The Most Memorable Fights in NHL History

The Most Memorable Fights in NHL History

Whether you love or hate the fighting in NHL games, nobody can deny that the brawls have had a major influence on the way the game is played, how teams are formed, and the overall shape of the progression of the sport – for better or for worse. This is why we’re going to talk about the most memorable fights in NHL history. But before we get into the details of each of these fights, we’re first going to look at why fighting still exists in the sport, as well as when and how the fighting started.

Why fighting in the NHL still exists

If you’re a passionate fan (and maybe even someone who enjoys NHL betting), you might be wondering why fighting exists in the sport at all. Going as far back as 1922, the NHL had punishments for players who got into fights, although they are seen as “soft” when compared to rules regarding fighting in other sports. 

For example, the NFL dishes out in-game punishments (such as 15-yard penalties or ejection from the game, depending on intent) but also fines players upwards of $35,000 for fighting in a game. In comparison, NHL players are forced to sit out of the game for five minutes if a referee punishes them for fighting, with players only risking ejection (or worse) if they rack up multiple penalties in a single game. The coach, player, and team also risk being fined, but these individual fines are smaller (the coach can take a $10,000 hit for a player’s first offense) than the fines in the NFL. 

This is probably why, despite their best efforts to keep to the “fair play at all times” motto that became popular in areas such as Toronto, the gloves continued to come off during play to this day, with some players pushing the rules regarding fights as far as possible. 

When and how did the fighting start?

One of the earliest fights documented by hockey historians, and possibly one of the most important, took place in Ontario in 1890 during a game between the touring Rideau Hall Rebels, out of Ottawa, and the Granite Hockey Club, who were at home in Toronto. In the article “From deaths to monsters, a history of fighting in hockey” from Sports Illustrated, the authors explained that it was a significant event because it helped drive the formation of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) by Arthur Stanley – the son of Lord Stanley Preston and the founder of the Stanley Cup. In the season following this epic fight, he would meet with other prominent figures in hockey to bring this organization to life. 

While the OHA had come together to create more structure for hockey as a whole, they minced no words in stating that the fighting should cease. Kevin Slater, a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, said, “Specifically, they didn’t like getting their asses kicked.” However, despite the best intentions of the sports’ rule-makers, fighting would remain a part of the game even until today. 

It’s this long history of fighting in the sport that brings us to the reason we are here – to revisit some of the greatest NHL fights in history.

The 12 memorable fights in NHL history

1979
1. Bruins vs. Rangers

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If you’re talking about big hockey brawls, what better place to start than here. This fight is frequently discussed by fans, who consider it to be the most epic punch-up ever. 

In 1979, the Boston Bruins (who frequently appear on this list) took on the New York Rangers in what can only be described as an absolute brawl. Just as the third period was ending, Phil Esposito made an incredible shot that was only stopped by an even more incredible Gerry Cheevers. This unbelievable save at the goals in the last seconds of the period enraged Phil Esposito, who smashed his stick in frustration and left the ice. 

Soon after Esposito left for the dressing room, the rest of the players gathered in the center of the rink. Just as things seemed to calm down, a fight broke out between the two teams. While it’s hard to tell from the original footage, a New York Times piece, “Over the Glass and Into Hockey Lore,” describes how this fight started after Al Secord returned a sucker punch that Ulf Nilsson had given him earlier in the game. The fans also got involved, and some Bruins’ players eventually climbed into the stands to get at the spectators. It was here that Mike Milbury famously assaulted one of the Rangers’ fans with their own shoe!

2002
2. Bruins vs. Capitals

The Bruins have a long list of some intense and brutal NHL fights, and high on that list is a 2002 game when the Bruins took on the Washington Capitals. With the Bruins ahead 6-3 in the second period, Stephen Pete of the Capitals and PJ Stock of the Bruins lined up on the blue line. According to fan site Stanley Cup Chowder in their piece “Friday Night Fights: Stephen Peat Vs. P.J Stock,” Peat was put in by Coach Ron Wilson to sort Stock out for an earlier run on Washington’s Rob Zettler. Peat let Stock know why he was there, and seconds after the ref dropped the puck, a fight broke out between the two. 

In a brutal exchange of some incredible punches, Pete and Stock, who had fought before, went at each other. These are two guys who can throw a serious punch, and they did. In a blur of hooks from both players, it’s hard to believe either of them were still standing after the first set of punches. Even though Stock lost his helmet early into the fight, he didn’t back down, and as the players were separated (both were still standing and willing to continue), Stock skated off with his fist in the air, and the Boston crowd went wild.

1987
3. Bruins vs. Canadiens

Sure, this was a Bruins vs. Canadiens game, but when you’re talking about Bruins vs. Canadiens in the 80s, you’re really talking about Jay Miller vs. John Kordic. These two giants on the ice fought each other eight times over their careers, so when it came to the November 12, 1987 game, there was a long-standing grudge to be settled.

The fight broke out, and in an instant, Kordic got some great hits in and Miller couldn’t seem to keep up. After the fight was broken up, Miller skated by the Canadiens bench and put up one finger (you can guess which) and told them his team would be number one. 

1978
4. Bruins vs. Canadiens

Sure, this was a Bruins vs. Canadiens game, but when you’re talking about Bruins vs. Canadiens in the 80s, you’re really talking about Jay Miller vs. John Kordic. These two giants on the ice fought each other eight times over their careers, so when it came to the November 12, 1987 game, there was a long-standing grudge to be settled.

The fight broke out, and in an instant, Kordic got some great hits in and Miller couldn’t seem to keep up. After the fight was broken up, Miller skated by the Canadiens bench and put up one finger (you can guess which) and told them his team would be number one. 

2006
5. Hurricanes vs. Stars

Sometimes a fight can go on for ages, with the two men involved refusing to go down to the other. But sometimes a fight can end almost immediately, as if there were no contest. In 2006, in a game between the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes, Aaron Downey and Jesse Boulerice went at each other.

The linesmen gathered and let the players know that they’d better go fast, or they weren’t going to at all. This prompted the two to kick it off. 

Boulerice threw a few probing jabs, measuring his reach against Downey, then he finally went for it, driving his fist towards Downey. Downey countered the blow and returned an immaculate punch to the Hurricanes’ player’s jaw. Boulerice dropped instantly and, as the crowd stood and cheered, Downey turned and skated straight off the ice as if it were nothing.

1980
6. Bruins vs. Islanders

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This game from 1980 between the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders felt like a boxing match with some hockey in-between rounds. 

After a series of hard hits and a few scuffles here and there, the hard-fought first period came to an end. While it may have seemed the action was over, Mike Milbury skated over to Duane Sutter and began laying into him thick and fast. After only a few seconds, several other melees broke out, and the benches emptied.

It was almost impossible for the cameras to capture everything happening on the ice, but watching footage of the scene highlights other fights happening around Milbury and Sutter, including matchups such as Stan Jonathan vs. Bob Lorimer, Dwight Foster vs. Glenn Resch, Al Secord vs. Gord Lane, and Wayne Cashman vs. Gary Howatt.

2014
7. Flames vs. Canucks

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Have you ever walked into an ice rink and thought you accidentally discovered some kind of frozen fight club? If you’d arrived as the game started between the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks on January 18, 2014, you might have thought exactly that.

Before the game started, the Flames’ and Canucks’ lines were shuffling and trash-talking, and eventually, the defensemen lined up for the faceoff and dropped their gloves before the puck hit the ice.

Calgary’s Kevin Westgarth and Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa started throwing punches while their gloves were still in the air. Chaos broke out, and fights started cropping up all over the ice while the coaching staff from both teams were exchanging words at the benches.

2004
8. Flyers vs. Senators

In a game between the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers on March 5, 2004, Rob Ray and Donald Brashear started fighting practically inside the Flyers’ net. Ray and Brashear started throwing rapid-fire punches at each other, but Brashear managed to rip off Ray’s helmet and dealt him a few blows to the side of his face. It’s unclear whether it was the punches or Brashear tearing off Ray’s helmet, but as the referees pulled them apart, it was clear that Ray was bleeding quite badly from a wound on his head.

This wasn’t the end of the fight by any stretch, and it wasn’t even over for Brashear: His next opponent would come in the form of Brian Pothier, and 11 other fights broke out over the ice. This legendary brawl resulted in 419 penalty minutes.

1997
9. Flyers vs. Canadiens

A fight can start out of nowhere on the ice and for any reason. Even something as simple as a well-timed shove can set another player off and get him to drop his gloves. The Flyers had been capable fighters throughout their team’s history, but this time they’d be facing off against the Montreal Canadiens, who also like a good brawl.

A little light checking from Flyers’ player Daniel Lacroix behind the nets resulted in a brawl that would leave the ice littered with gloves, sticks, and other equipment in the aftermath. During the commotion, a few individual fights stood out, including Brantt Myhres of the Flyers knocking Canadiens’ player Craig Rivet out cold.

1996
10. Maple Leafs vs. Flyers

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The Flyers can’t seem to keep away from a good brawl, and this time around, they took on the Toronto Maple Leafs. After the game there were a few things the two teams wanted to settle – and the puck wasn’t necessary.

The fight started with Wendel Clark sending Daniel Lacroix hurtling towards the ice, and then getting a good couple of punches in before the two were separated by players and linesmen. The main event though, and the one that makes this fight so legendary, is the two goalies storming down the full length of the ice to face off against each other.

Ron Hextall and Felix Potvin went toe to toe in an NHL goalie fight that was one of the more impressive matchups in NHL history. The two armor-clad giants exchanged a flurry of shots to the head (both had ditched their masks), and once the commotion died down, the crowd cheered for the goalies as they left the ice.

1991
11. Capitals vs. Flyers

On February 7, 1991, the Philadelphia Flyers went up against the Washington Capitals in a match that would produce one of the greatest fights in NHL history. A hard hit on Don Beaupre behind the net from Craig Berube resulted in a mass of players brawling against the glass. While there was a lot going on in the crowd of refs and players, there were a few main offenders to pick from the altercation.

Flyers’ wing Craig Berube landed a massive hit on Don Beaupre; as they both hit the ice, Berube tried to regain his footing and was elbowed in the face before lying back down on the ice. Nick Kypreos is then spotted issuing a barrage of hits onto Dale Kushner, and the melee continued to rage until the officials could get everyone under control. All the while, the head coaches from both factions were screaming through the glass at each other.

2011
12. Penguins vs. Islanders

Just nine minutes into the first period of a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders, the first fight broke out between Pittsburgh’s Craig Adams and New York’s Micheal Haley. Despite losing his helmet early, Haley dominated the fight, knocking Adams off his feet with some well-timed right hooks. But this was just the calm before the storm.

Towards the end of the first period, the next fight broke out between Eric Godard from the Penguins and Trevor Gillies from the Islanders – two incredibly large men who can handle their own in a fight. After a few punches, and realizing they weren’t going to sort this out on the ice, they gave it a break and resumed play once more. The fights raged on throughout the game, with some skaters not making it back to the ice after they were ejected due to multiple penalties.

The game ended with 17 fighting majors, 59 penalties, 300-plus penalty minutes, nine game misconducts, and only six skaters left of the Penguins compared to the Islanders’ nine.

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