The 10 Greatest Enforcers in NHL History

While no hockey player is officially listed as “enforcer” on the depth chart, these guys might as well have been.

Discussing Bobby Robins and Zac Rinaldo, Steve Lepore of Rolling Stone wrote the two are “what's known throughout hockey as classic enforcers. They can skate a little bit, will maybe pop in a goal or two, but are there primarily to ‘protect’ his teammates from the other team's goon.”

It’s one of the unique elements of the most popular sport played on ice that teams carry “goons” on their rosters whose primary duty is to maintain order, protect his teammates, and kick ass when necessary.

A Wikipedia entry on the enforcer role states:

 “An enforcer's job is to deter and respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender. Enforcers are expected to react particularly harshly to violence against star players or goalies.

“Enforcers are different from pests, players who seek to agitate opponents and distract them from the game, without necessarily fighting them. The pest's primary role is to draw penalties from opposing players, thus "getting them off their game", while not actually intending to fight the opposition player (although exceptions to this do occur). Pests and enforcers often play together on the same line, usually the fourth line.”

The greatest of these soldiers on skates have spilled blood and broken bones for their squads across decades. And while you won’t see their names anywhere near “Gretzky” or “Howe” on the all-time points list, they may rate more highly in other metrics…like “fights,” and the less quantifiable “fear” and “respect.”

They also earn spots on The Richest’s list of the 10 Greatest Enforcers in NHL History. And while Mr. Lepore laments the fact that the true enforcer is a dying breed in professional hockey (given the unfortunate spate of enforcer deaths in 2011), these men will live forever in the list of the all-time greats in their chosen specialty.

How do the rankings stack up? Who is the greatest enforcer of them all?

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10 Chris Neil

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports Images

Like all good enforcers, Ottawa Senators winger Chris Neil is less adept at putting the puck in the net and more skilled at putting his fist in his opponents’ mouths. Since entering the league in 2001, he’s logged nearly 2,300 penalty minutes against just over 233 points. Thus, he’s accumulating nearly ten minutes in timeout for every point he tallies. That’s a ratio any enforcer would be proud of.

Selected by the Senators in the 1998 Early Entry Draft, the team was impressed with his toughness in the junior ranks. Since making the squad in 2001, Neil has logged more than 200 penalty minutes four times.

Still, he’s never bested the 231 minutes he spent in the box in first year in the league. Neil is an example to future NHL tough guys: establish your reputation as a hardass as soon as you lace up your skates and head out onto the ice in your rookie season.

9 Clark Gillies

Via espn.go.com

“Jethro” Gillies was part of a long line of enforcers from Saskatchewan. Gillies played for the New York Islanders and the Buffalo Sabres during his 14-year NHL career (1974-1988).

Gillies' reputation as a formidable enforcer was already solid when he entered the NHL after playing for the Regina Pats in the Canadian Junior league. He racked up an impressive 570 penalty minutes in 201 games during his time with the Pats.

Gillies earned his bones protecting Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier during the Islanders' 1980 Stanley Cup run. He famously battered legendary Boston Bruins enforcer Terry O’Reilly…and won…several times. His ability to protect star players was critical to the Islanders' four consecutive Stanley Cups.

8 Chris Nilan

Via insidesocal.com

From Chris Neil to Chris Nilan. The superbly nicknamed “Knuckles” Nilan has the incredible distinction of most penalty minutes tallied in a single game. The bone-crushing Boston native somehow managed to commit 10 penalties in a single contest, spending a ludicrous 42 minutes in the box. The feat has never been equaled.

Nilan only suited up 688 times in his career. Had he spent more time on skates, he’d likely be better positioned on this list. Nilan’s 1983-1984 and 1984-1985 campaigns are the stuff of penalty minute-accumulating legend: His tallies for those two years: 338 and 358 minutes, respectively.

Knuckles was adept enough with his stick to be chosen to represent Team USA at the 1987 Canada Cup, and he was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning 1986 Montreal Canadians. Injuries hampered the career of this bruiser, but he still managed to rack up the ninth most penalty minutes of all time.

7 Red Horner

Via vintageleafs.blogspot.com

We’re going deep into the annals of professional hockey for the number eight entry in our roundup of the greatest enforcers in NHL history.

Red Horner was the enforcer for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1928 to 1940. And in his era, refs were just a tad more lenient in their penalty calling. Which is to say, there was something of a “no blood, no foul” orientation in the penalty calling department. Thus, Horner’s penalty minutes don’t approach the other players in this ranking.

Tales of Horner wrecking people are legendary. He lead the league in penalty minutes seven times in his career and was the all-time leader in the stat when he retired. Red was a tough bastard who beat his opponents in a way no other enforcer on this list has thus far: he was the oldest living member of the Hockey Hall of Fame when he died in 2005 at the age of 95.

6 Tie Domi

Via thescore.com

Tahir “Tie” Domi looks like a guy ready to punch your face in, doesn’t he? Domi was a formidable enforcer in the 1990s, amassing an incredible 347 minutes in the penalty box during the 1993-1994 season.

Impressive work.

Domi earned his stripes with the Winnipeg Jets, but it was with his trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1995 that he became the most popular enforcer in the league and a beloved figure among Leafs fans.

Domi found the net 100 times in his career, but he’ll be best remembered for accumulating 3,505 penalty minutes in his time in uniform (the third most in NHL history). He’ll also be remembered for his sucker punching Ulf Samuelsson, knocking him unconscious, and the elbow that knocked Scott Niedermayer out in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Since retiring, Domi has made headlines both for his philandering and placekicking for the Toronto Argonauts in the preseason—a decidedly un-enforcer-like position on the gridiron. His son, Max Domi, is a promising prospect for the Arizona Coyotes.

5 Dave Schultz

Known as “the Hammer,” Dave Schultz is yet another punisher from Saskatchewan on our list. They must be dosing the water supply with testosterone in the province. Playing for the rough-and-tumble Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s Schultz stood out as an enforcer on an already physical and aggressive squad.

During one playoff campaign, the Hammer spent 139 minutes in the penalty box…in 17 games. In the Flyers’ cup-winning 1974-75 season, Schultz spent an absolutely ludicrous 472 minutes in the sin bin.

In NHL history, the 400-minutes-in-the-penalty-box mark has only been topped four times. Dave Schultz is the owner of two of the four campaigns in the record books. For his career, Schultz averaged more than four minutes per game in the penalty box: the highest rate ever.

While other enforcers may have accumulated more penalty minutes or gotten in more fights, no one else was more efficient in carrying out his goon duties than Dave Schultz.

4 Marty McSorley

Via gamewornauctions.net

While his name conjures up images of the Michael J. Fox’s “Marty McFly” character in Back to the Future, Marty McSorley was the furthest thing from the diminutive Californian who time-traveled in the DeLorean with Doc.

McSorley’s charge was an important one: protecting the Great One during his stint in Edmonton. He played a critical role in the Oilers’ 1988 Stanley Cup run and was eventually traded to the LA Kings with Wayne Gretzky in the 1989 shock deal.

The Hamilton, Ontario native accumulated fourth-most penalty minutes in NHL history. While playing for the Boston Bruins, McSorely infamously hit Donald Brashear in the head with his stick, causing Brashear to hit the ice and suffer a serious concussion. McSorely was charged with assault as a result of the incident and was eventually found guilty.

Thus, McSorely has the distinction of being the only enforcer to face criminal charges for his on-ice actions.

3 Terry O’Reilly

Via hockey-fights.com

With a fabulous nickname bestowed upon him, Terry O’Reilly of the Boston Bruins is a legend of the enforcer role. “Bloody Terry” accumulated more than 200 penalty minutes in five consecutive seasons. During the 1979-1980 campaign, O’Reilly accumulated 265 minutes in the sin bin while playing in 71 games. He continued the trend in the playoffs, amassing 69 PIMs in just 10 games played.

O’Reilly wasn’t a mere pugilist, however. During the 1977-1978 season, he led the Bruins in points (90) and penalty minutes (211).

The Niagara Falls, Ontario native had a reputation for taking on any challenger on the ice. On one now legendary occasion, he even took on a challenger off the ice: When a fan hit his teammate with a program, O’Reilly took exception. The enforcer took off into the stands after the offending party, which earned him an eight-game suspension.

In his 891-game career—all of which was spent in Boston—O’Reilly accumulated more than 2,000 penalty minutes.

2 Bob Probert

Via bigmouthsports.com

Robert Alan Probert relished fighting in a way few NHL players have. The Detroit Red Wing even battled his former “tag-team partner” Joey Kocur.

Over the course of his career, Probert dropped gloves 283 times (in 935 games). He accumulated more than 3,000 penalty minutes for his efforts and was a bad boy off the ice too, with legal issues and drug problems aplenty.

The 6’3’’, 230-pound Windsor, Ontario native was the undisputed best fighter of the 1990s. Dial up a Probert fight video on YouTube and watch the way he grips onto and tees of on opponents.

For his career, Probert averaged 3.53 penalty minutes per game, fifth all time, and his fights with other top enforcers are legendary. Wendel Clark, Craig Coxe, Tie Domi, Stu Grimson, Marty McSorley; Probert dropped gloves against them all and battered them all.

Sadly, the fearsome winger dropped dead on a boat on Lake St. Clair of a heart attack in 2010.

1 Dave “Tiger” Williams

Via hockey-fights.com

Who else? It’s only appropriate the NHL’s all-time leader in penalty minutes finds his way to the top of the list.

Williams spent more than 4,400 minutes in the penalty box during his 14-year career (regular season and playoffs combined). He averaged 4.12 penalty minutes per game, which is second all-time.

Tiger reached the 300-mark for penalty minutes in a season six times during his career, which was primarily played with the Maple Leafs, Canucks, and Kings. He bettered the 250 penalty minute mark an impressive 10 times.

Well-regarded during his time in pro hockey’s top circuit, Williams could also tally points. The Saskatchewan native scored 241 goals in his career. During his final full season of play, the Kings’ 1986-1987 campaign, Williams netted 16 goals and tallied 358 penalty minutes.

In 1987, he also did something unique to the enforcers on this list: released a cookbook entitled Done Like Dinner: Tiger in the Kitchen.

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