Top 10 Toughest Red Wings

Motown, The Motor City, Hockeytown. Detroit is a proud, blue-collar, mid-western city that at one time was home to 1.86 million people. It has since fallen from grace but is absolutely on the upswing. Even in the city’s darkest of times, the Red Wings have been a bright spot for many Detroiters, people who have pride and character, defining themselves by their work ethic and resilience.

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There are players throughout Red Wings’ history who personify these traits and are immediately embraced by the city. The players on this list had heart and grit when they laced up their skates wearing the winged wheel on their sweater, and the fans will be forever grateful.

10. Niklas Kronwall

Though he was not the biggest defenseman in the league, Niklas Kronwall, standing at 6-foot and weighing 194 pounds, delivered some of the most devastating hip checks the NHL has ever seen. Players who were on the receiving end of the hit would often open their eyes only to be staring up at the rafters and hearing the crowd roar, “You got Kronwalled!” Kronwall is just one of 28 players to be a part of the exclusive Triple Gold Club. Players who receive this title have won gold medals at the Olympics, the World Championship, and the Stanley Cup.

Detroit Red Wings – Niklas Kronwall – (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

Finishing third in all-time games played by a Red Wings’ defenseman, with 953 games played, Kronwall was also gifted offensively, scoring 83 goals and 349 assists throughout his 16-season career. He finished fourth in total points by a Red Wings’ defender, trailing only Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Kelly, and Reed Larson.

9. Brendan Shanahan

Often described as the final piece to the puzzle for the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup dynasty that spanned from 1997-2008, Brendan Shanahan is the only player in history to reach both milestones of 600 goals scored and 2,000 penalty minutes. The Hartford Whalers traded him to Detroit on October 9, 1996, along with Brian Glynn for Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey, and a first-round draft pick.

Brendan Shanahan #14 of the Detroit Red Wings
Brendan Shanahan #14 of the Detroit Red Wings (Tom Pidgeon /NHLI/Getty Images)

Shanahan was a premier power forward, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 220 pounds, known for protecting teammates with his fists as well as driving the play. Shanahan famously collided with Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche in mid-air during March 26, 1997, which was Fight Night at the Joe, who was coming to the aid of Claude Lemieux. The Irish Jig would often play throughout Joe Louis Arena when Shanahan would drop his gloves as an ode to his Irish heritage.

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After a 21-year NHL career spending time in New Jersey, St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit, and New York, Shanahan retired with 656 goals, 698 assists, and 1,354 penalty minutes.

8. Chris Chelios

Chris Chelios was a notorious agitator that was hated by opponents but loved by teammates. He had a career that spanned over 26 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Red Wings, and Atlanta Thrashers, tying Gordie Howe’s record for seasons played, often having just as much success on the score sheet as he did at getting under opponent’s skin.

Chris Chelios (Wikipedia Commons)

Chelios won the Norris Trophy, an award given to the NHL’s top “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” in 1989, 1993, and 1996. A Chicago native who was as an NHL villain reveled in his reputation. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals of 1988-89, Ron Hextall skated from his crease to attack Chelios for revenge for what seemed to be a dirty hit on Brian Propp from the previous game. But Chelios famously did not retaliate, forcing Hextall to receive a 12-game suspension.

Chelios also took a victory lap around the Vancouver Canucks’ ice in Game Six of the first round of the 2002 Playoffs, raising his arms and taunting the crowd when he was awarded the first star of the game, after recording 4 assists in the 4-2 series win. He retired at age 46, the second oldest NHL player after Gordie Howe.

7. Vladimir Konstantinov

Drafted in the 11th round of the Red Wings’ historic 1989 Draft, Vladimir Konstantinov, along with Sergei Federov, were the first two members of the historical Russian Five. The Red Wings drafted him at a time when teams thought it was silly to take players in the draft from Russia due to the iron curtain of the communist Soviet Union. After being discharged for medical reasons from the Soviet military, Konstantinov made his way with his family over to Detroit.

Vladimir Konstantinov Detroit Red Wings
Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov of the Detroit Red Wings moves down the ice during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers (Rick Stewart /Allsport)

When he arrived, the fans in Detroit saw that the 5-foot-11 player did not play small by any stretch of the imagination. Earning the nicknames “Vlad the Impaler” and “The Vladinator,” Konstantinov would punish players every time he was on the ice with a crushing body check or upending players completely in a submarine-style hit afterward while often having a stoic face, void of emotion.

“Every time that Vladimir was on the ice it was a game within a game,” Scotty Bowman said. “I don’t know if he intentionally did it, but he always targeted one of the bigger, tougher players on the other team. He was not a guy that would fight a lot, but he would hit a lot and that bothered many of the aggressive players because they weren’t used to that. It was a surprise element of getting hit from an unexpected source, so it can change a lot. Vladimir Konstantinov was a game-changer.” (From The Russian Five pg. 210, Keith Gave.)

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Vladdy could join the rush and score, but he was content hitting and blocking shots. His hockey career was sadly cut short on June 13, 1997, when the limousine he was riding in hopped over the median and crashed into a tree. He suffered severe head trauma and spent several weeks in a coma, causing him to never play again. When the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997-98, the team wheeled him onto the ice in his wheelchair and passed the Cup.

6. Steve Yzerman

Steve Yzerman was the first player drafted by the Red Wings’ new general manager Jimmy Devellano in 1983. New owner Mike Illitch tasked him with turning around a losing franchise in Detroit known around the league as the Dead Wings. Before the start of the 1986-87 season, the team named Yzerman captain at just 21 years old, making him the youngest captain in team history.

Steve Yzerman Detroit Red Wings
Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

He ultimately ended up leading the Wings to five first-place finishes and three Stanley cups spread out over a 22-season career. Dressing as captain for over 1,300 games, Stevie Y is the longest-serving captain in North American sports history. However, when Scotty Bowman got to Detroit in 1993, he demanded Yzerman change his game and become a two-way center.

Despite struggling at first, Yzerman became one of the very best two-way centers in the game. He was a true players’ captain willing to do anything for the team, including playing injured or blocking shots. During the 2002 season, he reaggravated a knee injury, forcing him to miss 30 regular-season games but returned for the playoffs, though he was visibly wincing in pain when he would return to the bench from shifts. After beating the Carolina Hurricanes and winning the Stanley Cup, he underwent knee realignment surgery.

5. Ted Lindsay

Detroit Red Wings Ted Lindsay Stanley Cup
April 16, 1954 – Detroit Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay hugs the Stanley Cup after his team defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 4-3, in a sudden death extra period to win the Stanley Cup finals, in Detroit (AP Photo/File)

Ted Lindsay, known as terrible Ted, was a part of Detroit’s famous Production Line consisting of teammates Gordie Howe and Sid Abel. The production line led the way for the Red Wings, as they earned the Stanley Cup four times in five years between 1950 and 1955.

Entering the league as a 19-year-old kid in 1944, Lindsay knew he would have to defend himself. He earned a tough reputation quickly due to the use of his elbows and knees, leading the league to develop penalties for elbowing and kneeing opponents. Lindsay was also a champion for his fellow man by attempting to start the NHLPA in 1958 when he learned of the better treatment of players in other sports. (From Ted Lindsay and the life of taking on the good fight by Craig Custance of The Athletic. 7/15/2018)

The NHLPA was not fully formed until 1967, though Lindsay worked doggedly in the early days hoping to earn better treatment of NHL players. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966, Lindsay refused to attend the event because his wife and children would not be allowed to attend, as it was a male-only event at the time. The rules were changed the following year, allowing women to attend.

4. Gordie Howe

Another member of the Production Line, Gordie Howe was a big kid, standing 6-feet tall and weighing 205 pounds. He was a gifted scorer who earned the Art Ross trophy (most points earned by a player at the season’s end) from 1950-1954 and again in 1957 and 1963.

Gordie howe
Gordie Howe,, Detroit Red Wings (THW Archives)

Howe was not afraid to deliver punishment to opponents as well as score goals. A Gordie Howe hat trick is when a player fights, scores a goal, and assists on a goal in the same game. Mr. Hockey, as he became known, scored 801 goals, 1,049 assists for 1,850 points. His records stood until Wayne Gretzky broke them.

3. Darren McCarty

Darren McCarty Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup
Darren McCarty, Detroit Red Wings, with the Stanley Cup (Grinderfan4life25, CC BY-SA 3.0 – – via Wikimedia Commons)

The Red Wings drafted McCarty in the second round (46th overall) of the 1992 Draft. Taking on an enforcer role as a member of the famous Grind line also consisting of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and sometimes Joe Kocur, he won the Stanley Cup with Detroit four times in 17 years. He often dropped the gloves in defense of his teammates, refusing to let other teams take shots when he was on the ice. McCarty’s love for his teammates was unparalleled.

Every Detroit Red Wings Fan and probably every Colorado Avalanche fan knows the date March 26, 1997. Known as Fight Night at the Joe, the date is 301 days after Claude Lemieux delivered a blindside hit to Kris Draper in the 1996 Western Conference Finals, which caused Draper to hit the dasher on the boards with his face unprotected. The impact from the hit broke Draper’s jaw, cheek, and occipital bone.

The Red Wings and the Avalanche had met three times during the regular season, with all of the games ending in Colorado’s favor and nothing done about the hit on Draper. This would be the fourth and final meeting of the regular season. And at the end of the 1st period, as Larionov tangled with Forsberg, McCarty hunted Lemieux down and landed a devastating punch, buckling him while the Joe Louis Arena crowd erupted.

Mccarty pummeled Lemieux as the game turned into an all-out brawl. After the smoke cleared and the refs doled out all the penalties, there was still a game to finish. McCarty scored the game-winner on a breakaway in overtime, finishing the Avalanche 6-5.

2. Joe Kocur

Joey Kocur was one of the two members of The Bruise Brothers. Thought of as one of the best enforcers in NHL history, he earned a total of 2,519 penalty minutes over 820 games played split between Detroit and the New York Rangers.

Players said Kocur’s knuckles seemed harder than rocks, and Donald Brashear has said that Kocur cracked his helmet from the freight train right punch he would throw. His right hand was usually cut up and bruised from various fights he had been in.

1. Bob Probert

Revered as the second member of The Bruise Brothers and regarded by most as the greatest enforcer of all time, Bob Probert is fourth all-time in penalty minutes, sitting at 3,300. He protected players with fierce loyalty, serving as the enforcer to the Red Wings and the Blackhawks during the mid-80s to early 2000s. Aside from fighting, Probert was also a gifted goal scorer that had a soft touch.

During the 1987-88 season, he scored 62 points, which were third-best on the team, along with 398 penalty minutes, earning him a trip to the All-Star Game. Probert often went toe to toe with some of the NHL’s toughest players, including Tie Domi, Wendel Clarke, Marty McSorely, Stu Grimson, and Tony Twist.

Final Thought

None of these men was the same player, although they shared the same mindset. They knew the name on the front of the jersey was more important than the one on the back. Every night, they sacrificed for the good of the team, and most of the time at the expense of their bodies. Detroiters are some of the hardest working people in the world, and they can tell when somebody is laying everything on the line. On behalf of the people of Detroit, thank you, gentlemen.

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