Monday, July 6, 2009

Hardest Hitters of the Nineties

In a sport that's all about contact, often featuring very large men zooming around at high speeds, filled with adrenaline and aggression, there have been some very big hits. And almost anyone good enough to play hockey at a high level knows a thing or two about delivering a check. Sometimes we're even blessed with witnessing a player known more for skill and finesse or perhaps a smaller, less physical type or both, absolutely crashing into an opponent and laying him out flat. But to consistently dish out quality hits of devastating intensity for an entire decade is still a rare feat indeed in the best league in the world. Many players who were absolute terrors physically in their younger days just can't keep that kind of play going as they go into their thirties. Here are the best of the nineties, with as little bias as I can manage.

5. Jeff Beukeboom. Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers
Purely a defensive defensemen, Beukeboom was anything but a flashy player with 25 points in 1988 being a career high. He did somehow score 8 goals in 1994 but with Boomer, it was all about the hits. A nasty customer to play against, he regularly topped 100 penalty minutes in a season and had over 200 twice. A great defensive player, he often matched up against the opposing team's top offensive players and on the plus/minus, Beukeboom was only a minus player twice in his entire career (his last 2 years on a very weak Rangers team).

He hit his stride paired up as the defensive conscience with the offensively talented Brian Leetch in New York. Leetch carried the puck and made the plays while Beukeboom broke up plays and laid guys out. At 6'5, 220, he was certainly well-equipped to knock people down. But we all know size isn't everything and Beukeboom's success as a hitter was mostly due to his uncanny ability to anticipate the play so he could position himself properly. And in the nineties, few did it better.

Signature hit: I'm really not sure but here's a nice one of him blind-siding a Winnipeg Jet.

4. Cam Neely. Boston Bruins

The only forward on this list, Neely hit just as hard in the nineties as he did in the eighties. I've already given you some info on him on my power forwards list so I'll try not to repeat it here. He had a very unique reputation as he was feared as a scoring threat as well as a hitter. I'm not saying he never threw an elbow or took a few too many steps once in awhile but most of the time, his hits were absolutely clean and as perfectly executed as can be. It wasn't uncommon for one of his checks to either lead directly to a goal for his team or a huge shift in the momentum of the game. The fact is Neely absolutely exploded into opponents once he had them lined up.

At 6'1, 190, he was only an average sized player, really, but he was as strong as they come and was an expert in transferring all his force into his shoulder for a collision. And like Beukeboom, Neely could finish what he started. If a recipient of a hit or one of his teammates didn't care for it and went after him, Neely was more than willing to drop the gloves and throw down.

Signature hit: Chelios manages to stay in his feet for this one but I still love it.

3. Rob Blake. Los Angeles Kings
Blake had a lot more offensive pop than either Beukeboom or Kasparaitis, scoring over forty points most seasons and usually more than 10 goals. He even has two seasons with over 20 goals (a rare thing for defenseman) and has six seasons with 50 points or more to his name. But he could also hit. How well? Well, in the early nineties some bus line in LA used to use his picture in their ads, indicating getting hit by Blake was like crossing paths with a train or bus or something. I dunno. But it's true. I can remember him pounding away at my Leafs during the 1993 Western Conference finals and while his scoring has slowed down with age he's still a pretty fearsome hitter. The hip check was his bread and butter and there are very few in the game today who can do it like Blake did.

Signature hit:
Probably doesn't have one but I greatly enjoy this one where he pastes Yan Bulis.

2. Darius Kasparaitis. New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins
In the same mold as Beukeboom, Kaspar's strength definitely wasn't putting up points (only ever reached 20 in one season) and it wasn't his job either. In the early nineties, not too many European players were known for playing with a snarl and most of those that were, like Esa Tikkanen, were basically agitators who got under the skin of their opponents by playing on the edge, but never dominating them physically. But physical domination was what Kasparaitus was all about and he quickly established a reputation as a devastating hitter. He was only 5'11 but a solid 209 pounds and he knew how to use all of it, often slamming larger players to the ice or crushing them against the boards and glass.

It wasn't easy to hit a guy like Mario Lemieux, who was such a mixture of grace and power (6'4, 225 pounds), but Kasparaitus was so good at it that the Penguins eventually made a trade to acquire him. He continued his physical style there, now often protecting Mario rather than making life miserable for him as he used to. Anti-Euro fans have accused this guy of being dirty and looking to hit guys when their heads are down but come on! Everyone knows that if you catch a guy with his head down, he's fair game. That's the way it is. Kaspar was also a master of the old-fashioned hip check and would send guys flying through the air when he caught them with it. But he was just as good with a normal shoulder check; just ask Eric Lindros.

Signature hit: It has to be this one on Little Baby Eric, a much bigger player at 6'5, 235. Lindros missed 18 games after this hit and it was really the beginning of the many concussions that would basically trash his career. But there are a ton of great Kaspar hits to be found on youtube. Check them out.

1. Scott Stevens. Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, New Jersey Devils
I truly hate this guy but must admit that he is at least arguably the best hitter the game has ever seen. In his youth he was a linebacker in football and that's not surprising in the slightest. A star in junior hockey and thusly, a high draft pick, Stevens stepped right into the NHL as an eighteen year old and made an impact right away. Playing for the Washington Captitals, he made "an impact" on whomever he played against. And back in those days he was an offensive force as well. After scoring 25 as a rookie, he always had at least 40 and topped 60 four times! And throughout it all he absolutely punished opponents. There isn't any kind of body check that he wasn't a master of, whether it was a hip check, crashing along the boards or a big open-ice hit - he could do it all. If you played against Stevens, you either kept your head up or suffered dire consequences.

He played one season for the Blues but then there was this whole, um, thing involving the Blues, the Devils and Brendan Shanahan that I don't feel like going into here. All you need to know is Stevens wound up on the Devils and that's where he played the rest of his career, becoming captain in short order. Some of his most famous hits actually came towards the end of his career, after the nineties (Francis, Lindros, Willis, Kariya) but he still did his share of damage during that decade as well. Barely a game went by where he didn't deliver at least one crushing hit and it's absolutely true that he sometimes completely took over games with his physical play. I'll always hate his guts but can only respect his amazing ability to check like almost no other player before or since.

Signature hit: Truly, he has several and maybe the most infamous is the one on Lindros in the 2000 playoffs but this assault on Slava Kozlov in the 1995 Stanley Cup final (en route to his first of 3 Cups) will do nicely for the purposes of this list. Don't ask me how the guy managed to get up after this one. Teammate Scott Niedermayer was lucky to get out of the way. In the aftermath, with the Detroit bench all screaming at him, Stevens pointed at them and said "You're next."


Cole D'Arc said...

Nice list but what about Derian Hatcher? Or how about Tie Domi or Chris Simon?

Cole D'Arc said...

Quiet you.

Shane Patenaude said...

Good list. That Scott Stevens hit has truly brutal.

As you know, hockey's violent nature is what makes it so entertaining. "Here comes Bertino and Ferguson out of the penalty box ... and there go Bertino and Ferguson back into the penaty box."

Cole D'Arc said...

looking back, i'm not too happy with this list. the number one is right but Kaspar should be around 4. Wendel Clark should be 3, and Bryan Marchment should be at 5. Blake is bumped off (6) and that puts Beaukeboom at 7.