, is a guilty pleasure of many fans.
It’s always exiting to see professional athletes duke it out right in the middle of a game. It’s just another thing about hockey that keeps it entertaining and competitive at the same time. Even if there is no clear cut winner, the fans will always have a side to cheer for.
Although fans seem to enjoy it and it is known to be a part of hockey culture, fighting – especially at the professional level – comes with consequences. Players who participate in on ice fights are often sent to the penalty box, ejected from the game and, depending on the case, some players have been suspended. Over the last nine seasons there have been 4613 fights in the NHL and the number of fights per season has been rising steadily since the 1970s.
The popularity of fighting in the NHL led teams to sign enforcers, players whose skill sets are limited but are put to use for brawling and protecting the big name players on the ice. Those who made their careers as enforcers often found themselves spending more time in the penalty box than on the ice, and over time those minutes in the box can really accumulate.
Here are the NHL’s top 10 all-time penalty minute leaders.
10. Rick Tocchet – 2972 PIM
Rick Tocchet was taken with the 125th overall pick in 1983 by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1983. A solid player, Tocchet scored over 900 points in 18 years in the NHL. But of all his stats, it’s his time spent in the penalty box that really stands out. He averaged 165 PIM per season in his career and in the playoffs came close to almost 500 PIM. As a rookie Tocchet helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup in 1985, contributing 39 points, but the team ultimately lost to the Edmonton Oilers. In 1992 he finally won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in his first year with the franchise.
9. Chris Nilan – 3043 PIM
Between 1980 and 1992 Chris Nilan played in 688 NHL regular season games with three different teams. Nicknamed “Knuckles”, Nilan had a knack for fighting, accumulating over 3000 PIM in his career and averaging a record 4.42 PIM per game. Nilan also holds the record for most penalties in a single game. On March 31st, 1991 while playing for the Boston Bruins, Nilan was penalized a record ten times for a total of 42 minutes. Originally drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, Nilan spent most of his career in Montreal and in 1986 he won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens.
8. Tim Hunter – 3146 PIM
Before deciding to coach, Tim Hunter played right wing in the NHL from 1981–1997. Known as one of the NHL’s best enforcers during the 80s and 90s, Hunter was selected 54th overall by the Atlanta Flames in the 1979 NHL draft. Having spent most of his career with the Calgary Flames, Hunter holds the team record for most career penalty minutes (2405), most penalty minutes in one season (375), and most penalty minutes in one year (108 in 1986). He was the NHL leader in penalty minutes for two consecutive seasons, with 361 PIM and 375 PIM respectively.
7. Craig Berube – 3149 PIM
Craig Berube went undrafted and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1986. In his debut season with the Flyers in 1987 he amassed 16 penalty minutes in a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. In his career – which lasted almost 20 years – Berube never won a Stanley Cup championship. Almost a decade after retiring from the NHL, he was named head coach of the Flyers on October 7th, 2013 after the team started the season 0-3.
6. Rob Ray – 3207 PIM
The Buffalo Sabres drafted Rob Ray in the 5th round of the 1988 NHL Draft, and a year later he debuted with the team. Ray spent 14 seasons with the Sabres before moving on to Ottawa and ending his career with the Binghamton Senators in 2004. Ray is remembered for removing his helmet, jersey and pads during fights. In fact, the only time Ray kept all his gear on was during an altercation with a Quebec Nordiques fan, who during a game tried to jump the Sabres’ bench and as a result got a beating from Ray. Due to the disadvantage other players were subjected to when fighting the almost gearless Ray, the NHL implemented the “Rob Ray Rule”. The rule states that “a player who engages in fisticuffs and whose sweater is not properly ‘tied-down’ (jersey properly fastened to pants), and who loses his sweater (completely off his torso) in that altercation, shall receive a game misconduct.” After the rule was made, Ray’s reputation as an enforcer grew and he went on to be known as one of the toughest players of his generation.
5. Bob Probert – 3300 PIM
The late Bob Probert was one of the Detroit Red Wings’ “Bruise Brothers” along with teammate Joey Kocur, during the late 80s and 90s. Probert took it upon himself to protect his teammates, and because of this ended up in many fights over his 17-year career. He had a long lasting rivalry with Toronto’s Wendel Clark and often got into fights with players like Tie Domi and Craig Coxe and took part in a memorable 100 second long fight with Marty McSorley. Probert holds the Detroit Red Wings franchise records for career penalty minutes (2,090) and penalty minutes in a season (398 in 1987–88). He later played for the Chicago Blackhawks from 1995-2002.
4. Marty McSorley – 3381 PIM
Marty McSorley’s career spanned 19 years. He played for a number of teams including the Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, LA Kings, New York Rangers and San Jose Sharks. While he was with the Kings and Oilers, McSorley was known as Wayne Gretzky’s “bodyguard” and was considered one of the NHL’s top enforcers during his playing career. On February 21st, 2000 McSorley swung his stick at Donald Brashear, hitting him in the head. The hit left Brashear with a Grade III concussion and McSorley was suspended for the remainder of the 1999-2000 season. His suspension was later increased another full year through February 21st, 2001 and McSorley never played another game in the NHL.
3. Tie Domi – 3515 PIM
Tie Domi was taken 27th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1988 NHL Draft, and spent the majority of his career in Toronto. After playing only two games with the Leafs in which he totaled 42 PIM, Domi was traded to the New York Rangers during the 1990-91 season. He spent the next six seasons playing for the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets where he totaled 1250 PIM, and in 1995 was traded back to the Leafs. That year Domi sucker punched Rangers defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, receiving an eight-game suspension. His career in Toronto and the NHL came to an end after the Leafs opted to buy out the last year of his contract, and after several months without a contract offer he retired on September 19th, 2006.
2. Dale Hunter – 3563 PIM
Dale Hunter spent seven seasons with the now defunct Quebec Nordiques. Drafted 41st overall by the Nordiques in 1979, Hunter spent the majority of his career with the Washington Capitals before ending his career with the Nordiques’ successor, the Colorado Avalanche in 1999. Hunter was known as a controversial player. In the 1993 Patrick Division Semi finals between the Capitals and Rangers, Hunter checked Pierre Turgeon, separating his shoulder. The incident occurred after Turgeon stole a pass of Hunters then scored. While he was celebrating Hunter hit him from behind, smashing him into the boards earning himself a 21-game suspension.
1. Tiger Williams – 3966 PIM
The oldest player on this list, Dave “Tiger” Williams was drafted 31st overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1974, and played 14 NHL seasons before retiring in 1988. In Toronto, Williams set records for most penalty minutes (240) and most penalty minutes in one season by a left wing (351) in 1978. Williams holds the NHL’s all-time record for most career penalty minutes. Factoring in playoff numbers, he’s spent a jaw-dropping 4421 minutes in the penalty box. Although he was never on a Stanley Cup winning team, he and the Vancouver Canucks made a surprise run in 1982 but were ultimately stopped short, getting swept by the defending champion New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals.