From the Bloomberg site on 4/6/17, a death notice: “Don Rickles, Comedian Who Turned Insults Into Art, Dies at 90”, by Laurence Arnold, which notes:
“The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang credits Rickles, circa 1963, with repurposing ‘hockey puck’ to mean ‘a stupid or useless person.’”
There’s some question about when Rickles first used the insult to address someone, but no one seems to have asked
🏒Why hockey puck?🏒
What the puck? Puck is an obvious, and fairly often used, avoidance for fuck. Meanwhile, the noun fuck is often used in the sense ‘a despicable person, usually a man’ (Sheidlower’s The F Word, 3rd. ed.), very frequently in the vocative insult you fuck. Also in dumbfuck / dumb-fuck / dumb fuck, conveying ‘a contemptibly stupid person’ (Sheidlower). And raw ghits are almost as high for you stupid fuck as for you dumb fuck. All of these fucksults can be avoided by substituting puck, but then the speaker’s intentions would be transparent.
You can, however, achieve deniability by folding puck into the fixed expression hockey puck, which is apparently innocent of any associations beyond the violence of ice hockey (or was, until Rickles started using it as an insult).
The hockey puck insult. Ben Zimmer on ADS-L about HDAS:
HDAS has as its first cite a line by Rickles (“You hockey puck!”) from “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” I see Rickles guest-starred in two back-to-back episodes in 1964: “4 1/2” (Nov. 4) and “The Alan Brady Show Goes to Jail” (Nov. 11).
Meanwhile, with no firmer evidence, Wikipedia takes the insult back a decade (and some obits did so as well. In context:
Donald Jay “Don” Rickles (May 8, 1926 – April 6, 2017) was an American stand-up comedian and actor. Although he became well known as an insult comic, his pudgy, balding appearance and pugnacious style led to few leading roles in film or television; his prominent film roles included Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), and beginning in 1976 he enjoyed a two-year run starring in the sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey.
He received widespread exposure as a popular guest on numerous talk shows, including The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson and Late Show with David Letterman, and later voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.
… When he began his career in the early 1950s, he started calling ill-mannered members of the audience “hockey pucks” [also “dummies”]. His style was similar to that of an older insult comic, Jack E. Leonard, though Rickles denied Leonard influenced his style. During an interview on Larry King Live, Rickles credited Milton Berle’s comedy style for inspiring him to enter show business.
More about the man and his act, from the Bloomberg site:
The man who called people “you hockey puck” studied drama with the likes of Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft in the 1940s in hopes of breaking onto the Broadway stage. He found some success on television, starring for three seasons in “CPO Sharkey,” and in movies including “Casino,” but his quest for dramatic roles went largely unfulfilled.
Instead, he became America’s premier putdown artist, a comic whose prime material was the audience in front of him: people of various ethnicities, religions, sizes, ages. He stabbed without drawing blood, shocking audiences without using the language that got Lenny Bruce, a contemporary, into legal trouble. Radio host Howard Stern is among the modern-day no-holds-barred performers who cite Rickles as a major influence.
“What I do is exaggerate, that’s all I do,” Rickles said in a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose. “I have a knack — I don’t know how — but I have a knack of making fun of somebody and exaggerating without hurting them, and doing it in such a way that they said, ‘Oh, that was great.”’