Are NHL players the toughest sports athletes?

With the NHL lockout under way, the lack of news and topics to discuss can quickly turn into a writer’s block for any member of the mainstream media or sports Websites such as The Hockey Writers. As a result, most NHL fans will either turn to other hockey leagues such as the KHL, the AHL or the CHL, or to other sports like the MLB (currently in the playoffs), the NFL or the MLS. Many other sports fans will turn to special events like boxing matches or mixed martial arts (MMA) fight nights.

Hockey players are known for their toughness

Despite the lack of NHL hockey, every year (except this year) it always amazes me that the two teams battling for the Stanley Cup will each have played more than 100 games of competitive hockey in order to challenge for the prized hardware. Included in this figure is September’s pre-season schedule (most NHL players play 4-5 exhibition games), where young prospects are tying to grab the veterans’ jobs. The long season includes lopsided games filled with fights and vicious body checks, intense rivalries between division opponents and four-point games over the long run against other teams battling for a playoff spot. It also includes hundreds of hit into the boards, hundreds of high sticks and cuts, hundreds of cross-checks and slashes, scores of blocked shots, and numerous fights.

And let’s not forget broken noses, broken jaws, stitches, separated shoulders, concussions, high-ankle sprains. It includes black eyes and swelling after receiving a deflected puck into the face or hitting a concrete wall named Douglas Murray or Zdeno Chara. And now players have decided that it wasn’t enough and started blocking shots regularly. Montreal Canadiens’ defenseman Josh Gorges blocked 250 shots in 82 games (about 3 blocked shots per game) last season, or 51 more than Brett Clark, who finished 2nd with 199 blocked shots. Try blocking a Shea Weber slap shot coming at 100 mph game in and game out and we’ll see if you are tough!

Hell former Canadiens’ GM Bob Gainey won a Stanley Cup ring, playing with both shoulders separated versus the New York Islanders. He did not tell anyone until the playoffs were over. In 1964, Bobby Braun blocked a Gordie Howe shot with his ankle and fell to the ice. Despite breaking it, Braun continued playing on it thanks to a “tight tape job”. The game went into overtime and it was Baun who scored the game-winner forcing a game seven.

Most baseball players would have hit the disabled list in a matter of seconds with such injuries, when we know all too well a starting pitcher can miss a few starts with a blister or an ingrown nail.

So this leads to the question: Who are the toughest pro sports athletes in the world?

According to an extensive study done by ESPN called Sports Skills Difficulty, ice hockey ranks 2nd behind only boxing among the 60 sports measured, bowling, curling, billiards and fishing being dead last understandably. Football is ranked 3rd, basketball 4th, baseball 9th and soccer 10th. The panel of eight experts was made up of sports scientists from the United States Olympic Committee, of academicians who study the science of muscles and movement, of a star two-sport athlete, and of journalists who spend their professional lives watching athletes succeed and fail.


The training boxers undergo before a fight is intensive and demanding for several hours a day, six or seven days a week. Still, boxers only fight one to three times a year depending on their opponents’ availability and the extent of their injuries following a combat. While boxing is much more demanding on a short period of time (12-round fight), the hockey season is much more strenuous on a professional athlete because players sometimes log 25 to 30 minutes of ice time, game after game, during more than 80 games per year over 15 to 20-year careers.

Martin Brodeur played more than 70 games in a season (playoffs included) 14 times (Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE)

And what about goaltenders like Martin Brodeur who play more than 70 games every season? They have to stay in the game for the full 60 minutes! Brodeur’s endurance and durability are without equal among modern goalies; his speed, agility, and flexibility are the prime sources of his success; his nerve is what got him to the crease in the first place; his hand-eye coordination is extraordinary; and, his ability to see all strategies of puck movement give him superior position to the shooter. Brodeur even played 97 games in a single season (excluding pre-season games) in 2000-01 with the New Jersey Devils.

What about football players one would argue? Well, according to a Wall Street Journal study of four television broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes of actual playing time over a 60-minute game. And the season includes only 16 games plus the playoffs, so football is more about brute force, speed and strength, not so much about durability and endurance. Heck, football players play only one game per week, while hockey players often have to play back-to-back games or three contests in four nights… in different cities! Moreover, the NFL Players Association indicates that the average football player’s career is only three seasons long.

What about soccer players and the rigour of a 90-minute game? According to match reports from the 2010 World Cup, in the average 90-minute match, the average actual playing time in a soccer game was about 68 minutes and with the large size of the playing field, most of the time soccer players are not directly involved in the game. While soccer combines speed, endurance and agility, the sport is not very physical, as most physical contacts are forbidden and often results in a yellow or red cards. Physical contacts usually end up with one player trying to draw a free kick or a penalty by diving on the turf and pretending he/she is severely injured…

As for rugby it requires a good of endurance like soccer, as it is a non-stop running game that lasts 80 minutes. At the same time, it is a hectic contact sport almost like football. The hits may not be as hard as football because of the absence of equipment save for a soft helmet. But the reality still lies in the fact that you need to be able to take a person running full speed into you; while topping that with excellent endurance. Still, the season only lasts 26 games, with one game being played each week.

Then we have UFC/MMA fighters. They have to master more than one martial art, work on their ground game, have extreme endurance, be able to grapple, and really the list just goes on. Throw in the weight training aspect to get stronger, mixed with the fact that you still have to make your weight class before every match-up. To top all of this off, you can train forever and literally get the crap beat of you; or how about catching a broken limb, getting your brow busted open, or catching multiple elbows in the face, yeah ask welterweight champion George St-Pierre, who has been inactive for more than one year with a torn ACL if he thinks it’s a tough sport!

In conclusion, I clearly believes ice hockey players are the toughest athletes on the planet and have to endure the harshest physical beating to win the Stanley Cup! That’s why hockey is the best sports to watch and practice! Now let’s lace them up and drop the puck already!

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