Top 10 Toughguys

Dave Semenko. (SUN FILE PHOTO)

Dave Semenko. (SUN FILE PHOTO)

MURRAY GREIG -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 PM ET

Murray Greig has trained and managed professional boxers and has worked the corner in Canadian, Commonwealth and world title fights. Here he sizes up the fistic prowess of hockey players that he's personally seen drop the gloves ...

1. Gordie Howe

Arguably the greatest forward in the history of the game, Mr. Hockey was also - indisputably - the best fighter.

Forget about different eras, bigger guys, improved training and conditioning. In terms of pure fighting ability, Howe was the real deal - head and shoulders above the rest.

Not suprisingly, many of the ingredients that made this six-foot, 205-lb. strongman such a superb player also elevated his fistic prowess. The balance that made him almost impossible to knock down during the ebb and flow of a game never failed him when he shed the gloves. But the two most devastating weapons in his arsenal were an unteachable ability to concentrate maximum force in every punch, and the single-minded killer instinct of a shark.

The fight that would forever cement Howe's reputation as a player never to be trifled with took place on a February night in 1959, and fittingly enough it was at Madison Square Garden, the mecca of big time boxing. Howe's Detroit Red Wings were battling the New York Rangers, and midway through the first period Howe and New York's Eddie Shack collided violently behind the Rangers net. Neither player was the worse for wear, but referee Frank Udvari moved in to make sure their sticks stayed down.

Just as the tension seemed diffused, however, Rangers tough guy Lou Fontinato - six-foot-two and 220 pounds - came roaring in from the blue line and suckered the unsuspecting Howe with three hellacious lefts to the head. Fontinato, the NHL's reigning penalty king, had forged a league-wide reputation as a formidable heavyweight by resorting to such tactics to leave opposing players crumpled in a heap.

But Howe barely budged.

Instead, he shook off the punches, then grabbed Fontinato by the throat and pulled him in. At the same time, he cocked his left fist and fired a single punch that shattered Fontinato's cheek bone. Propping up the dazed Ranger with his right arm, Howe threw another punch that broke Fontinato's nose. A third left opened a huge gash over his eye. A fourth split both lips.

One of Fontinato's teammates later said Howe's punches "sounded like an axe splitting wood."

Nobody made a move as Howe delivered the coup de grace, a short, chopping right that dropped Fontinato face-first in a bloody heap. The Detroit star then turned and skated directly to the penalty box. Fontinato went to hospital.

Howe played another 20 years of professional hockey after that night, finally retiring at the age of 52. And you could count on one hand the number of guys who challenged him over those two decades. 'Nuff said.

2. John Ferguson

Ferguson, who learned to fight while carving out a reputation as one of Canada's best - and most vicious - lacrosse players, had just eight years in the NHL, all with the Montreal Canadiens. But his mile-wide mean streak and ability to throw bombs with both hands made him the league's No. 2 heavyweight (behind Howe) throughout his career. He also had the God-given toughness to keep winging power punches while shaking off the cleanest shots from his foes.

3. Dave Semenko

Wayne Gretzky's personal bodyguard would have been a force to contend with in any era. Big, incredibly strong and suprisingly mobile on his skates in the close confines of a fight, his specialty was getting an iron grip on the other guy's sweater and then pumping jackhammer jabs to the face to render him senseless. It worked every time. Semenko was so good, in fact, that he acquitted himself admirably in a three-round exhibition with Muhammad Ali at Northlands Coliseum on June 13, 1983. Ali was only five years removed from being heavyweight champion of the world and took the exhibition quite seriously.

4. Orland Kurtenbach

The first captain of the Vancouver Canucks was given a wide berth by everyone because his unusually long reach and quick fists spelled disaster. Kurtenbach was a master at luring opponents inside to try to tag him, for which he inevitably made them pay by landing the best uppercuts the NHL has ever seen.

5. Bob Probert

Probert's reputation was made in two memorable tilts with Tie Domi when the latter was with the Rangers, but perhaps his greatest performance was Feb. 4, 1994 when he fought Pittsburgh's Marty McSorely in a 100-second war at Joe Louis Arena. Halfway through, a single punch knocked the 230-pound McSorely to his knees - but the feisty Penguin regained his feet and won grudging respect from the appreciative crowd for continuing to throw long after he was beaten.

6. Dave Schultz

"The Hammer" was the leader of the infamous Broadstreet Bullies and the player most responsible for the "Philadelphia flu" that mysteriously infected visiting players during warmups at the old Spectrum. Schultz wasn't overly huge - six-foot-one, 190 lbs. - but his broad shoulders and wide stance made him almost impossible to knock down, even with a clean shot. His favourite tactic was to simply wade in behind a flurry of two-handed punches and keep throwing until the zebras arrived.

7. Dave Brown

Brown joined the Philadelphia Flyers late in the 1982-83 season as Schultz's heir apparent after amassing 418 penalty minutes in 70 games with the American Hockey League's Maine Mariners. At six-foot-five and 225 pounds, he was usually bigger than the guys he beat up - but he did so with a combination of panache and fluid punching ability rarely seen before or since.

8. Marty McSorley

McSorley was one of the first NHLers to be tutored by a professional boxing trainer, and it paid off in spades. Early in his career he was more of a "slapper" and rarely put together effective combinations, but after being introduced to some fundamentals he became a much more patient and intelligent fighter, able to land big shots from any angle.

9. Stu Grimson

Like McSorely, "The Grim Reaper" was another tough guy whose fighting ability improved dramatically over the course of his career. Early on, he had no balance and was susceptible to shots from shorter, stockier foes. But after a couple of years in the league he bulked up and became a legitimate terror, notching multiple wins over fellow enforcers Enrico Ciccone, Shane Churla and Krystof Oliwa.

10. Frank Beaton

The lone Top 10 contender from the World Hockey Association was nicknamed "Seldom" for good reason. And he helped transform the Birmingham Bulls from doormats to demons. Small by heavyweight standards (five-foot-10, 190 pounds), Beaton was a bonafide bomber who could pummel an opponent non-stop for a full minute, then turn around and do the same to another one ... and another one. The WHA was like that.

Beaton's lightning-quick fists first drew acclaim in 1976 when he took just 30 games to shatter the old Southern Hockey League's single-season penalty mark, but he became a legend on Thanksgiving Day 1977, when the Bulls hosted the Cincinnati Stingers. Just 24 seconds into the game, Beaton, along with teammates Gilles (Bad News) Bilodeau and Steve Durbano ignited an hour-long brawl that resulted in over 200 penalty minutes and left bleeding Stingers all over the ice.

The fracas prompted a reporter for the Cincinnati Equirer to write: "It was like watching the German army invading Poland ... absolute carnage everywhere you looked. And everywhere you looked, you saw Frank Beaton."

BEST OF THE REST

1. Maurice Richard

The Rocket could throw with the best of them. He once punched Rangers' defenceman Bob (Killer) Dill unconscious twice in the same game.

2. Bobby Orr

For my money, the best player in the history of the game - and a very underrated fighter. Tested by every tough guy in the league during his first two seasons, but rarely after that.

3. Stan Jonathan

Boston's feisty little ball of hate was a superb puncher who routinely beat up guys who outweighed him by 30 pounds. Very quick with both fists, and great on the inside.

4. Dan Maloney

The closest thing to a Kurtenbach clone in terms of uppercut power, Maloney was one of the few punchers who used more than just arm strength to generate force.

5. Mark Messier

The Moose was at his best when the game got chippy, and when he chose to fight, it was usually one-sided. Just ask Tim Hunter or Jim Peplinski.

6. Georges Laraque

Strong, with good balance and a puncher's eye, Laraque dominates today's enforcers like another George dominated his sport in the early 1970s. His name was Foreman.

7. Ted Green

An old school, stand-and-deliver scrapper, Green's fistic ability is unfortunately overshadowed by the infamous stick-swinging incident with Wayne Maki.

8. Joey Kocur

Another little guy who could really punch, Kocur was brilliant at getting inside on bigger fighters and landing short, straight shots to the face.

9. Tiger Williams

A wild, powerful puncher, Tiger's best attribute was mental toughness. It's not easy playing 17 years knowing you're going to be challenged every night.

10. Tie Domi

Tough to get off his feet and with impressive power in both mitts, Domi's only real weakness was against taller guys who could negate his efforts to get inside.

WORST FIGHTERS

1. Keith Magnuson

The late Blackhawks defenceman had about 3,000 fights and maybe won three of 'em. Heart as big as all outdoors - but no punch.

2. Gilles Lupien

Six-foot-six, but couldn't fight a lick.

3. Eric Nesterenko

Like Magnuson, Nesterenko had more guts than a slaughterhouse, but was more catcher than pitcher.

4. Terry Harper

Harper would challenge anyone, any time. Bad strategy for a guy who was more swarmer than fighter.

5. Reggie Fleming

Inevitably led with his face and lost as many as he won. But a crowd-pleaser who never backed down.


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