Hockey is played hard and fast. Athletes will hook, trip, face wash and pester to gain a winning edge. Like all sports, hockey has official rules and unwritten rules. It also has a code of respect. And there are many players that blur the lines between the two. Or cross them entirely. They can be downright dirty.
These dirty, unsportsmanlike, and sometimes dishonorable players take every liberty they can on vulnerable players. They’re seemingly incapable of delivering clean body checks on a regular basis. They take cheap shots, run smaller players, and blindside unsuspecting peers, igniting an intense and impassioned hatred. In short, they have earned their spots on our list of the most hated players in the NHL.
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To get on this list, it’s not about being hated but despised. It’s more than Philadelphia Flyer fans hating their nemesis, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. These are players that are despised for the way they play the game, as it is often reckless and can cause long-term injury for what should be nothing plays.
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Unfortunately, there are more than ten dirty players worthy of the list. Here are a few that are notable, but did not crack the top ten.
Nikita Kucherov – Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov is, inarguably, one of the best players in the NHL. When he is playing a focused game on the ice, he is borderline unstoppable, as he will find ways to generate offense whether he is dishing out a pass or snapping a perfect shot on goal.
If you only see his highlight-reel plays, however, you would miss another aspect of his game. Despite being a star, Kucherov can also be described as a ‘greasy’ player at times, especially when he lets his emotions get the best of him in the postseason.
Most famously, Kucherov was suspended for Game 3 in the First Round of the 2019 Stanley Cup when he boarded Markus Nutivaara, a clear moment when he let his temper take hold of his play. He has also been known to deliver some dirty slashes behind the play or on breakaways that are simply inexcusable in the league.
Drew Doughty – Los Angeles Kings
Drew Doughty plays with an aggressive edge. Sometimes it borders on arrogance. He loves to run his trash-talking mouth and isn’t afraid to use his stick to bring players to their knees. He has a long-running feud with fellow antagonist Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames.
Doughty was fined $2,500 in 2011 hit on T.J. Oshie. His only other run-in with the law was a one-game suspension in a 2018 Western Conference quarterfinal series after decking Vegas Golden Knights’ forward Will Carrier with an illegal check to the head.
Alexander Ovechkin – Washington Capitals
Being one of the league’s most talented players doesn’t give you a free pass. Ovechkin, arguably the greatest goalscorer in NHL history, has been a player with dirty tendencies in the past. He delivers hard hits but regularly takes them too far, leading to blindside hits, knee-on-knee hits, and hits from behind have led some to dub him a cheap shot artist.
The elite Russian talent has been ejected for boarding majors and for kneeing, and he’s been suspended multiple times in his career. The most notorious offense was a cheap shot in 2010 that sent a defenseless Brian Campbell crashing into the boards, leaving him with a broken collarbone. He was also suspended three games by the NHL Department of Player Safety for charging Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek and started more controversy when he speared Trent Frederic in the groin last season.
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10) Erik Cernak – Tampa Bay Lightning
If you don’t watch the Tampa Bay Lightning, it would be easy to overlook what Erik Cernak brings to the ice. He is an imposing 6-foot-3, 230-pound defenseman who may not score a lot of points, but makes himself known with his physical playstyle.
This physical play, however, has drawn a lot of ire from fans across multiple cities. Not only has he received a two-game suspension for elbowing Rasmus Dahlin, which left the first-overall pick with a concussion, but he is known for late hits that many argue are suspension-worthy.
So, while he may not have the longest rap sheet yet, Cernak is a player who could become well known in the NHL as a dirty player in the near future if he isn’t careful.
9) Corey Perry – Tampa Bay Lightning
Playing against Corey Perry is like being a mole in a ‘Whack-A-Mole’ arcade game. The 2003 first-round pick plays an aggressive style with a penchant for some nasty stick work, hacking and whacking opponents whenever he can. He also riles opponents by running his mouth, delivering late and low hits, and has a flair for selling penalties like no other.
The flip side of this is that Perry was once a highly skilled offensively-minded power forward who can come up big in key moments for the Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, and most recently the Montreal Canadiens. He’s had success on every stage in his career, including the Stanley Cup, Memorial Cup, OHL Championship, Olympics, World Championship, World Cup, and World Junior.
Even in his advancing years, Perry still is known as a player that you never want to face in a playoff series, as he will, at some point, be in the middle of a controversial hit or dirty play that will have you pleading with the referees for a call.
8) Antoine Roussel – Arizona Coyotes
Late in the 2014-15 season, the rugged Antoine Roussel delivered a nasty crosscheck to the neck of Adam McQuaid in retaliation for a good hit. It was a dangerous play that earned him a two-game suspension but could have resulted in a very serious injury that put the French Canadian on this list when it was first created.
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In recent years, Roussel has managed to avoid suspensions, but he hasn’t shaken the moniker of a dirty player. In 2020-21, he received a fine for punching Jesse Puljujarvi despite the Edmonton Oilers’ forward not wanting to fight. So, while he may have cleaned up his game somewhat since joining the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes, Roussel still has the stigma of a repeat offender who could find himself back in the news for a controversial play at any time.
7) Radko Gudas – Florida Panthers
Born in Prague, Czech Republic, Radko Gudas was drafted in the third round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Lightning. After a few years with that franchise, he was acquired by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2014-15, joined the Capitals briefly in 2019-20, and then signed a three-year deal with the Florida Panthers during the 2020 offseason.
Throughout his career, Gudas is well known as a player who is always on the borderline of legal. He has been suspended several times for controversial hits and has many more to his name that brought the ire of the NHL, earning him a fine and the reputation of a dirty player.
In recent years, Gudas has vowed to clean up his game, and for his part, he hasn’t earned a suspension since 2019. However, that doesn’t excuse his backlog of dirty plays that drew some of the larger suspensions in recent memory. Play like that isn’t forgotten easily, and he will need to play a smart yet physical game for a few years to shake the stigma of a dirty player.
6) Nazem Kadri – Colorado Avalanche
The seventh overall pick in 2009 is no stranger to controversial hit after controversial hit. He steamrolled goaltender Niklas Backstrom with a nasty elbow. He’ll go headhunting, land a dirty knee, and take out an opponent’s knees. His careless elbows and aggressive style of play has earned him a steady, growing trend of penalty minutes and poorly timed suspensions.
Kadri’s barbaric hit on Tommy Wingels on April 12, 2018 added onto a lengthy rap sheet that grows longer every year. It was the type of hit that could’ve ended a career and created serious damage. He hasn’t learned his lesson, either, as he laid a similarly dangerous hit on Jake DeBrusk in April 2019 that earned him a three-game suspension, and got another eight games after delivering an illegal check to the head of Justin Faulk during the 2021 postseason.
There’s no doubt that Kadri is an incredibly talented forward, but if you can’t control your play on the ice, it doesn’t matter. He is often on the wrong side of playing a tough, physical game, and until he can get that under control it will continue to limit his top-end potential as a starting forward.
5) Matthew Tkachuk – Calgary Flames
Similar to Lemieux, Matthew Tkachuk has picked up where his dad left off by being a tough-as-nails power forward who pushes the game to its absolute limit. After he entered the league, Tkachuk has earned a reputation as one of those players who tries to straddle the line of gritty and dirty but doesn’t always get it right.
Tkachuk has been suspended three times and earned his reputation as a dirty player. Even as he has learned to control his physical game and avoided making those suspension-worthy hits in recent years, he still manages to draw negative attention to himself, like when he was involved in an incident that injured Toronto Maple Leafs’ starting goaltender Jack Cambell early in the 2020-21 season.
What we can take from this is that as long as a Tkachuk is in the league, expect controversy to follow. As said best by Doughty back in a sportsnet.ca interview in 2018:
“I’m pretty sure he might be (The most hated player in the NHL),” said the Kings defenceman in a one-on-one interview late Wednesday. “I have lots of friends on other teams and they don’t love him either…”
4) Ryan Reaves – New York Rangers
For many years, Ryan Reaves was known as the ridiculously tough fourth-liner who would rack up penalty minutes and lay down hundreds of hits each season. He was hated by many but didn’t regularly cross the line.
After joining the Vegas Golden Knights at the 2018 trade deadline, however, Reaves’ reputation started to shift. No longer was he a player that just played a physical brand of hockey, but he started to find himself in the press for negative reasons. Late hits, hits to the head, and just flat-out dirty play that left numerous players on the ice in seriously dangerous conditions.
All you have to do is look at the 2021 playoffs to see where Reaves’ bad reputation comes from. He laid down a dangerous hit on former Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter that left him face down on the ice after hitting his head on the net and then followed that up with a retaliatory hit on Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves, which ended with him pulling a chunk of hair out of his head.
To put it simply, this sort of play has no place in the league. There’s a fine line between being a tough player who will stick up for their teammates and someone who is making plays with the intent to injury. Lately, Reaves has fallen on the wrong side of that line.
3) Brendan Lemieux – Los Angeles Kings
It’s true… the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Brendan Lemieux, son of Claude Lemieux is no stranger to blurring the lines of proper play. Lemieux plays the game like a goon and has a history of making plays that sit on the borderline of legal.
In 2017-18, while with the Manitoba Moose, Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate, he had 170 penalty minutes in 51 games. His headhunting play has been suspended several times in the OHL, while playing for the Barrie Colts.
In the NHL, Lemieux was suspended for two games for an illegal check and is a fan of sitting in the penalty box. Throughout his 180 games played in the NHL, he has 313 penalty minutes to his name, making him the fifth most penalized player since he entered the league.
However, what propels Lemieux up this list is the now infamous biting incident. For a player who already has a record, biting a fellow player not only multiple times but hard enough to draw significant blood crosses one of those thresholds in a violent sport.
2) Brad Marchand – Boston Bruins
Though the original “Rat” is Ken Linseman, Brad Marchand’s dirty style has also earned the moniker. He’s so dirty that his own team’s fan base often has trouble defending his actions at times. The undersized forward plays on the edge with borderline hits, unorthodox behavior, a mouth that never stops yapping, and a tongue that likes to lick. On top of that, he’s a frequent diver which irks players as much as fans.
Clipping. Slew-footing. Elbowing. Spearing. That’s the “Little Ball of Hate.” At 5-foot-9 forward, he has more despicable on-ice antics per pound than any player in the history of the NHL. Players admit, you love him on your team but feel the opposite if playing against him.
All that said, he’s developed into a first-line player and valuable piece of the Bruins roster, so it’s a bit of a shame he is more known for his reputation as an unsportsmanlike player with little remorse for his wrongdoings. In recent years the antics have, thankfully, not been the primary discussion of his play on the ice, but he is still known as a dirty player by the league.
1) Tom Wilson – Washington Capitals
There are two options for your opinion on Tom Wilson. You either hate him and see him as a sign that the NHL really doesn’t care about player safety, or you’re a Capitals’ fan.
Throughout the years, he’s broken jaws and sidelined opponents with concussions while earning multiple suspensions. The polarizing repeat offender has built a career with a controversial playing style that’s targeted opponents’ heads and delivered late hits. He always seems to put himself in situations worthy of scrutiny.
While he was able to keep his name out of the headlines briefly, Wilson fell back to his old play style in 2020-21. First, he was suspended five games for boarding Brandon Carlo, which was the fifth suspension in his career. Then, he had the moment that briefly broke the NHL, when he got into a scrum with Pavel Buchnevich and Artemi Panarin that left the Rangers’ star injured in a play that looked dirtier and dirtier the more you saw it.
To put it simply, there is a gap between what the NHL says they allow on the ice, and what they actually allow. With a player like Wilson in the league, he finds a way to live in the gap, somehow skirting by while putting players’ health in danger.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.