Why do NHL teams keep enforcers around in today’s day and age?
Well, in short, they don’t. Fighting is still around, and it probably always will be, until the players collectively change their minds about it. But, truthfully, the role of a pure fighter has been replaced… or, rather, it’s been altered.
The hired goons…
…of the old Smythe Division back in the 1980s are all but extinct in 2020’s NHL. However, that’s not to say physicality has lost its value—but there now needs to be a balance between those attributes and real hockey ability.
Sure, a guy like Milan Lucic can still be called upon to give his team a spark with a fight. But part of what makes him effective on the boards and down low is his ability to separate a guy from the puck before quickly spotting one of his linemates with an accurate pass. Zac Rinaldo is at his most disruptive when he’s asked—roughly once a month—to barrel in on the forecheck with his quick boots and steal pucks away with momentous hits. Matthew Tkachuk does his best to annoy his opponents with hard hits and scrappy play before allowing them to retaliate and take penalties against him.
This isn’t a list of the most feared fighters to ever don the Flaming C. If that were the case, Stu Grimson would qualify despite spending just five games with the Flames. No, today we’re looking at the elusive players who managed to rile up their opponents and the Saddledome faithful on a consistent basis while also proving their worth with the puck. To qualify as an effective tough guy, a player has to have routinely provided a tangible spark with hard hits and even fights while also combining hockey ability and sheer physicality to take control over the game.
We’ll be taking a look at the 10 players who, over the course of the Flames’ 40 year history in Calgary, have filled this role with the greatest ability. This list is in no order.
Back in the 1980s, the “Hunter” name could be found all over an NHL score sheet. Mark Hunter, a member of the Flames’ 1989 Cup team, played a pretty finesse-based game, registering three consecutive 30 goal seasons with the St. Louis Blues (although still amassing 1,426 penalty minutes in 628 games). Dave Hunter won three Stanley Cups as a grinding depth winger. Dale Hunter was a flat-out agitator, nicknamed La Petite Peste during his days with the Quebec Nordiques, but he could still be counted on to pot roughly 20 goals a year. Dale’s 3,565 PIMs in 1407 games rank second-most in NHL history.
Mark, Dave, and Dale all came from the same household in Petrolia, Ontario. But, in 1982, they were joined by another Hunter, this one from Calgary, Alberta, who played for his hometown team and who wore the “Hunter” name with the most authenticity. Tim Hunter routinely went toe-to-toe, gloves both on and off, with the likes of Bob Probert, Dave Semenko, and John Kordic. But, renowned for his defensive ability, Hunter quickly established himself as a fixture on the Flames’ depth chart both at even strength and on the penalty kill. He played in 11 seasons with the Flames, winning a Cup in 1989 and making it all the way in 1986. Hunter remains, to this day, the franchise’s all-time leader with 2,405 penalty minutes. He suited up for Quebec, Vancouver, and San Jose after leaving Calgary, reaching his third Stanley Cup final with the 1994 Canucks.
After bouncing around in the Canucks’ system for a few years, Ronnie Stern became a Calgary Flame at the 1991 deadline in a trade which sent Dana Murzyn to Vancouver. Stern emerged as a quality depth scorer for the Flames, routinely posting 10 or more goals in a season during a very low-offense era for hockey. He set his best pace in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, scoring nine goals in just 39 games, good for sixth on the team (one place behind fellow enforcer Paul Kruse, of all people—it was a weird year).
Unlike “Kruser,” whose 11 goal output in ’95 remained as a massive outlier in comparison to the rest of his career spent as a depth guy, Stern was a dependable third-line forward who contributed every year at even strength and on the penalty kill. He could also hang with the toughest players in the NHL despite his relatively unassuming 6′ stature. Stern weighed in at 200 pounds and had to use all of that strength in his battles against Darren McCarty, Basil McRae, Shawn Cronin, and Probert. He remained a Flame until 1997, when he joined the San Jose Sharks.
In his heyday, Gary Roberts was a tank on skates. Today, well, he still is. After retiring in 2009, Roberts opened up the Gary Roberts High Performance Centre and Fitness Institute in Toronto and has since earned a reputation as one of the most esteemed personal trainers for NHL athletes.
Roberts learned about fitness the hard way, being singled out by then-Flames coach “Badger” Bob Johnson for his poor conditioning at his first NHL training camp in 1984. Roberts earned a reputation as one of the league’s fiercest battlers after cracking the Flames’ lineup in 1986, dedicating himself to an intensive fitness regimen and recording over 200 penalty minutes in each of his first five full seasons. He was also able to back up his rough-and-tumble style of play with his knack for scoring goals, recording 39 in 1989-90, 53 in 1991-92, 38 in 1992-93, and 41 in 1993-94. He helped the Flames capture the 1989 Stanley Cup.
Perhaps Roberts’ toughest battle in his career came against chronic neck issues he faced during his tenure with the Flames. This injury forced him to retire in 1996, shortly after he made a short-lived comeback from the injured reserve and captured the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance and dedication towards hockey. But, once again, Roberts fought his way back, returning to the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997 and spending 13 more seasons in the league with five more teams after his initial retirement.
One of the NHL’s toughest customers in the 1990s, Sandy McCarthy debuted with the Flames in 1993 after being selected 52nd overall by the team in 1991. He spent parts of five seasons with the team in a grinding role, being asked to use his imposing 6’3″, 222 pound frame to his advantage down low and on the power play.
Very few players could stand up to a peak McCarthy in a fight. He almost exclusively took on the Grimsons and Proberts and Donald Brashears of the league and came out on top in most of those bouts. But he also managed to contribute offensively at a respectable bottom-six rate both at even strength and on special teams.
The Flames traded McCarthy and two draft picks (one of which became Brad Richards) to Tampa Bay in 1998 in exchange for the services of Jason Wiemer. McCarthy hung around the league until 2004 and spent time with Tampa, Philadelphia, Carolina, the Rangers (twice), and Boston.
Look, nobody is defending Lucic’s contract. The Flames owe him $5.25 million in each of the next three seasons and will be obligated to honour his no-movement clause—unless he chooses to waive, or the Flames buy him out—by protecting him in the 2021 Seattle expansion draft.
But, by trading James Neal to the Edmonton Oilers last July for Lucic’s services and the most publicized third-round pick in history, the Flames added one of the toughest customers in the league who can do some genuinely good work with the puck. Lucic is a very effective passer who sets up his linemates with quickness and accuracy. He has a hard shot. Sure, he’s not the most agile player—I once heard a Saddledome spectator call him “Lurch” instead of “Looch”—but he can keep up in a straight line. He improved mightily as the season went on and will probably remain a fixture on the second power play unit next season. He had 198 hits this season, good for 12th-most in the league, and he uses his 6’3”, 231 pound frame to his advantage down low and in front of the net.
Today, Jim Peplinski is well-known in Calgary and other large Canadian cities for the successful commercial vehicle leasing company bearing his name. However, back in the 1980s, Peplinski made his name known in many ways as a member of the Calgary Flames. “Pepper” served as Flames co-captain from 1984 to 1989, leading by example both as a solid offensive contributor and as a physical force to be reckoned with.
Here’s a picture of Peplinski, along with some of his 1989 Cup-winning teammates, taken nearly 10 years after his second retirement in 1995. Those Flames were tough but Peplinski (wearing the C) looks like he’s giving the camera a death stare without even trying.
Imagine squaring up against that guy in his prime. Well, lots of the toughest guys in the NHL did just that, including Probert (twice!), Marty McSorley, and Dave Manson. Peplinski spent ten seasons with the Flames as a tough scoring winger, recording 30 goals in 1981-82 and at least 15 goals on five other occasions. He retired after playing six games in 1989-90 before making a brief comeback in 1994-95, retiring again after another six contests.
Look, all of the other guys on this list scored 10 goals in a season at least a couple times. Brian McGrattan scored 10 goals in his entire NHL career. For a list that was supposed to be, at least in part, about “hockey ability,” this selection might seem like a bit of a stretch.
I’m sorry, I just can’t leave him off. McGrattan was a fun character guy on the 2009-10 team but he ascended into legendary status when he returned to the team in 2013. He scored seven of those 10 career goals in the 95 games he played over the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons while reigning undefeated as the heavyweight champion of the NHL. He went end-to-end against the Anaheim Ducks once and even turned future Flame Eddie Lack into Dan Cloutier for a brief moment:
His salute to the crowd following a bout with Vancouver’s Tom Sestito in his return to Calgary – a move that earned him a 10 minute misconduct – remains an indelible moment in recent Flames lore.
McGrattan’s biggest impact on the Flames and in the NHL has arguably come off the ice. After battling a drinking problem during his time with the Ottawa Senators and the Phoenix Coyotes, McGrattan sought help from the NHL’s substance abuse program and signed with the Flames for the first time in the summer of 2009 six months into his sobriety.
“Big Ern” has since become a respected mentor for fellow NHLers battling similar addictions, helping former teammate Jordin Tootoo in Nashville before coming to Calgary a second time and aiding with Micheal Ferland’s turnaround. The Flames added him to their player development staff in 2017 in a player assistance role, giving him the opportunity to fight hard off the ice for those in need.
In a few ways, Joel Otto was Mark Giordano before Mark Giordano could even skate. Undrafted into the NHL from Bemidji State, Otto received very few offers from pro teams after graduating, with some GMs offering a try-out to him only if he agreed to pay for the airfare to get there. Ultimately, then-Flames GM Cliff Fletcher offered the 23-year-old centre an AHL contract with the Moncton Golden Flames for the 1984-85 season.
By the end of the next year, Otto was more than just a regular in Calgary. He scored 25 goals as a rookie and found a key role as a shadow for Marcel Dionne and especially Mark Messier. Otto was a 6’4″, 220 pound pillar in front of the net on the power play and he racked up 20 fights (!!) in his rookie season, starting the regular season off with Tiger Williams and opening the playoffs with Semenko. Talk about heavyweights.
Otto further established himself as a key player in the Flames’ run to the Stanley Cup in 1989, scoring a controversial series-winning goal over the Canucks in the first round that definitely wasn’t kicked in and ending up with 19 points in 22 playoff games. He remained a Flame until he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers as a free agent in 1995.
We’re taking it way back for this one. Willi Plett and his hair wouldn’t look out of place playing guitar for a Spinal Tap tribute band, but he actually proved his worth as the first real power forward for the Flames franchise—in both cities. Plett recorded an increase in penalty minutes in his each of his six full seasons with the Flames, posting totals of 123, 171, 213, 231, 239, and 288 between 1976-77 and 1981-82.
Plett nabbed the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 1977 after scoring 33 goals and 56 points for Atlanta in just 64 games. He scored 91 goals over his four seasons in Atlanta before hitching a ride to Calgary with the rest of the team. Plett reached new heights offensively in Canada, scoring 38 goals and 30 assists in 78 games during the Calgary Flames’ inaugural regular season in 1980-81. He added eight goals and 12 points in 15 playoff games as the team reached the third round. Another strong season in 1981-82 saw Plett score 21 goals and 57 points in 78 games while also recording the aforementioned 288-penalty minute season.
The Paraguay-born Plett found himself embroiled in a feud with then-Flames coach Al MacNeil during the 1981-82 season. Fletcher ultimately decided to side with MacNeil, promoting him to be the Flames’ director of player development and professional scouting in the off-season. Meanwhile, Plett wound up being traded to Minnesota, where he’d be suspended for eight games just two weeks into his first season for slashing Detroit goaltender Greg Stefan right in the noggin.
This list isn’t ranked, but let’s be real: Jarome Iginla is the king of Flames tough guys. He’s a two-time Olympic champ who also has gold medals on his mantel from the World Juniors, two Memorial Cups, the World Championships, and the World Cup of Hockey. Iginla scored 625 goals and 1,300 points in the NHL, winning the Rocket Richard Trophy twice, the Lester B. Pearson Award, and the Art Ross Trophy. He was named the NHL’s best right wing in 2002, 2008, and 2009. And he earned all of these accolades while being a 6’1″, 210 pound monster on ice.
Many of Iginla’s personal rivalries are legendary. He tussled against everyone from the enforcers of the league to the other team’s stars. Look up “Iginla vs. Sean Avery,” “Iginla vs. Francois Beauchemin,” “Iginla vs. Derian Hatcher,” “Iginla vs. Vinny Lecavalier,” and “Iginla vs. Steve Ott” (to name a few), and you won’t just find scraps. You’ll be met with dozens of stories and comments about how the longtime Flames captain was as fierce and as respected a battler as anybody in NHL history.
Iginla didn’t always fight. But when someone got him to drop his gloves, you knew the game was about to reach an entirely new level.
Who did I miss? Who doesn’t belong on this list? Let me know in the comments section below.