How the role of enforcer became specialized in the 90s, and 12 guys who cashed in

Jul 16, 2:29 PM

The 1990s might have been the golden age for fans of face-knuckling. While the 70s and 80s gave us names like Clark Gillies and Terry O’Reilly, the majority of heavies from those generations still took regular shifts and tried to contribute offensively (those two men in particular combined for 1,100 NHL points). There were exceptions as there always are, but they’re called “exceptions” for a reason.

By the 90s, the team “tough guy” became so specialized, so compartmentalized, that they trained for it exclusively. Guys focused so much on winning their fights - after all, that defined their status, their paychecks, and the league they were placed in  - that hockey took a backseat. They took boxing lessons, they hit the gym with custom workouts designed for combat, and they studied on-ice fighting technique. They wore gear that was more conducive to winning fights.

It became a sport within a sport, like boxing on ice. Win your fight against an established heavy, and your status would rise and you’d stay in the league.

It’s not that enforcers of the ‘90s were completely terrible at hockey. A guy like Troy Crowder was tough as nails, but only saw 150 NHL games because of his actual hockey skill set. Among the group below there’s the odd year on most guys stat pages that makes you go “Hey, Probert scored 29 one year?” or “Hey, Gino Odjick had a 16 goal season?” But the vast majority of seasons played by the group below included less than five goals and triple digit penalty minutes. (Probert was about the only guy who contributed offensively for more than a year. Odjick, for example, never topped five goals after his 16 goal season.)

Below are The Enforcers of the 90s. We couldn’t include everyone - there were a lot of them - but here are the names that stand out.

***

Bob Probert

Years: 1985-2002

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
935163221384-303,300

Bob Probert was the king, plain and simple. Contender after contender after contender tried him, and man after man after man lost. He was The Heavy. He was the ‘90s best enforcer, and the standard by which all others were measured.

Gino Odjick

Years: 1990-2002

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
6056473137-212,567

Rob Ray

Years: 1989-2004

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
900415091-383,207

A point every 10 games, and over 3.5 penalty minutes per game on average. Now that's a true '90s enforcer.

Joey Kocur

Years: 1984-1999

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
8208082162-972,519

Tie Domi

Years: 1989-2006

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
1,020104141245-543,515

Domi is the "smallest" guy on our list at 5'8". How tough do you have to be to hang with the other dudes on this list at that size? (Hint: very, insanely tough.)

Stu Grimson

Years: 1988-2002

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
729172239-412,113

The remarkable thing about Stu Grimson: he's an articulate gent who has since become a lawyer. Anyone that can take a punch like the one shown above (from Probert!) and maintain the smarts to practice law is pretty impressive in my books.

Dave Manson

Years: 1986-2002

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
1,103102288390-62,792

Manson's 390 points tops the list for '90s enforcers, barely edging out Bob Probert. The extra 100+ games played gave him the bump.

Kelly Chase

Years: 1989-2000

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
458173653-142,017

How's that PIM-per-game average? Geez.

Tony Twist

Years: 1989-1999

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
445101828-231,121

Fun fact: Todd McFarlane used the name "Tony Twist" in his Spawn comic book series. Twist sued, and won. They settled out of court for five million dollars!

Craig Berube

Years: 1986-2003

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
1,0546198159-813,149

It's pretty crazy to think that the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers was a pure thug who never hit 100 NHL goals despite playing over 1,000 games. But as it goes, some guys can think it better than they can play it. After all, Tiger Woods has a swing coach, doesn't he?

Marty McSorely

Years: 1983-2000

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
961108251359-183,381

McSorley makes the list purely because of his massive PIM total and his obvious role as protector of the team. He was an extremely useful player as well, which isn't the case for everyone on this list.

Donald Brashear

Years: 1993-2010

Stat line:

Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty Minutes
1,02585120205-932,634

And finally, Brashear makes the list despite his long career through the '00s, based on his clear status as a top-level heavy for over half the decade in the NHL.