Tough guys of the north

July 28, 2021

My roots are in northern Ontario. And as I am proud to be a northerner, I make no apologies for, when it comes to hockey, being partial to players who hail from the north.

Which brings me to compile my personal Top 10 list of the toughest customers from northern Ontario to play in the Ontario Hockey League during what I will call the rough and tumble decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

Players are listed in alphabetical order.

David Bruce

DAVID BRUCE. A Thunder Bay product, Bruce never made it to the OHL until he was 18 years old. But once he did, there was no stopping him.

Not overly big at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Bruce made a major impact as a winger with the Kitchener Rangers from 1982 to 1984.

Not only did Bruce score 88 goals in just 129 regular season games over two years but he racked up 402 minutes in penalties as a physical performer who went into the corners for the puck and usually came away it.

Besides that, when it came to dropping the gloves, Bruce scored road decisions over a pair of Soo Greyhounds heavyweights, namely fellow future National Hockey League mainstays Jeff Beukeboom and Rick Tocchet.

GARY CORBIERE. It says here that, pound for pound, the toughest player to ever wear a Brantford Alexanders uniform was Corbiere, a medium size left winger.

Considering that while Brantford’s OHL history only went from 1978 to 1984, the Alexanders alumni does include two legendary tough guys who went on to lengthy careers as National Hockey League forwards, namely Bob Probert and Shayne Corson.

But to me, it was Corbiere who was even tougher than Probert and Corson. Which is saying a lot.

Standing in at 5-foot-10 and tipping the scales at 175 pounds, the hard-nosed Corbiere played in 85 games for Brantford after being acquired in a trade with the Sudbury Wolves for fellow forward Dean DeFazio.

As much as he made an impact as a feisty, fearless youngster who improbably made the OHL despite not being drafted, Corbiere went on to make a further name for himself beyond hockey.

Hailing from Batchewana First Nation just outside Sault Ste. Marie, Corbiere would go on to become a famed lawyer before he tragically drowned in Lake Simcoe on August 8, 2004 at age 41 while out on his boat. He had a cottage on Georgina Island and traveled frequently to the mainland to work in Toronto.

Corbiere was the lawyer who successfully argued in the Supreme Court of Canada for the right of off-reserve, First Nation peoples to have a substantial say in the decisions made on their reserve.

The legendary, landmark case in constitutional law became known as the Corbiere Decision.

TIM COULIS. A hulking left winger from Kenora, Coulis would play three OHL seasons, suiting up for the Soo Greyhounds and Hamilton Fincups.

Skilled enough to eventually become a a first round draft pick to the NHL, Coulis, plain and simple, loved to fight. And he was good at it.

There was not a player that Coulis was afraid of and in his OHL rookie season with the Soo during the 1975-1976 season, he spent 226 minutes in the penalty box in just 37 games while still finding the time to score 15 goals, 18 assists, 33 points.

TROY CROWDER. Big and imposing at 6-foot-4 and well over 200 pounds, the Sudbury area product played for the Hamilton Steelhawks, North Bay Centennials and Belleville Bulls from 1985 to 1988.

While he had some decent skill — he would eventually play in more than 150 NHL games — Crowder played for OHL coaches who basically wanted only to use him as an enforcer, the bench bosses in question being Bill Laforge in Hamilton, Bert Templeton in North Bay and Larry Mavety in Belleville.

Somewhat of a reluctant warrior — I mean, Crowder wanted to play hockey, not just fight — he graduated from the OHL as a fighter to be feared.

Craig Duncanson

CRAIG DUNCANSON. Another Sudbury area product, this was a grinding left winger who could score, work the corners and scrap.

As a 16-year old rookie on a terrible Sudbury Wolves team in 1983-1984, Duncanson not only scored 38 goals, 38 assists, 76 points in 62 games but he racked up 178 penalty minutes and backed away from absolutely no one, including OHL enforcers who were three years older.

Duncanson would go on to captain the Wolves and become a first round draft pick to the NHL by the Los Angeles Kings. But while he forged out a lengthy pro career, his lack of skating speed limited his time in the NHL.

Still, this was one tough kid who not only fought his own battles during his OHL playing days but was known for sticking up for his teammates.

BRIAN GUSTAFSON. A mere 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, the Kenora native remains one of the more fearless performers I have seen in my 46 years of covering the OHL.

Nicknamed the ‘mini goon’ by his Windsor coach-general manager Wayne Maxner, Gustafson — aka Gussie — originally made it to the OHL with the Soo Greyhounds in 1976-1977 as an 18 year old, free agent rookie forward.

Brian Gustafson

Acquired by Maxner for Windsor off waivers from the Soo in 1977-1978, Gustafson quickly became a fan favourite among the Spitfires fan faithful, racking up 299 penalty minutes — while scoring two goals, five assists, seven points — in just 32 games.

Despite his small size, Gustafson backed away from no one, engaging in fisticuffs that included much bigger opponents such as future NHLers Al Secord and Willie Huber of the powerhouse Hamilton Fincups.

There was a sign that once hung along the rink boards that said it all about Gustafson: “Gutsy Gus is number one with us.”

TED NOLAN. Hailing from Garden River First Nation just outside the Soo, Nolan was a defenseman turned forward who played two OHL seasons with the Greyhounds from 1976 to 1978.

A hard worker who gave it his all, Nolan scored 22 goals over two seasons with the Greyhounds while spending more than 200 minutes in the penalty box.

A shy kid back then, Nolan was absolutely fearless and was as tough as nails without being dirty or nasty.

He would eventually emerge from shyness to become the only Memorial Cup championship coach in Soo Greyhounds OHL history — and then move up to the NHL and become a coach of the year with the Buffalo Sabres.

MIKE RUSIN. Never drafted into the OHL, the rugged defenseman from the outskirts of Sudbury played two full seasons for the Soo Greyhounds, from 1974 to 1976.

Seeing little reason to touch the puck unless necessary, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound terror rang up 293 penalty minutes in 123 regular season games for the Soo. And the thing about Rusin was that he was strictly a fighter — he wasn’t a hacker or a slasher or a cheap-shot artist and rarely took two-minute penalties.

How good of a fighter was Rusin?

Well, he made it a habit of taking on Peterborough Petes tough guy winger Stan Jonathan, who would go on to NHL infamy with the Boston Bruins.

Rusin beat Jonathan every time I saw them fight — five times I would say. And not only did Rusin score unanimous decisions over Jonathan, he pounded the piss out of him on each and every occasion.

To this day, Rusin — who would go on to become a minor pro terror with the Flint Generals and Muskegon Lumberjacks from 1977 to 1984 — remains the best fighter of any OHL player I have ever seen. Period.

AL SECORD. Hailing from Espanola, the hulking left winger played three OHL seasons for coach Bert Templeton and the Hamilton Fincups.

A future NHLer of 766 games and more than 2,000 penalty minutes, Secord made his mark as a multi-dimensional OHL player during the 1976-1977 season when he scored 32 goals and spent a whopping 343 minutes in the penalty box as a member of the Fighting Fincups.

But not even Secord could beat the aforementioned Mike Rusin in a scrap.

Dennis Vial

DENNIS VIAL. A Sault Ste. Marie native, the bruising defenseman played in the OHL from 1985 to 1989 for the Hamilton Steelhawks/Niagara Falls Thunder under the tutelage of coach Bill Laforge.

Of note, Vial, who was known mainly as a goon, was eventually named team captain by Laforge.

In 186 regular season games, Vial spent more than 700 minutes in the penalty box while challenging all comers to drop their gloves. He would also go on to play in 242 NHL games and rack up 794 minutes in penalties.

On a side note, I once played on a mixed slow pitch team in the Sault as a teammate of Vial. And let’s just say, I could see why hockey was his game of choice.

What you think about “Tough guys of the north”

  1. Brings back memories of the good “ole hockey days” Fans of today would faint at this type of hockey.

  2. that was great information, i love going to the northern hall of fame in kirkland lake, lot of familiar names there, lot of northern tough guys played in the minors, real tough guys, thanks for doing this

  3. Thanks Randy , I was a little too young to remember the 70’s but my dad told me many stories of the days of Gustafson and Coulis…those days … line brawls were quite frequent

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