Hockey is a game of speed, skill and contact. There are few things in hockey that draw fans out of their seats like a big hit.
Hitting has been a part of hockey since the first puck was dropped. But as players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger, the level of physicality has continued to grow -- even as the number of fights has declined sharply over the last 25 years. Hard hitters don't have to be prolific fighters; they do, however, have to be willing to put their bodies on the line.
And while hits are counted these days, sheer volume alone doesn't make a legendary hitter. The "wow" factor matters a lot more than quantity -- those open-ice hits along the boards are a lot more memorable than merely bumping guys off the puck in the corner. Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, for example, is still remembered today for a hit against Philadelphia's Gary Dornhoefer in the 1976 Stanley Cup Final that actually broke the boards at the Forum -- and changed the series.
With that in mind, here's our take on the hardest-hitting players of all-time:
It's hard to imagine a player like Boivin as a defenseman in this day and age -- he was all of 5-foot-7 and no more than 185 pounds during a career than extended from 1951-70, and his nickname, "Fireplug," said it all. But when it came to body checking, Boivin was a giant. He was known for his explosive hits that broke up rushes -- and he almost always came away with the puck.
Boivin was born in Prescott, Ont., and began his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs before joining the Boston Bruins in 1955. Hall of Famer Tim Horton called Boivin "the toughest blueliner to beat in a one-on-one situation," and his low center of gravity made him one of the best hip-checkers (if not the best) in NHL history.
Boivin coached briefly after his playing days were done before switching to scouting. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
The Minnesota Wild forward has what Don Cherry calls "the prototypical hockey player name." It certainly matches his style of play.
Clutterbuck was actually a scoring threat in junior hockey -- he had back-to-back 35-goal seasons with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League before turning pro. But since joining the Wild early in the 2008-09 season, he's made a name for himself by hitting everyone in sight.
"I like to play a physical game and I think I play one no matter what anyone says," he said.
Clutterbuck holds the NHL record for hits in a season with 356, set in '08-09. He has led the League in hits in each of his three seasons, while boosting his goal total from 11 to 13 to 19 this past season. Surprisingly, he doesn't take many penalties -- his 79 PIM in 2010-11 were a career-high.
His career was hampered by injuries and ended early due to concussions, but Lindros in his prime was one of the most feared players ever to take the ice.
At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, with soft hands and a scoring touch, Lindros was heralded as a star before he ever set foot on an NHL rink. Once he did, he showed a combination of size, strength and skill that made him unique -- there was not (and may still not be) anyone who could combine those three traits the way Lindros did. He was a bull in a china shop, but with the swiftness of a gazelle and the hands of a surgeon. He could score, make a play -- or leave a player flat on his back after running him over.
Unfortunately for Lindros, he's as well known for some of the hits he took (the most famous was by Scott Stevens while playing for Philadelphia in Game 7 of the 2000 conference finals) as the ones he laid on opponents. His physical problems limited him to 760 games.
"I might have had a little more longevity if I wasn't so physical," he said after hanging up his skates.
But for those few years in the mid and late 1990s, he was as talented and physical as any player who ever stepped onto an NHL rink.
Chara has an advantage -- at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, he's bigger than anyone else, making it hard to get around him, especially along the boards.
"He uses his size like nobody else," teammate Shane Thornton said. "He's probably the strongest guy in the League.
Chara drew a lot of attention last season for a hit that left Montreal's Max Pacioretty sidelined for the season with a concussion and a broken vertebra. The controversy that followed overshadowed the fact that Chara is among the NHL's elite defensemen, as well as one of its most physical.
"He's just a physically imposing figure out there," Vancouver forward Chris Higgins said prior to the Stanley Cup Final. "You get the puck and you see him and sometimes you can't see the rest of the rink because he's that big."
Yes, Ovechkin is one of the great offensive forces in NHL history -- he scored 301 goals for the Washington Capitals in his first six seasons and pulls fans out of their seats with his offensive moves. But he's also a freight train on skates, and unlike most top scorers, who would rather avoid contact, Ovi seems to embrace it -- a trend that has seemed to magnify as Ovechkin's career has progressed. He's gone from 172 hits as a rookie to 241 last season, and is as willing to run over a defenseman as to go around him.
He's been in the top 30 in hits and scored 33 or more goals five times in his six NHL seasons -- no one else has done it even once.
The Caps might prefer that Ovechkin focus more on putting the puck in the net and less on putting opponents on their back. But until that happens, Ovi will continue to be a two-way threat to any opponent in his path.
For a comparatively small guy (5-11 and about 209 pounds, though he was less than that when he came into the NHL in 1992), Kasparaitis packed quite a wallop.
The New York Islanders made Kasparaitis the fifth pick in the 1992 Entry Draft, and he began making life miserable for opponents just four months later. Because of his size and his ability to get low, Kasparaitis quickly left his mark on onrushing opponents, many of whom found themselves sent flying by a submarine-style hip check that a lot of opponents thought was too low.
"Before every game, every team I ever played for against the Islanders said we have to watch out for this guy," then-teammate Randy Wood said. "No defenseman in the League makes you keep your head up more than this guy."
Kasparaitis' style was right on the edge of being dirty, and his willingness to hit anyone -- he drove Mario Lemieux crazy during the 1993 playoffs and had one of his best-known hits against Eric Lindros -- made him one of the most despised players in the League. But his ability to get under opponents' skin was exceeded only by his willingness to flatten everyone in the wrong-colored sweater.
Like Denis Potvin, Neely made the Hall of Fame for his offensive skills -- he was one of the NHL's most feared power forwards with Boston in the 1980s and '90s. But also like Ovechkin, he was more than willing to run over anyone who got in his way.
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Neely's approach to hockey was simple -- head for the net and flatten anyone who got in his way. That's how he scored 395 goals in just 726 regular-season games, most of them (344 in 525 games) for the Boston Bruins. But he was no stranger to the penalty box, either -- he had 117 or more penalty minutes six times and was just as comfortable driving a shoulder into an opponent as putting the puck in the net.
"If there's a straight line to the net, that's what he took," Boston General Manager Peter Chiarelli said last year when Neely assumed the role of team president. "Whether there's a player he had to punch his lights out to get there, in his way, he would do it."
Potvin was so skilled during his career with the New York Islanders -- he retired as the all-time leading scorer among defensemen -- that it's often easy to forget that he was one of the most physical blueliners in NHL history. As he once noted, "I like to hit, and I don't mind being hit" -- and he seemed to raise the level of his game when opponents targeted him.
Potvin was built like a tank, and his specialty was the open-ice hip check, a move at which he excelled. He had a knack for catching unsuspecting opponents at the right moment and sending them flying. Potvin may have learned some of his checking skills from a top-notch source -- Boivin was briefly his coach in junior hockey with the Ottawa 67s.
After spending 15 seasons, Potvin breezed into the Hall of Fame.
Phaneuf established himself as a big hitter even before he reached the NHL -- he laid out Rostislav Olesz while playing for Canada during the World Junior Championships.
The highlight-reel hits only increased when he joined the Calgary Flames in 2005. In addition to his booming shot, Phaneuf became a physical force on the blue line.
Like most good open-ice hitters, Phaneuf knows how to explode into the hit. When going after the puck against an opponent, he's also good at getting in a hit before the opposing player can respond -- and taking the puck.
Phaneuf, now with Toronto, has become a more well-rounded player.
Stevens was one of the few players in NHL history who could change the momentum of a game with a check rather than a goal (his nickname, "Captain Crunch," was well-earned). He played 22 seasons in the NHL, the last 13 with New Jersey, where his reputation for big hits flourished even as his offensive game tailed off.
Among the best-known recipients of Stevens' big hits were Eric Lindros, Slava Kozlov, Paul Kariya and Ron Francis (who, ironically, joined Stevens in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2007). Woe to any forward who tried to cut into the Devils' zone and didn't keep one eye out for Stevens, who made leveling unsuspecting opponents into an art form. He was the player others modeled themselves after -- Phaneuf, for one, said Stevens was the guy he looked up to.
"Hitting is part of the game," Stevens said. "That's the bottom line. I get hit and I'm going to give a hit."
Ironically, Stevens' penalty minute totals declined over the years, even as his reputation as a feared hitter increased. He averaged 198 PIM through nine seasons in Washington and St. Louis, but never took more than 124 PIM in a season with the Devils and had 80 or less in six of his last seven full seasons -- a stretch in which he was as feared for his physicality as any player in NHL history.
That's a really tough thing to play through; when you finally are thrown out there, the game is fast, intense, every single play matters, you've got to find a way to play through that and make smart plays. So it's a huge testament to [Vermette] and some other individuals in our locker room that are putting their own ego, their own wants and needs aside, and are ready for those opportunities when they do come.
— Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews on teammate Antoine Vermette, who returned from being a healthy scratch in Game 3 to score the double-overtime winner in Game 4