Hockey has historically been a sport dominated by Canadian players, though in recent years it has become an increasingly international affair. But American players have always had a major role in the game, particularly in the National Hockey League.
We’ll be taking a look at the 10 greatest American players of all time, along with some honorable mentions. We’ll be judging based not only on a player’s NHL career but his or her contributions at the collegiate and international level, as well. Without further ado, let’s take a look.
10) Auston Matthews
It may seem premature to appoint someone with just five NHL seasons under his belt as an all-time great, but it’s hard to deny Auston Matthews‘ place on this list. The seventh American drafted first overall, he became one of the league’s elite goal-scorers the moment he stepped on the ice — even potting four goals in his NHL debut, the first player in the modern era to do so. He finished that season with 40 goals and 69 points, winning the Calder Memorial Trophy with 164 of 167 first-place votes.
Since then, Matthews has finished every season on a 40-goal pace in an 82-game campaign, though he has struggled with some injuries and COVID-19 hurdles. Even despite that, he dominated the all-Canadian North Division during the 2020-21 season, scoring 41 goals in 52 games, easily winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the league’s top goal-scorer. That season currently sits in a tie for 20th in NHL era-adjusted goal-scoring seasons all-time.
At this writing, Matthews is fourth amongst American players in points per game, and first in goals per game played. He has 351 points in 334 games. The only demerit on his on-ice record so far is playoff performance, but that is often the slowest aspect of a player’s game to progress. Yes, it may be premature to include Matthews on this list, but there is almost no argument that he will end up near the top by the end of his career, barring major unforeseen circumstances. In honor of all that he’s already accomplished, he’ll hold down this first spot for now.
Honorable Mention: Keith Tkachuk
If the 10th spot could feasibly be split, Keith Tkachuk (a.k.a. “Big Walt”) would take the other half. He’s reached many of the ideal hockey milestones, with 1,000 points and 1,000 PIMs, over 500 goals, and a 2002 silver medal. He even won gold at the 1996 World Cup. But Tkachuk’s lasting impact on the game and on American hockey may have more to do with his progeny.
His sons, Matthew (Calgary Flames) and Brady (Ottawa Senators), were the sixth and fourth picks in the 2016 and 2018 NHL Drafts, respectively, and look likely to be as big or bigger stars than their father. Big Walt’s daughter, Taryn, is a standout field hockey player in the St. Louis area. The elder Tkachuk certainly deserves a spot on this list, but he narrowly loses out to Matthews here.
9) Hobey Baker
Baker was born in Bala Cynwyd, Pennslyvania in 1892, and would go on to Princeton University, where he would become a decorated two-sport athlete. He would set several school records in football, excelling especially as a punt returner. With his help, Princeton would win a national championship in 1911.
But it was hockey where Baker made an unforgettable impression. He helped Princeton to two national championships, in 1912 and 1914, and is estimated to have surpassed 120 goals and 100 assists in his three seasons with the Tigers. He was, additionally, an incredible sportsman, visiting the opposing team’s dressing room to shake hands with every player after each game.
After his collegiate career, Baker would join the amateur St. Nicholas Club and win an additional national championship (at the amateur level) in 1915. He was even offered a $20,000 contract to join the Montreal Canadiens, then of the National Hockey Association, but declined it, preferring to remain an amateur.
Unfortunately, World War I arose and took Baker overseas. Even there, he excelled, rising to the rank of captain, leading his own squadron of 26 pilots and 180 enlisted men, and winning medals including the French Croix de Guerre. Tragically, hours before he was set to return home, he took one last flight and crash-landed, resulting in his untimely death at the age of 26.
Hockey and football weren’t the only sports in which Baker excelled. He was a scratch golfer, an elite swimmer, and an occasional track and field star. He is arguably one of the greatest American athletes ever, and the only reason he isn’t higher on this list is the relative brevity of his hockey career.
8) Jonathan Quick
The choice of the greatest American goalie of all time was a tight three-way race. John Vanbiesbrouck is one of just four Americans to win the Vezina Trophy since 1942. Ryan Miller currently leads all Americans in career wins with 391, as well as one of the most impressive Olympic performances in U.S. history. But in this race, the slight nod will go to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.
Quick currently ranks 4th amongst American goalies with 336 wins, 33 shy of catching Tom Barrasso in 3rd, something he should do fairly easily before he retires. He is also 9th in save percentage (SV%) at .913, just slightly behind Miller at .914 and well ahead of Barrasso at .892, though the latter played in a higher-scoring era. Quick and Miller both won silver with the U.S. Olympic team in 2010, though Quick was a backup goalie during that run.
What pushes Quick slightly ahead of these two is his postseason success. He posted one of the most remarkable playoff runs of all time in 2012, helping the Los Angeles Kings capture their first Stanley Cup. He went an unbelievable 16-4, with a .946 SV% and a 1.41 goals-against average, running away with the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process. He also led all playoff goaltenders in shutouts in three straight campaigns, with three that postseason, three the following postseason, and two more in 2014, where he would capture his second Stanley Cup.
Quick would also lead a Jennings Trophy-winning tandem in the 2013-14 season and the 2017-18 season. But it was his clutch postseason performance which gave him a slight edge amongst these three, three of the greatest American goaltenders of all time.
7) Pat LaFontaine
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised in Waterford, Michigan, Pat LaFontaine is one of the more unheralded American players on this list. His hockey career started in earnest in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), where, during his only season, he posted 104 goals and 130 assists for 234 points. That would win him the Jean Bèliveau Trophy as the league’s top scorer, beating out a fellow youngster with some incredible scoring prowess named Mario Lemieux.
That season alone was enough to warrant LaFontaine some consideration on this list. He brought home a cabinet full of hardware, including the regular season and playoff MVP award, the offensive rookie of the year, the Mike Bossy Award, named after a player whose rookie goal record he broke that season, for the best professional prospect, and the CHL Player of the Year.
From the QMJHL, LaFontaine went on to play his entire career in the state of New York, with the New York Islanders, the Buffalo Sabres, and a final season with the New York Rangers. He would amass 1,013 points in 865 games, making five All-Star Games and winning the 1995 Bill Masterton Trophy before his career was cut somewhat short by concussions.
His 1987 series-clinching goal in the fourth overtime of Game 7 of the Patrick Division Semifinal remains one of the most iconic in Islanders’ history. He had two 100-plus point seasons, including a mind-bending 148 point total in 1992-93. He would also have six consecutive seasons with 40-plus goals from 1987-1993, adding a seventh in 1995-96.
To this day, LaFontaine’s 1.17 points per game is the highest ever career mark by an American player. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 and was named one of the 100 greatest players in the history of the NHL in 2017. Not one to take it easy, since his retirement, LaFontaine has completed half a dozen Ironman triathlons. He is an incredible athlete very worthy of a spot on this list.
6) Neal Broten
On any list of the greatest American hockey players, there needs to be some recognition of the greatest moment in U.S. Hockey history, the 1980 Miracle on Ice. While Neal Broten did not record a point in that iconic semifinal game against the U.S.S.R., he did collect two goals and an assist in the tournament, en route to the United States’ gold medal victory.
Broten would go on to have the most successful professional career of any of the members on that 1980 roster. A native of Roseau, Minnesota, just south of the Canadian border, he would spend the first 13 years of that career playing for the team from his home state, the Minnesota North Stars. With them, he collected 796 of his 923 career points and played in 876 of his 1,099 games. In 1985-86, he became the first American to score more than 100 points in a season.
Broten would remain with the team for one and a half more seasons after the Stars moved south to Dallas before they traded him to the New Jersey Devils in Feb. 1995. That move would pay off in spades for him, as the Devils would go on to beat the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep to win the Stanley Cup. Broten would score the series-clinching goal, becoming the first-ever American to do so, ironically with Viacheslav Fetisov, a member of the 1980 Soviet team, once again on the ice for the opposition.
Broten holds the rare distinction of winning an NCAA championship with the University of Minnesota, an Olympic gold medal, and a Stanley Cup. He scored the game-winning goal in the NCAA Championship and won the Hobey Baker in 1981.
Despite retiring in 1997, he scored six points in three games in a brief return to the ice for the U.S. Team in the 1999 Ice Hockey World Championship. He was voted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000, his number 7 is retired by the Stars, and in 2009, he was voted by Minnesota fans as the greatest ever player from the state.
5) Brian Leetch
The ninth overall pick in 1986, Brian Leetch is synonymous with the New York Rangers. He is arguably one of the more underrated defensemen in the history of the NHL. With Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis, Bobby Orr, and Dennis Potvin, he is just the fifth defender to record 100 points in a single season (he hit 102 in 1991-92), and he is the last blueliner to reach the milestone.
In 1,205 career games, all but 76 with the Rangers, Leetch recorded 247 goals and 781 assists for 1,028 points. 71 of those points came as a rookie when he took 42 of 63 first-place votes and won the Calder Trophy. Over the course of his career, that trophy would join two Norris Trophies, which he would win in 1991-92 and 1996-97.
The biggest addition to his trophy case would become the Conn Smythe Trophy for postseason MVP in 1994. He led all players in those playoffs with 11 goals and 34 points in 23 games. He was the first American to ever win a Conn Smythe trophy.
Over his career, Leetch would go to nine All-Star games. He won a silver medal in 2002 and retired officially in 2007. His number 2 was retired by the Rangers the following year, the same year he would be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. One year later, he would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. But none of these accolades can capture Leetch’s importance as much as his teammate Mark Messier’s words in his NHL 100 greatest players video:
He was magic to play with… He was, in my opinion, and is the greatest Ranger of all time.Mark Messier describing Brian Leetch
Honorable Mention: Phil Housley
Phil Housley put up incredible numbers in both games played (1,495) and points (1,232). He went to seven All-Star games. He was a runner-up for the Norris Trophy in 1992, won gold at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, and silver at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
He is a member of both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. He is currently an assistant coach with the Arizona Coyotes after a stint as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
4) Cammi Granato
Of all the players on this list, no one has had more international success than the Downer’s Grove, Illinois native Cammi Granato. She is a two-time Olympic medalist, winning gold in Nagano in 1998 and silver in Salt Lake City in 2002, all while captaining both teams.
Granato also saw incredible success at the IIHF Women’s World Championship, where she won one gold medal (2005) and eight silver medals (intermittently between 1990-2004). She also took gold twice at the Four Nations Cup, in 1997 and 2003, taking home silver five other times.
Granato was much more than a passenger on these teams: she was a star. Here is how Nathaniel Oliver, our Buffalo Beauts writer and an expert on women’s hockey, described her career:
“At the close of her NCAA career at Providence College, she had scored an astounding 139 goals and 117 assists for 256 points in only 99 games. Her Olympic totals amount to 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points in 11 games from Nagano and Salt Lake City combined. Her 43 games in the IIHF Women’s World Championship saw her average 1.81 points per game from her 44 goals, 34 assists and 78 points. Think about it – 44 World Championship goals in 43 games!”
“A 15-year member of the U.S. Women’s National Team beginning in 1990,” Oliver continued, “Granato is the program’s all-time scoring leader with 343 points (186-157) in 205 games, and she captained both the Nagano and Salt Lake City squads.”
“When you take all of that into consideration, it is no wonder that she has been inducted into the International Hockey Hall of Fame (2008), the US Hockey Hall of Fame (2009) and the Hockey Hall of Fame (2010). Granato was one of the first female inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame, alongside Angela James.”
Though it is hard to place Granato’s career into perspective with some of her fellow American athletes, given that she obviously does not appear in NHL record books, there is no denying that she is one of the greatest to ever lace up skates in a Team U.S.A. jersey. She belongs near the very top of this list.
3) Patrick Kane
The only first overall draft pick in the history of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Buffalo, New York native Patrick Kane is the one of two active players on this list, but he is undeniably worthy of the honor. At age 32, he has 1088 points in his career and already has two 100-plus point seasons under his belt (106 in 2015-16, and 110 in 2018-19).
Readers are likely to be more familiar with Kane’s accomplishments than many on this list, but they are impressive: he won the Calder Trophy with 72 points in his rookie season, beating out Nicklas Backstrom, Carey Price, and teammate Jonathan Toews. He scored the game-winning and series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6 to win his first of three Stanley Cups in 2010. In 2013, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, leading the Blackhawks with 19 points in 23 games.
Kane’s most decorated season was 2015-16. He collected 46 goals and 60 assists, won the Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP, the Ted Lindsay Award for Most Outstanding Player (voted on by the players), and he became the very first American to win the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in points in a single season.
When Kane was named one of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players in 2017, it was highly controversial, partially due to some off-ice issues. But he’s put some of those concerns to rest by adding well over 300 points to his career total and remaining on his best behavior since that moment. He has already won all of the NHL’s major awards and led the revitalization of one of America’s most historic franchises. Projecting what the remainder of Kane’s career will likely look like, it would be impossible to leave him off this list.
Honorable Mention: Brett Hull
Of all these decisions, one of the hardest was deciding whether to include the fourth-highest career goal scorer in NHL history, Brett Hull, on the list as an American player. Ultimately, we decided against it but thought it best to explain our reasoning.
Hull was born in Belleville, Ontario in 1964, but spent his early years in the United States while his father, Bobby, played for the Blackhawks. That is where he began his fledgling hockey career as a four-year-old. But when Bobby was traded to the Winnipeg Jets, he returned to Canada and remained there until attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth for college.
It was while there that Hull decided his international faith. He was passed over by Team Canada but offered a spot on the American team, which he accepted. While he continued to play for the American team throughout his career, he admitted that neither felt more like his own country; he just chose to play where he was given an opportunity.
Were Hull indisputably American, there is no question that he would be a shoo-in for this list. In fact, he might top it. But given that there is some controversy surrounding his national status, a decision has to be made. Since he was born in Canada and spent the bulk of his formative years there, we will exclude him from a proper place on this list. But that takes nothing away from his incredible career as one of the greatest pure goal scorers to ever take the ice.
2) Mike Modano
Mike Modano is not only one of the most iconic players in Dallas Stars history, he is one of the greatest American players in the history of the game. He is second amongst all American-born forwards in games played (1,499), and all American NHL players in goals (561), points (1,374), and playoff points (146). Born in Livonia, Michigan, Modano built his reputation playing as a teenager in the Canadian Hockey League, but it was the last time he would ever call a Canadian team his own.
The North Stars drafted him with the first overall selection in 1988. In his rookie season, he would record 29 goals and 46 assists for 75 points and would finish second in voting for the Calder Trophy behind Sergei Makarov. That decision would create controversy, as Makarov was a 31-year-old coming over from the KHL, a professional league in Russia. The NHL would change eligibility for the Calder Trophy to exclude players older than 26 the following year.
Losing the Calder Trophy under arguably unfair circumstances wouldn’t stop Modano from having an incredible career. He would go on to play in seven All-Star Games, winning silver at the 2002 Olympics, and taking home a Stanley Cup in 1999. He played in every game of that Stanley Cup Final, despite breaking his wrist in Game 2, and he notched assists on each of the final five goals of the series.
Modano is the greatest player in the history of the Stars, either in Minnesota or Dallas. His number 9 jersey was retired in 2014, the same year he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He holds the Stars’ records for games played, goals, assists, and points. He is the greatest American forward in the history of the game.
1) Chris Chelios
No American player’s career can match the longevity or the success of the Chicago-native defenseman, Chris Chelios. He is one of the greatest defensemen ever to play the game, and he belongs at the top of this list.
Chelios is eighth all-time in NHL games played, the highest of any American player. In 1,651 games, he collected 185 goals and 763 assists for 948 points. He is also 18th all-time in career plus/minus, at a plus-351.
Few trophy cases are as overloaded as Chelios’. He went to 11 All-Star Games, including five straight from 1990-1994. He won the Norris Trophy in 1989, 1993, and 1996, and was given the Mark Messier Leadership Award in 2007. Like many on this list, he was part of the 2002 Silver Medal team, and he took home gold at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Most importantly, Chelios won three Stanley Cups, one with the team that drafted him, the Montreal Canadiens (1986), and two with the Red Wings (2002, 2008).
All told, Chelios’ career spanned four decades: he was drafted in 1981 and debuted in 1983, and he played his final NHL game with the Atlanta Thrashers on Apr. 6, 2010. He was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame three years later, along with longtime Red Wings teammate Brendan Shanahan. He has been part of both the Red Wings and the Blackhawks’ front office and remains a key figure in the hockey community.
The Future is Bright
The future of the American game has never been brighter. An American player has been drafted in the top ten in each of the last five NHL Drafts. Two of the last six first overall draft picks have also been Americans, with Matthews in 2016 and Jack Hughes most recently in 2019. The NHL is littered with American stars 25-years-old and younger. This season, Adam Fox (23) won the Norris Trophy, and Jason Robertson (21) was runner-up for the Calder Trophy.
In 10 years, this list might look radically different. There will be new faces, and hopefully, many new international accomplishments. There has never been a better time to be a fan of the American game.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.