Hockey requires a certain level of toughness. Get stitches, go back in the game. The code for hockey players demands a willingness to sacrifice your body for the team goal. Players not only play through injuries, but they also throw themselves in front of 90mph slapshots, and if an opponent doesn’t play by the written rules, the unwritten rules require someone to fight them. And the Pittsburgh Penguins have employed plenty of extraordinarily tough players.
Unlike other Top 5 lists, we opened this one to public input. Some of the definitions of “toughest Penguins” were surprising. Yes, Mario Lemieux beat cancer, and a myriad of players played through painful injuries, but that alone doesn’t make a player one of the toughest of all time.
Lemieux is the greatest in many categories, but he won’t make the toughest list.
Nor does being a fighter guarantee inclusion. There have been a lot of players who were willing to drop the gloves at a moment’s notice but didn’t necessarily inspire fear or reverence from opponents.
The list is for the bruisers, the warriors, those who rattled their opponent’s teeth and those whose mere presence changed the games.
The Penguins didn’t switch to the black-and-gold sweaters until January 1980, which was a few months after the official NHL-WHA merger. So, the Toughest Penguins of the Black and Gold Era list won’t include players before 1979, but we give special mentions to Dave Schultz and J. Bob “Battle Ship” Kelly, who were players famous for their fists. Heck, the mid-1970s Philadelphia Flyers built Stanley Cup winners on bullying opponents. If we included players before the merger and offensive explosion, our list would be dominated by them.
And, let’s be honest, less than 5% of our readers have seen any of those players. It leads to debating players from wildly different eras who most of us didn’t see on the ice, and none of that is much fun. So, let’s acknowledge the Penguins history and badass players like Schultz and Kelly.
Instead, the spirit of those players embodied in the modern NHL players is what we’ll use to decide the toughest players. The ability to drop the mitts is essential, but the ability to quiet an unruly opponent with merely the threat of fighting is more important. A grinding game, rock-ribbed determination, and a constant physical presence are the other factors.
Had the Penguins not traded defenseman Erik Gudbranson earlier this season, he would have been a strong contender to make the list. Have you seen anyone else keep Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson on his better behavior? However, Gudbranson didn’t play 40 games as a Penguin, and so it’s tough to hand him a spot.
Other honorable mention tough guys included Brooks Orpik, Douglas Murray, Brendon Morrow, Kelly Buchberger, and of course, Jay Caufield.
5 Toughest Pittsburgh Penguins in Black and Gold
5. Krzysztof Oliwa
The Polish Hammer is the only Polish player to have his name on the Stanley Cup. For over a decade, he was one of the most intimidating presences on NHL ice. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound enforcer played 83 games over two seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins and had a whopping five points (1g, 4a).
In 410 NHL games, Oliwa racked up an impressive 1447 penalty minutes, including 281 with the Penguins. In an era of diminishing fights, Oliwa pummeled opponents 180 times. He fought Jody Shelly eight times, and Tie Domi four times.
The Penguins acquired Oliwa in January 2001 to protect the newly unretired Mario Lemieux. Oliwa treated his precious cargo well. According to HockeyFights.com, Oliwa shed his gloves 19 times in 36 games, split between Columbus and the Penguins that season.
4. Paul Baxter
Baxter set the Penguins all-time single-season penalty minutes record in 1981-82 with a staggering 409 PIMs. He is also forever the all-time WHA penalty minutes leader with 962 PIMs.
We checked with some of our favorite longtime members of the Penguins organization about Baxter. Since the vast majority of our readers didn’t see Baxter, we needed a little help to assess the defenseman. There is no doubt; he is a premier member of the long line of Penguins tough guys. Our sources used phrases such as “willing and able (to fight),” and “could be dirty.” And he backed it up.
Baxter wasn’t a big player. He was just 5-foot-11, 200-pounds, but he enjoyed the dark arts and wasn’t shy. He was drafted by the Penguins in the third round of the 1975 but chose the WHA Quebec Nordiques. Eventually, he spent three years with the Penguins beginning in 1980. He was drafted in the 1970s and was a throwback to the craziness of the era.
3. Gary Roberts
Roberts was once a 50-goal scorer and pure offensive threat but a severe neck injury that forced him to miss most of three seasons from 1994-1997 altered the course of his career, his life, and plenty of players who followed. Roberts’ intensity and ability impose his will upon his team and the opponent was unlike anything Pittsburgh Penguins fans had seen before.
The boogeyman checked under his bed for Gary Roberts. Opponents backed away from the Penguins winger with the Clint Eastwood stare. His toughness lifted his team. Since his retirement, his legendarily intense off-ice workouts with players have changed a few careers, too.
The team acquired Roberts to mentor the young 2006-2007 Pittsburgh Penguins, and a year later, with Roberts, they were in the Stanley Cup Final.
How tough was Roberts? During the 2007-08 season, he refused help and skated off the ice with a broken leg. He set the standards for mental and physical toughness well beyond playing with an edge.
2. Marty McSorely
If Paul Coffey, who played for the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins in his prime, was the premier offensive defenseman of the era, then McSorely was the premier hammer. There wasn’t a tougher defenseman in the game, nor was there a more feared fighter. McSorely’s scraps with fellow heavyweight brawler Bob Probert were Sportscenter highlights, back when ESPN remembered hockey existed.
McSorely’s fourth and final go with Probert in 1994 is one of the great hockey fights of all time. It was 15 rounds of Ali vs. Frazier.
The defenseman was a pounding physical presence well beyond trading knuckles. His bodychecks left bruises, and McSorely’s presence was a stop sign to shenanigans. Many fans may remember his half-season run with the 1993-94 Penguins, but he also began his career in Pittsburgh in 1983-84 and played 15 more games as the enforcer for a rookie Mario Lemieux in 1984-85.
1. Rick Tocchet
As a player, Rick Tocchet was tough as nails. As the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, he was the 6-foot, 214-pound immovable force and prominent grit on very tough teams.
The Penguins acquired Tocchet as part of the 1992 blockbuster trade, which propelled them to a second consecutive Stanley Cup. Tocchet brought hard shoulders to Pittsburgh, literally and figuratively. 1992 Penguins coach Scotty Bowman recently told PHN that Tocchet changed the team. His leadership, intensity, and toughness are legendary.
The on-the-record stories are as impressive as the off-the-record tales. Old teammates tell stories of Tocchet intimidating opposing teams with firm “promises.” Most opponents didn’t bother to find out if Tocchet was bluffing.
If his intimidating physical presence wasn’t enough, he also played with a broken jaw in 1992. In 150 games with the Penguins, Tocchet scored 76 goals and earned 435 penalty minutes.
Tocchet was the toughest player on the ice. He overpowered opponents, and in 1992-93, he scored 48 goals with 252 PIMs with the Penguins.
As an assistant coach, he also got Phil Kessel to buy-in. That’s how tough Tocchet is.