Ah the topic of fighting in the NHL. It leaves no one indifferent. People are often for it or against it. Few seem to be somewhere in between. Off those in favour, you can have a number of different interpretations, or frequency, or reasons when to do it and when not to. Over the years, the NHL has been trying to get away from it, likely due to a liability issue. A lawsuit launched by a group of 318 former NHL players reached a settlement back in 2019 and the league obviously wants to avoid others to do the same. By limiting fights, they’re hoping that it will show due diligence on their part.
But what about the game itself? While the league is washing their hands and saying the right things to avoid legal recourse, it doesn’t make it safer for the players in the league. The documentary I strongly everyone to watch is Ice Guardian. On-ice enforcers struggle to rise through the professional ranks of the world’s most prestigious hockey league, only to be confronted with a new found fight for the existence of the role itself.
It is my opinion that the Instigator rule is killing the game that I love, by allowing rats to run (and ruin) the show. They, along with sub-par refereeing and a Player Safety that is all but that, are huge contributors to making players more exposed and vulnerable than ever. It’s like the league, by protecting itself, is tying the players’ hands behind their back and allowing cheap shot artists to take shots without being held accountable for their actions. But that’s not about to change… for legal reasons.
Habs All-Time Best
As one of the original six teams, the Montreal Canadiens have had their fair share of enforcers throughout the years. Let’s break down the most storied franchise in the NHL and its best enforcers to ever wear the Red, White and Blue. But first, allow me to make an exception by eliminating one of the most feared enforcers of his time…
NOT Georges Laraque LW: 6’4″ 245lbs.
Georges Laraque was the undisputed heavyweight for years and I was thrilled when the Canadiens signed him as a free agent in 2008. While with the Oilers, he was feared by anyone having to drop the gloves with him. In two seasons in Montreal, he appeared in 51 regular season games and racked up 89 minutes in penalties. He was in 13 fights for the Habs.
But the Canadiens didn’t get the player they were looking for. Laraque thought that he was a hockey player and when enforcers change their game, they become useless. The joke in Montreal was that he was sending faxes to opponents asking if they wanted to fight. Laraque was certainly one of the toughest fighters ever to play in Montreal, but he was far from that when he played in Montreal. Who can forget when Milan Lucic injured Mike Komisarek in a fight and seeing Laraque chase the Bruins’ player all night. He never dropped the gloves. He did the Brad Marchand instead (without the goals) and simply talked to him. The great John Ferguson must have been turning in his casket! That’s not what he was getting paid for. Fans never really forgave him for it.
10- Doug Risebrough C: 5’11” 183lbs.
Doug Risebrough played for the Canadiens eight seasons from 1974-82. He was a tough checking forward and many in my generation remember his as the pivot on the Habs’ energy line of the 70’s, with Yvon Lambert and Mario Tremblay. The scrappy Risebrough was an agitator who was also perfectly willing to fight. Despite his size he would take on all comers. Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Stan Jonathan and Jim Schoenfeld were among the players he fought.
9- Sheldon Souray D: 6’4″ 233lbs.
Sheldon Souray was a talented defenseman with a booming shot. That’s what people remember most about him. That and how Jason Spezza made him look foolish a couple of times. In his five-and-a-half seasons in Montreal, he was often injured, most notably with a bad wrist. Because of it, he wasn’t supposed to fight a lot but when he did, watch out! The guy could throw them with the best in the business. He has made many enforcers look bad while with the Canadiens.
8- Donald Brashear LW: 6’3″ 237lbs
I hesitated putting Donald Brashear on this list. While with the Canadiens, his fights were mostly grabbing his opponents and staying in tight, with useless punches behind their helmets. I do believe that he would have ranked much higher had stayed in Montreal longer because he became a better enforcer after he was traded. He played 111 regular season games in his first four years in the league with Montreal. It was only 1995-96 that saw him get a chance to play in a significant number of games. During those 67 regular season games in 1995-96 he put up 223 penalty minutes. According to HockeyFights.com he had 22 fights that year.
7- Lyle Odelein D: 5’11” 200lbs.
Lyle Odelein was a tough, physical defenseman. He spent the first seven years of his career in Montreal, and he fought when he had to. He was also a good stay-at-home defenseman. Odelein wasn’t your typical heavyweight but he had no fear. He faces several true heavyweight during his time with the Canadiens, guys like Bob Probert, Chris Simon, Dave Brown, Marty McSorley and Tim Hunter amongst others.
6- Shayne Corson LW: 6’1″ 202lbs.
Shayne Corson spent six seasons in Montreal and he was the team’s first round pick in 1984. He was your typical power-forward. He could skate, he could hit, he could power through the defense… and he could fight. Corson wasn’t as big as most of the people he fought but he had no fear. He would drop the gloves against anyone challenging him, no matter what their name or reputation was. He’s won some, he’s lost some. But he was right in there every time.
5- Larry Robinson D: 6’4″ 225lbs.
It feels a bit weird to put Larry Robinson into the enforcer category as he was one of the great defenseman ever to play the game. He was tough defensively, an offensive force… and he could fight. The one they nicknamed ‘Big Bird’ didn’t fight a lot, but when he did, everyone noticed. A big man, with a ton of reach, he could and did take on the best fighters of his era. He was too valuable to spend his time fighting but he would on occasion drop the gloves to make a point, help a teammate or protect Ken Dryden or other Canadiens’ goalies. A good comparative today would be Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber.
4- Pierre Bouchard D: 6’2″ 205lbs.
Pierre Bouchard was the son of Hall of Famer Emile “Butch” Bouchard, who has his number 3 retired by the Canadiens. In a survey of the best “tough guys” of the first 100 years of Montreal Canadiens, in finished third in voting. Bouchard was the fourth or fifth defenseman on the Montreal Canadien legendary dynasty of the ’70s.
His willingness to take on anyone, including Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and Wayne Cashman, made up for the fact that he didn’t fight a lot. Unfortunately for him, people remember more his loss to the much smaller Stan Jonathan of the Boston Bruins. But he was the tough guy prior to Chris Nilan joining the team.
3- John Kordic RW: 6’2″ 210lbs
The John Kordic story is a sad one. He made his NHL debut with the Canadiens at the end of the ’85-86 season and he ended up playing in 18 of the Habs’ 20 playoff games that year when they went all the way to win the Stanley Cup. Kordic was brought in to provide Chris Nilan. In a somewhat surprising event, Kordic was traded to Toronto for Russ Courtnall. On a hockey stand point, the Habs won that trade but they lost their enforcer.
Kordic could throw punches with both hands and caught many off-guard with his style. Mario Tremblay once described Kordic as a specimen of fitness, ripped and toned. On August 8, 1992, after overdosing on drugs and being involved in a struggle with police at Motel Maxim in L’Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec, Kordic died of lung failure due to heart malfunction. He was only 27 years old. May you RIP John…
2- Chris Nilan RW : 6’0″ 205lbs.
Chris Nilan was one of the greatest fighters in NHL history. Not that it will matter to you, readers, but he was one of my all-time favourite Montreal Canadiens for his fearless and never-die attitude. Drafted by the Habs, he spent nine season defending his teammates wearing number 30 for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. Pound for pound, Nilan is one of the toughest players to ever skate in the NHL. He was to Guy Lafleur what Dave Semenko was to Wayne Gretzky. No wait, that’s not fair to Nilan, who was also a good hockey player. He was to Lafleur what Marty McSorley was to Gretzky.
When you hear someone say “Knuckles”, which hockey fan doesn’t immediately think of Nilan? Chris didn’t want to just be a fighter, a role he truly enjoyed on and off the ice. In his last three full seasons in Montreal he scored 15, 21 and 19 goals and led the league in penalties in the first two of those years.
Chris was as good a fighter as anyone who ever filled that role in Montreal. What I remember most about watching him is that if he didn’t win a fight early in a game, you knew that he would take on the same player again later in that game and win the second one. A Pitbull-like attitude. I strongly recommend reading his book: Fighting Back the Chris Nilan Story.
1- John Ferguson LW : 5’11” 190lbs.
John Ferguson was the best, most fearsome fighter of his era. By today’s standards, he wasn’t a big man for an enforcer. He was the NHL’s undisputed heavyweight champion from the moment he entered the league in 1963 and until he left after Montreal’s Stanley Cup season in ’70-71. He earned 67 fighting majors among his 1,214 penalty minutes in 500 regular season games.
Don’t be mistaken, Ferguson was also a hockey player. His 20 goals and 42 points were third on the team in 1966-67. After expansion he managed a career-best 29 goals and 52 points in 1968-69.
There you have it folks. I, like many ‘old school’ fans, miss enforcers in the NHL. When you talk to players (not the rats), they miss it too. These guys were amongst the most loved and respected by their teammates. They knew that enforcers had their back. That’s why I find hypocritical when I hear Wayne Gretzky, who played his career protected by Dave Semenko and/or Marty McSorley, speaking against fighting in the NHL. If you see Guy Lafleur, ask him what Nilan represented on his team and for himself on the ice. If he’s honest, he’ll tell you that Knuckles was a huge factor in his success. Go Habs Go!