There are tough guys and then there are the really tough guys who’ve thundered through the National Hockey League since the Rangers were born nine decades ago.
Of the menacing quiet types, there was New York’s Jack (Tex) Evans. He rarely fought because most opponents knew that Tex was not only a power-hitter physically, but as mentally tough as Cool Hand Luke on the best day Luke ever had. That Tex Evans is not on the list merely goes to show what a solid nine I hereby present.
This is a mixed group that has blockbusters dating back to the Original Rangers team of 1926-27 up through the post-expansion NHL. So, here we go, swinging away. See if you agree and let me know.
SEAN AVERY: There has never been a Ranger who so avidly looked for trouble — and got it, in spades. Often called “Puck’s Bad Boy,” Avery also could play the game and when he focused on offense, goals would come and his coaches — especially Tom Renney who got the most out of Sean — would be tickled pink.
But there was the trouble-making side of Avery that garnered more headlines than all the goal-scoring good he did for the Blueshirts. The most notorious episode by far wound up with the NHL actually writing what became known as “The Sean Avery Rule.”
It evolved during the 2008 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Avery’s Rangers had a five-on-three power play against the New Jersey Devils. When the power play began, Avery made his way to the front of the Devils’ net and near New Jersey’s legendary netminder Martin Brodeur.
What happened next was never seen before in the NHL. The Rangers’ agitator faced Brodeur, waving his arms and stick in an attempt to distract the Devils’ goalie. This scene drew the ire of the Devils on the ice, as well as referee Don Van Massenhoven, who threatened to give Avery a penalty.
The puck was eventually cleared out of the zone and when the Blueshirts stormed back to the New Jersey end, Avery scored to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
The day after the incident, the NHL created a new rule, stating that distracting the goalie in such a manner would result in a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Hence, Sean, the Menace, achieved lifetime notoriety for being Puck’s Bad Boy.
JEFF BEUKEBOOM: His name itself produced shivers up and down the spine of many opponents and for good reason. “BOOK, BOOK,” as The Garden Faithful would shout from the rafters, was big, strong and Gibralter-like on the 1994 Stanley Cup-winning Rangers.
The Ajax, Ontario native originally developed his aggressive side with the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s before he moved to Seventh Avenue in October 1991. Along with the equally tough, ex-Oilers teammate Kevin Lowe, Beukeboom’s presence and ability helped keep the crease clear for Blueshirts goalie Mike Richter.
Occasionally, the normally clean-playing defenseman drifted over the clean-dirty red line. This was evident during the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals against the Devils. In one of the most intensely-played postseason series, tempers often boiled over.
On this occasion, May 23, 1994, (Game 5) Jeff boarded New Jersey’s Stephane Richer so hard he left the Devils’ ace woozy. The NHL reacted by suspending Beukeboom for Game 6. Fortunately, the Rangers rallied to win that game and the next one to move on to the Stanley Cup Final and eventually win The Cup.
BILL COOK: Renowned for his scoring skills as a member of a legendary Rangers forward line that included his brother Fred (Bun) Cook and center Frank Boucher, Bill Cook played the game as hard as any NHL enforcer from any big-league era.
Part of Cook’s toughness could be traced to his service in the Canadian Army during World War I. Bill participated in some of the most intense battles in a conflict notorious for its excess bloodshed. Upon returning from the war, he embarked on a professional hockey career that began with the Saskatoon Sheiks in the mid-1920s and culminated with his long stewardship with the Rangers.
Unlike his super-clean center and longtime linemate, Boucher, who won seven Lady Byng Trophies, Cook played the game with his own frontier brand of justice. One episode reveals how extreme the Cook brand of tough hockey could be. It involved Bill and a younger Montrealer named Nels Crutchfield.
Here’s how Cook explained the episode:
“Crutchfield was interfering with me all game, and the referee wouldn’t do anything about it,” said Cook. “So, I finally caught Crutchfield with the butt end of my stick. Then he hit me right on the bean with the end of his stick. The next thing I saw was a million stars. When I finally came around, all I saw was the stockings of the players who were scrapping. I never saw so many people getting belted on the ice.”
What Bill didn’t see was his brother, Bunny, leading the Rangers’ charge over the boards. Boucher sensed that Bunny wanted to murder Crutchfield and rather subtly stuck his skate out, tripping Bun a few feet short of his intended victim. “Frank told me,” said Bill, “that he had to stop my brother, or he would have killed Crutchfield.”
After eight stitches had been embroidered in Bill’s wounds, he returned to the bench, “I was kind of groggy,” he admitted, “but I wanted to finish the game.”
The Rangers’ doctor outfitted him with a makeshift helmet, and Bill finally took his position on the right side of Boucher. Late in the game, he gained control of the puck and bobbed and weaved his way through the Canadiens’ defense to score the game-winning goal. Once again, Bill Cook’s toughness matched his skill level.
ART COULTER: Captain of the Rangers’ 1940 Stanley Cup-winning team, the Winnipeg native ranked among the all-time “Quiet Tough” NHL players. Even after he left the Rangers in 1942 and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, he continued to show his rough streak playing for the Coast Guard’s Baltimore-based Cutters in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League. The defense tandem of Coulter and Manny Cotlow is regarded among the most fearsome duets in ice annals.
As for Art’s Rangers years, Coulter was tall and muscular and without a trace of fat. He was teamed on defense with Lester Patrick‘s son, Murray, also known as Muzz. Any forward who attempted to bisect that defense was guaranteed a surplus of black-and-blue marks. Art also was a chief player in an innovative move.
Ranger coach Frank Boucher introduced a revolutionary offensive penalty-killing team in 1939 and Coulter was the anchorman with forwards Alex Shibicky and Neil and Mac Colville. So effective was the system that over the course of the season, the Rangers outscored their opponents almost two to one when they were shorthanded.
Coulter retired as an active player at war’s end and eventually moved to Florida. One of the game’s genuinely overshadowed heroes, Coulter was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974. Few were better at playing tough on the blue line.
TIE DOMI: There have been tough little men throughout the ages wearing a Rangers uniform, but none fought more often nor more successfully than Tie (Cementhead) Domi. Not surprisingly he became a huge fan favorite with some of his bouts turning into classics.
By far the most notorious was a well-planned fist fight with the then acknowledged Heavyweight Champion of the NHL, Bob Probert of the Detroit Red Wings. On the day of their confrontation at Madison Square Garden, the media was treating their impending collision in the manner of a title boxing match involving Muhammed Ali.
It’s really irrelevant who won the bout — take your pick on the winner — what mattered is that the considerably smaller Domi not only held is own but put some fear in the heart of his adversary; if such a feat actually was possible.
The fight started this way: at the 32-second mark, Probert stepped on the ice, whereupon Ranger coach Roger Neilson sent out Domi, who skated right up to his foe for the face-off. A split-second after the puck was dropped, Probert twice cross-checked Domi, and the fists were flying faster than an out-of-control windmill.
Probert went on the offensive throwing the first eight punches out of a total of 47. In orderly retreat, Domi tossed 23 blows but clearly lost the bout on points.
Hockey Night in Canada commenter Don Cherry, the ubiquitous critic of hockey fights, considered the 48-second tussle a world class event. “It was a definite decision for Probert,” said Cherry. “But I think it was a strong showing by Tie. It was no pushover, which is what made it even better. It was a good battle and the officials let it go. I knew they would let it go.”
Many observers believe that the most devastating blow of all was one that never landed, a round-house Probert punch that just missed his foe. “If he had connected, Probie might have ended up in jail or Tie would be in the hospital,” said Cherry, who watched the game on his TV at home. “It looked like Probert wanted this one, he was psyched. I didn’t think he could ever match the [Troy] Crowder ones, but he did.”
As for the principals, they did have varying comments.
Domi: “A fight’s a fight. You win some, you lose some. I’m just very, very, very happy that we won the game.”
Probert “It’s just another day at the office.”
LOU FONTINATO: They didn’t call him “Leapin’ Louie” or “Louie The Leaper” for nothing. This product of the 1951 Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters Memorial Cup-winning Junior team was the fighting-est Rangers from the night of his debut in New York during the 1954-55 season until Fonty was traded to the Montreal Canadiens after the 1960-61 season.
Never did Fontinato pick his spots. He fought the best of them but seemed to enjoy picking on the Montreal Canadiens during their dynastic run through the late 1950s. During a bout with the legendary Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Louie punched The Rocket in the head, opening a wound that bloodied the ice. It even inspired famed columnist Red Smith to pen a column titled ROMAN CIRCUS.
Teamed with fellow Guelph graduate Harry Howell, Lou played a solid defense with the accent on physicality. The Ranger’s successful seasons from 1955-56 through 1957-58 were due in part to Fontinato’s intimidation tactics that kept some top scorers at bay.
However, Louie’s downfall as unofficial Heavyweight Champion of his era came when he chose to fight Detroit Red Wings icon Gordie Howe on the night of February 1st, 1959. Although The Leaper got in a few punches for starters, Howe blasted away at Fonty’s head and hurt Lou so badly that he had to be hospitalized for the wounds. From then on, the Fontinato intimidation factor slipped significantly until he was traded to Montreal.
CHING JOHNSON: An original Ranger, Johnson would quickly surface as the club’s best body checker, best fighter and toughest hombre through the 1928 and 1933 Stanley Cup triumphs and well beyond. For his time, Ivan — that’s his given name while Ching came later — was regarded as hockey’s version of the Fastest Gun In The West.
For the first couple of seasons, Johnson was teamed with Taffy Abel, a rather rotund, less-muscled backliner. Newsmen said that when Abel bodychecked an opponent it was like being hit with a large pillow. “When Ching delivered a check,” one reporter noted, “it was like getting blasted by a pile-driver.”
No NHL player ever enjoyed hitting enemy players more than Johnson. Invariably, when he knocked an opponent to the ice, a grin spread across his face. It was the inimitable smile of contact — with Ching being the victor. His technical play on the blue line was just as good. Both in 1932 and 1933 he made the NHL First All-Star Team. In 1931 and 1934 he was voted to the Second All-Star squad. Johnson continued to excel after Abel was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“Ching delivered so many classic checks that it’s hard to remember the best,” recalled teammate Frank Boucher. “But the one I loved was against tough Hooley Smith of the Montreal Maroons. Johnson hit him so hard that Hooley’s stick flew out of his hands and Hooley seemed to fly into the air himself and looked as if he was suspended off the ice for several seconds, he was hit so hard.
“Hooley had a lot of guts and he kept running at Ching for the rest of the game and each time Smith would get flattened, right down to the final buzzer. After the game when we were in the dressing room, Ching turned to me and said, ‘Boosh, this was the most enjoyable night I ever had.”
MARK MESSIER: Because of his exploits as a scorer and playmaker, Messier’s mean-tough side often is overlooked although it was a primary part of his winning package. Sort of a latter-day Gordie Howe, Messier would use any style, any rugged maneuver to win hockey games. As in the case of Mister Hockey (alias Howe), Mark would not hesitate to employ a technique not exactly in conformity with the rule book.
Exhibit A was a playoff game against the Devils. The turning point — according to The Maven — was the manner in which Messier neutralized the Devils’ prime scoring threat, Doug Gilmour. Up to this point, the series could have gone either way and it was something that Captain Messier surely sensed. He understood that some action had to be taken — legal or otherwise.
He chose otherwise. It amounted to a vicious crosscheck to the back of Gilmour that sent the Devils’ ace on a flight to semi-consciousness. Whatever penalty Mess received was as totally inconsequential as a mosquito in West Orange, New Jersey. Not only did Dauntless Doug collapse in a heap but no Devil within sight or sound counterattacked on Gilmour’s behalf. In no uncertain terms, Messier’s violent act turned the game and series in favor of the Rangers.
Bottom Line: Tough Messier, disposed of the Gilmour and the Devils in one fell — swell to the Rangers — swoop.
Mark inherited his toughness from his father, Doug, who was one of the best — and most physical — players in the old Western League. Doug Messier starred for many years with the Portland Buckaroos. It was a case of like father, like son. Mark’s ability to handle his dukes as well as his offense was honed to sharpness in Edmonton before he moved to Manhattan to captain the Rangers. He was accompanied by equally tough Kevin Lowe and Esa Tikkanen. Which meant that the 1994 Cup-winning Blueshirts ranked among the best — and intimidating — Rangers outfits of all-time.
MURRAY MURDOCH: Any player who could claim to have played 508 consecutive games over an 11-year career — including every one of the Rangers’ 55 playoff matches — without missing a single contest could lay claim to being both an Iron Man and a Tough Guy. The one and only Ranger who earned that title was Murray Murdoch, an Original Blueshirt who signed on with Lester Patrick’s team in 1926.
Not so coincidentally but quite deservedly, in 1974 Murdoch won The Lester Patrick Trophy for service to hockey in the United States. Had there been a similar award for service to the Rangers, Murdoch would have won that one as well.
Murray played stellar hockey for nearly a decade, anchoring the checking line on the Rangers’ Stanley Cup-winning teams of 1928 and 1933. Following the Rangers’ 1933 Stanley Cup Championship — their second in seven years– Murdoch and other members of the old guard began to falter, yet he still had some success, enjoying the best scoring season of his playing career in 1933-34 with 17 goals. He played capably through the 1936-37 season, his last. In that campaign, he had 14 assists but no goals.
An intense admirer of Murdoch as a player and person, then-Rangers president General John Reed Kilpatrick believed that Murray would make an excellent college coach. Since the General was a distinguished alumnus of Yale, he was in a position to help Murray obtain the job.
From that point on, Murdoch became something of a hockey legend at the collegiate coaching level. “He brought to Yale a quiet dignity and professionalism,” said historian Kip Farrington. “The ruddy-faced Canadian, once a handsome, blonde-haired center-man, helped to popularize the sport at Yale.”
But most of all, Iron Man Murdoch will be remembered for his stalwart play for a pair of Rangers Cup-winners.