Sunday, September 25, 2005
Updated: September 30, 4:29 PM ET
Part V -- Top enforcers
The NHL is starting over, trying to recapture what makes hockey great. In a five-part series, ESPN.com remembers what made it that way in the first place -- hockey's players, rivalries, teams, games and enforcers.
These players are as old as the game itself, the kind of players whose very presence on the ice changes the demeanor of an opposing team.
Sometimes that change comes in the form of a ripple of hesitation, maybe flat-out fear. Sometimes the change comes in the form of a blood-boiling rage. And even in the new, wide-open NHL, there will always be room for a strong, physical presence.
Call them the enforcers, or the "pests." Every team has at least one of each type of player.
The enforcer at his best has always been able to turn intimidation into turnovers, mistakes and goals. John Ferguson, Chris Simon, Bob Probert were all fearless yet, at times at least, crucial parts of their teams' successes.
As for the pests, their impacts are the yin to the enforcers' yang. While the enforcer may see opponents hesitate or turn away, the pest draws opponents to him like flies. How many times did opponents leave their positions, forget their roles in an effort to get at Esa Tikkanen? Or Dale Hunter? Or Ken Linesman? Each time that happened, the pest had done his job, setting up a potential scoring chance for his team or drawing a penalty.
The best pests, the ones that are like salt on an open wound, are the ones who draw that crucial penalty, and moments later, are in on the power-play goal.
Ouch. Either way you cut it, ouch.
|Fans weren't left unscathed by enforcers, either. Tie Domi's 2001 altercation in Philly is an example.|
Dale Hunter was not only feared, he was respected. After being drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1979, he missed just three games in his first six years with the club. He could also score -- in 1983-84 he finished with 79 points in 77 games. During the Quebec years, he helped fuel the ongoing rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens. Quebec traded Hunter to the Capitals in 1987, and despite his reliable reputation, he was involved in one of the longest suspensions in NHL history. Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Hunter for 21 games for a blind-side hit on Pierre Turgeon while the then-Islanders winger was celebrating a goal in a playoff game. Turgeon suffered a separated shoulder and missed the remainder of the playoffs.
Coming into the league with fellow Wings draftees Steve Yzerman and Joey Kocur, Probert quickly made a name for himself as an enforcer. The 1987-88 season saw Probert develop his fighting abilities with an astonishing 398 penalty minutes, and he also found his scoring touch (he tied for third in team points with 62) and a spot on the All-Star team. He was also key during Detroit's playoff run that season, when Yzerman went out early with a knee injury. After numerous run-ins with the law and numerous returns to the league, Probert formally retired in 2003. He would always be remembered as a player who never backed away from a fight and came to his teammates' defense countless times.
One of the toughest Montreal enforcers of the 1960s, he won five Stanley Cups in his eight seasons with the Canadiens (1963-71). Many hockey insiders consider Ferguson the top muscle man of his time, and Ferguson vowed to be "the meanest, rottenest, most miserable cuss ever to play in the NHL." Though he was more than willing to drop his gloves, Ferguson was more than just brawn. He scored 15 or more goals in four of his first five seasons, then scored 29 goals during the 1968-69 season. Ferguson provided a missing ingredient of toughness to the Habs, who ended their three-year Cup drought a season after he joined them.
Long before Marty McSorley, Wayne Gretzky had Semenko watching his back out on the ice. One could make the argument that some of the Oilers' legendary scorers had a little extra room to skate because opponents were too afraid to cross Semenko. He was also an integral part of the Oilers' Cup wins in 1984 and 1985. During the 1984 playoffs, he scored 10 points in 19 games, lofty numbers for an enforcer. Another fun tidbit -- Mark Messier's uncle organized an exhibition boxing match between Semenko and Muhammad Ali on June 12, 1983.
Simon is an imposing physical presence, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 235 pounds. Earlier in his career, he was also known for his long hair. Early on in his career with the Capitals, opponents would tend to ease up off the puck in the corners, hesitant to take one of Simon's blistering hits.
A season after being suspended three games for making a racial slur at Mike Grier, Simon started his transformation from enforcer to power forward. His best season came in 1999-2000, when he had 49 points for the Caps, skating on the team's top line with Adam Oates. In 2003-04, Simon was traded to the Calgary Flames late in the season and helped the team reach the Stanley Cup finals.
You loved to have Lemieux on your team, but you hated having to play against him. A needler all the way, Lemieux was also one of the best clutch players of all time. After being brought up by the Canadiens late in the 1985-86, he made a name for himself in the postseason, scoring 10 goals, four of which were game winners, to help the Canadiens win the Cup. He won three more Cups, two with the Devils and one with the Avalanche, and his 19 playoff game-winning goals are second only to Wayne Gretzky's 24. Lemieux also spent a lot of time in the box (1,756 regular-season minutes, 529 playoffs). But Lemieux earned the status as one of the league's most hated players after he checked Kris Draper into the boards in a 1996 playoff series between the Avalanche and the Red Wings, sparking a feud between the two teams that continues to this day. Dino Ciccarelli on Lemieux after that series: "I can't believe I shook his freakin' hand."
Dave "Tiger" Williams
There is a reason he is nicknamed "The Hammer." As part of the Broad Street Bullies, Schultz helped the Philadelphia Flyers win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 with what one publication called a "fight first, play later" mentality. He ensured players kept it honest when skating around the more elite players on his team, picking fights with other teams' star players. "If I take out Brad Park, that's not a bad trade, is it?" he once said of the Rangers' early-'70s standout. Schultz's 472 penalty minutes in one season, which equates to nearly eight games, still stands as an NHL record. There is one mythical story about how Schultz swung a stick at a teenage Islanders fan. The kid's mother scolded Schultz, who was rumored to have answered "I'll get you too, lady." When the Flyers returned to play the Isles that same season, Schultz cursed at the kid's father and then squirted him in the face with his water bottle. Schultz played for the Kings, Penguins and Sabres before retiring in 1980.
Tiger Williams was best known for his enforcer roll, but he could also score goals. He played on five different NHL teams during his career. He was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 1974 until he was traded to the Canucks in 1980. He led the league in penalty minutes in 1976-77 (338) and 1978-79 (298). In his best season in Toronto, he scored 22 goals in 55 games before being traded to the Canucks part way through the season. By the time he retired in 1988, he played for five teams and held the NHL record for career penalty minutes at 3,966, a record that still stands.
Before being drafted by the Maple Leafs in 1988, Domi already earned the reputation of being an enforcer in the Ontario Hockey League. He played for the Rangers and Winnipeg Jets before returning to Toronto in 1995. He soon became a fan favorite for his bruising checks and fistfights. Adored by CBC analyst Don Cherry, Domi has taken on some of the biggies in the NHL, like Bob Probert and Peter Worrell. There are two incidents that stand out in Domi's career. First, during a 2000-01 road game in Philadelphia, Domi wrestled with a spectator who jumped from the second row and landed on the glass separating the penalty box from the crowd. Domi twice poured water over taunting fans in the front row before the attacking fan. Said Domi: "Hey, that's old-time hockey, it was perfect
he comes into my territory, that's what happens." During the playoffs that same season, Domi knocked out the Devils' Scott Niedermayer with a vicious hit near the boards with less than 20 seconds left in the game. Domi, who made a tearful apology at a press conference, was suspended for the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
O'Reilly was a hero to Boston Bruins fans, earning their respect as a blue-collar kind of player. He was tough deep in the boards and around the net. Nicknamed "Taz" as in Tasmanian Devil, O'Reilly was a part of those great Bruins teams in the 1970s, playing with Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and John Bucyk. His most infamous "enforcer" moment came when he was suspended for first 10 games of 1982-83 season for punching referee Andy Van Hellemond in the final playoff game against Quebec. O'Reilly was in the middle of a fight with Dale Hunter and hit the referee when he intervened.
The right wing played with Boston from 1972 through '85. As Orr once said: "Give me a team of Terry O'Reilly's and nobody is going to beat me."
• Gordie Howe
• Clark Gillies
• Esa Tikkanen
• Tim Hunter
• Joe Kocur
• Bobby Clarke