Worst NHL Players of All Time
Of the four professional sports leagues that rule over North America, only the NHL truly embraces violence. It's a sport where two players can literally line up and punch each other in the face without the risk of suspension. That's not necessarily a good thing.
The NHL has seen its fair share of bad apples over the last century — players who behaved so badly on and off the ice that they grabbed headlines more for their misdeeds than for their hockey talent. But some were so talented at hockey that they killed people and only faced minor repercussions.
Here's a look at the worst players in NHL history.
15. Tom McCarthy
Born: July 31, 1960 (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Died: April 13, 2022, 61 years old (Chuburna, Yucatan, Mexico)
Teams: Minnesota North Stars (1979-86), Boston Bruins (1987-88)
Bottom line: After his decade-long NHL career was over, former Minnesota North Stars forward Tom McCarthy found a new career as a drug trafficker.
McCarthy was eventually nabbed for trying to move a truck full of marijuana across the Canada-U.S. border and sentenced to approximately six years in prison. McCarthy did most of his bid in the U.S. Federal Prison at Leavenworth, where he started a hockey program for which he earned accolades and was eventually allowed to complete the final year of his sentence in Canada.
After he was released from prison, McCarthy became a successful junior hockey coach in Canada. McCarthy was living in Mexico when he died of an aortic aneurysm in 2014. He was 61 years old.
14. Nathan Paetsch
Born: March 30, 1983 (Humboldt, Saskatchewan, Canada)
Teams: Buffalo Sabres (2005-10), Columbus Blue Jackets (2010)
Bottom line: There's a special spot reserved on these kinds of lists for professional athletes who decide to gamble on their sport — which is how we come to find ourselves talking about Nathan Paetsch.
Paetsch was a middling NHL defenseman for five seasons before he got caught up in an international gambling ring, which he facilitated and recruited bettors to gamble online illegally through offshore locations, using fake usernames and passwords. For his work, Paetsch received betting credits that he used toward his own gambling, although he says he "never bet on hockey." Which is rich.
The two brothers running the whole show, Mark and Joseph Ruff, were sentenced to nine years and 3.5 years in prison, respectively, for their roles.
13. Bob Probert
Born: June 5, 1965 (Windsor, Ontario, Canada)
Died: July 5, 2010, 45 years old (Windsor, Ontario, Canada)
Position: Left wing
Teams: Detroit Red Wings (1985-94), Chicago Blackhawks (1995-2002)
Bottom line: Few athletes in professional sports history have been as feared as the late Bob Probert, a legendary NHL enforcer who finished his career at No. 4 on the NHL's all-time list with 3,300 penalty minutes.
Before Probert died of a massive heart attack in 2010 when he was just 45 years old, he lived a life almost too wild to believe, including a 90-day stint in jail for trying to smuggle cocaine across the U.S.-Canada border in 1989. Probert, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, was in rehab five times by the time he was 22 years old and continued to pile on arrests in the years after he retired from hockey — at least three times for assault.
Probert's motivation for all the chaos was simple. "He was pretty adamant there wasn't an issue haunting him," said his biographer, Kristie McLellan Day. "He just took things a little too far."
12. Ulf Samuelsson
Born: March 26, 1964 (Fagersta, Sweden)
Teams: Hartford Whalers (1984-91), Pittsburgh Penguins (1991-95), New York Rangers (1995-99), Detroit Red Wings (1999), Philadelphia Flyers (1999-2000)
Bottom line: Not many players in NHL history have been as hated as Swedish defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, who won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. He was also the first European-born player with 2,000 career penalty minutes in NHL history.
Described by The New York Times as "the lowest form of human being" in 1996, Samuelsson's most famous on-ice incidents were centered on violence — when he ended Cam Neely's career with a knee-to-knee hit in 1991 and when Tie Domi knocked him out with a sucker punch in 1995.
11. Chris Simon
Born: Jan. 30, 1972 (Wawa, Ontario, Canada)
Position: Left wing
Teams: Quebec Nordiques (1992-95), Colorado Avalanche (1995-96), Washington Capitals (1996-03), Chicago Blackhawks (2003), New York Rangers (2003-04), Calgary Flames (2003-04, 2005-06), New York Islanders (2006-08)
Bottom line: In 2007 alone, Chris Simon was suspended for 55 games, including a 25-game suspension for swinging his stick "like a baseball bat" and hitting New York Rangers Ryan Hollweg in the head.
Even worse? Simon was a racist. One of his suspensions came after he used a racial slur against Edmonton's Mike Grier and then hit Grier in the head with his stick. Grier was the first Black NHL player to be born and train exclusively in the U.S. and would later become the NHL's first Black general manager.
10. Sean Avery
Born: April 10, 1980 (North York, Ontario, Canada)
Position: Left wing
Teams: Detroit Red Wings (2001-2003), Los Angeles Kings (2003-2007), New York Rangers (2007-2008, 2009-2012), Dallas Stars (2008)
Bottom line: Sean Avery was hated by opponents and teammates alike. But never was the hate as sharply focused as when Avery's teams faced the New Jersey Devils, as Avery was voted "The Most Hated Opponent in Devils' History" by New Jersey fans in 2020. This is a guy who was once arrested in New York for throwing rocks at cars … when he was 35 years old.
Avery took his schmuckdom to new levels off the ice, making disgusting comments about his ex-girlfriends and harassing the mother of his wife, supermodel Hilary Rhoda, to the point she needed a restraining order. Rhoda finally got smart and filed for divorce in July 2022 and needed her own restraining order to keep Avery away from her several months later.
9. Todd Bertuzzi
Born: Feb. 2, 1975 (Sudbury, Ontario, Canada)
Position: Right wing
Teams: New York Islanders (1995-98), Vancouver Canucks (1998-2006), Florida Panthers (2006-07), Detroit Red Wings (2007, 2009-14), Anaheim Ducks (2007-08), Calgary Flames (2008-09)
Bottom line: Todd Bertuzzi made one of the dirtiest plays in NHL history when he punched Vancouver’s Steve Moore from behind, knocking him out and slamming him face-first into the ice in March 2004. Moore fractured three vertebrae in his neck and suffered a grade-three concussion, vertebral ligament damage, facial lacerations and amnesia.
Bertuzzi was suspended indefinitely and fined $250,000. When the NHL lockout wiped out the 2004-2005 season, his suspension was upheld by leagues all around the world. Bertuzzi was also criminally charged with assault in the incident, to which he pled guilty, and eventually settled with Moore out of court in 2014. Moore never played pro hockey again.
8. Marty McSorley
Born: May 18, 1963 (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)
Position: Defenseman/right wing
Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins (1983-85, 1993-94), Edmonton Oilers (1985-88, 1998-99), Los Angeles Kings (1988-93, 1994-96), New York Rangers (1996), San Jose Sharks (1996-98), Boston Bruins (1999-2000)
Bottom line: Marty McSorley's legacy should have been as one of the greatest enforcers in NHL history and a two-time Stanley Cup champion — instead, he went into the books as one of the dirtiest players in the history of professional sports.
McSorley's 3,381 career penalty minutes were all just a precursor to what he would do in his final game when he became one of the few players in sports history to be charged and convicted of a crime for an in-game incident.
That came after he swung his stick at Vancouver’s Donald Brashear, striking him in the head from behind. Brashear, out cold on his feet, fell and smacked his head off his ice, causing him to seize. McSorley was convicted of assault with a weapon and never played in the NHL again.
7. Sean Burke
Born: Jan. 29, 1967 (Windsor, Ontario, Canada)
Teams: Teams: New Jersey Devils (1987-91), Hartford Whalers (1992-97), Carolina Hurricanes (1997-98), Vancouver Canucks (1998), Philadelphia Flyers (1998, 2004), Florida Panthers (1998-2000), Phoenix Coyotes (2000-04), Tampa Bay Lightning (2005-06), Los Angeles Kings (2006-07)
Bottom line: Sean Burke got off to one of the most remarkable career starts for any goaltender in NHL history. He led the New Jersey Devils to within one game of making the Stanley Cup Finals in 1988, before he was even technically a rookie, and then became the first rookie goalie to start an All-Star Game in NHL history in 1989.
Burke sat out the entire 1991 season over a contract dispute with the Devils and, while playing for the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997, was arrested for beating his first wife. He was sentenced to only 18 months probation despite a frantic 9-1-1 call from his wife telling police her husband "just beat her up again" and that she was "missing big chunks of hair." The Hurricanes didn't have him sit out a single game over the incident.
6. Slava Voynov
Born: Jan. 15, 1990 (Chelyabinsk, Russia, Soviet Union)
Teams: Los Angeles Kings (2011-15)
Bottom line: Former NHL defenseman Slava Voynov received a three-month jail sentence and three years probation in 2015 after he accepted a plea bargain on a charge of misdemeanor corporal injury to his spouse after originally being charged with felony domestic violence.
In reality, Voynov should have been charged with attempted murder after he punched, choked and kicked his wife at their Los Angeles, California, home before slamming her head through a flat-screen television. Voynov faced a deportation trial following the incident but chose to return home to Russia for good instead of staying and facing the music. He never played in the NHL again.
5. Bobby Hull
Born: Feb. 3, 1939 (Point Anne, Ontario, Canada)
Died: Jan. 30, 2023, 84 years old (Wheaton, Illinois)
Position: Left wing
Teams: Chicago Blackhawks (1957-72), Winnipeg Jets (1972-80), Hartford Whalers (1980)
Bottom line: Bobby Hull is regarded as one of the greatest players in NHL history. Hull was a two-time NHL Most Valuable Player, although he won just one Stanley Cup championship in 23 seasons.
Hull was also a serial woman-beater — each of his three wives accused him of assault, and he was arrested several times. "The Golden Jet" was also a racist who said Adolf Hitler "had some good ideas; he just went a little too far" in a 1998 interview.
Hull died in 2023 at 84 years old. A statue of Hull sits outside the United Center, where the Chicago Blackhawks play their home games.
4. Dany Heatley
Born: Jan. 21, 1981 (Freiburg, Wet Germany)
Position: Left wing
Teams: Atlanta Thrashers (2001-04), Ottawa Senators (2004-09), San Jose Sharks (2009-11), Minnesota Wild (2011-14), Anaheim Ducks (2014-15)
Bottom line: Dany Heatley was the NHL Rookie of the Year in 2002 — one year before he killed his Atlanta Thrashers' teammate, Dan Snyder, after Heatley lost control of his Ferrari while driving in a residential neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia.
Heatley lucked out when prosecutors accepted a plea deal to lower the first-degree vehicular homicide charge and ended up with three years' probation despite Heatley admitting he'd been drinking alcohol and going over 80 miles per hour at the time of the crash. Heatley played another 12 years in the NHL for four different teams.
3. Steve Durbano
Born: Dec. 12, 1951 (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Died: Nov. 16, 2002, 50 years old (Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada)
Teams: St. Louis Blues (1972-74), Pittsburgh Penguins (1974-76), Kansas City Scouts (1976), Colorado Rockies (1976-77), St. Louis Blues (1978-79)
Bottom line: Cocaine infected every part of professional sports throughout the 1970s and early 1980s — the NHL was no different than the NFL, NBA or MLB in that regard, and journeyman defenseman Steve Durbano was the poster boy for how things could go really, really wrong.
After playing seven seasons in the NHL in a haze of cocaine use, Durbano was arrested in 1981 in Toronto, Canada, after flying in from Miami, Florida, with some illegal carry-on luggage in the form of 474 grams of cocaine. At the time, Durbano estimated he had a $1,000-per-day cocaine habit.
Durbano essentially removed himself from society following an arrest for trying to recruit women into an escort service in Ontario, Canada, in 1995 and went to prison again. He moved to the Northwest Territories and died of liver cancer in 2002. He was 50 years old.
2. Craig MacTavish
Born: Aug. 15, 1958 (London, Ontario, Canada)
Teams: Boston Bruins (1979-84), Edmonton Oilers (1985-94), New York Rangers (1994), Philadelphia Flyers (1994-96), St. Louis Blues (1996-97)
Bottom line: The gap in Craig MacTavish's hockey career for the 1984-85 season came because he was in jail for one year after he was convicted for vehicular homicide after he got drunk, drove and killed 26-year-old Kim Radley while he was playing for the Boston Bruins. MacTavish was actually incarcerated for just nine months and then got to do the last three months in a halfway house.
MacTavish's reward after serving his sentence was to play with the Edmonton Oilers during their greatest dynasty, winning three Stanley Cups alongside Wayne Gretzky and then winning a fourth with the New York Rangers in 1994. MacTavish eventually got to be Edmonton's head coach for a decade — which is about how long he should have been in prison.
Seriously though … one year? For getting drunk and killing someone?
1. Mike Danton
Born: Oct. 21, 1980 (Brampton, Ontario, Canada)
Teams: New Jersey Devils (2000-03), St. Louis Blues (2003-04)
Bottom line: One day after the St. Louis Blues were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2004, center Mike Danton was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his former junior hockey coach and current agent, David Frost, and Danton was eventually sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. The arrest and conviction proved to be the tip of the iceberg.
Over the ensuing years, Frost and Danton's complicated relationship came further into light, as Frost was eventually charged with 12 counts of sexual exploitation of minors — all junior hockey players, including Danton's younger brother.
Frost escaped justice after The Crown fumbled the bag in the prosecution. Danton eventually said he'd tried to hire the hitman, who was actually an undercover cop, to kill his stepfather and not Frost, which was refuted by recordings with Danton specifically saying he wanted Frost killed. After Danton's release, he returned to professional hockey, playing for six more years in Europe.
Dishonorable Mention: Alan Eagleston
Born: April 24, 1933 (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada)
Role: NHLPA Executive Director (1967-91)
Bottom line: We had to save a special spot on this list for Alan Eagleson because, even though he never played a lick of hockey, he darkened the NHL's doorstep in some pretty epic ways by becoming one of the biggest scumbags ever associated with pro hockey.
Eagleson, a Canadian attorney, was the first hockey "agent" after he negotiated Bobby Orr's first contract with the Boston Bruins and then later expanded his influence as a promoter and labor union organizer for the NHL Players Association from 1967 to 1991.
It turned out Eagleson was a con man all along — in 1994, he was charged with 34 counts of racketeering, obstruction of justice, embezzlement and fraud by the FBI for, among other things, stealing from the players' pension funds and taking money from disability payouts for former players coming from large insurance companies as a "fee" for God knows what. He fought extradition to the U.S. but was also charged for some of the same crimes in Canada.
Eagleson was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison in Canada but only served six months. American journalist Russ Conway was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his work exposing Eagleston's crimes.