Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Wiz Biz: Retiring an NHL Number

How does a franchise decide what numbers to retire? What is the criteria? How much of an impact does it have on players currently playing?

These are all interesting questions that come up when hockey enthusiasts talk about the importance of a number. Some numbers are now immortalized by outstanding careers of certain players. For example, no one can ever wear #99 again. Not even you, Wilf Paiement. Below is a collection of fun facts related to retiring NHL numbers. Enjoy!

  • Currently, the Anaheim Ducks, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Florida Panthers, the Nashville Predators, the San Jose Sharks, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are the only teams without retired numbers. It seems inevitable that Anaheim will hang forward Teemu Selanne's #8 in the rafters and I suspect Tampa will consider retiring Dave Andreychuk's #25 now that he is VP in charge of fans. In due time, the remaining teams on this list will find their immortal player to raise to the rafters. Perhaps in due time Rick Nash in Columbus or Patrick Marleau in San Jose. Only time will tell.

  • As rare as it is to have your number retired, only six players have their number retired on more than one team as a direct result of their service. The Silver Six:
  • Bobby Hull: retired with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes
  • Gordie Howe: retired with the Detroit Red Wings and the Hartford Whales (now defunct)
  • Wayne Gretzky: retired with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings (league wide)
  • Raymond Bourque: retired with the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche
  • Mark Messier: retired with the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers
  • Patrick Roy: Retired with the Montreal Canadiens and the Colorado Avalanche

  • The first number retired among NHL teams was Irvine Wallace "Ace" Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs. On December 12th, 1933, Ace was hit from behind by Eddie Shore and his career ended in an instant. An "all star" game was held on his behalf in 1934, where Shore and Bailey shook hands. The #6 remains in the rafters at the Air Canada Centre today.

  • Aside from Gretzky's #99, the #77 of Raymond Bourque is the next highest number, followed by #66 Mario Lemieux, and #35 of Tony Esposito and Mike Richter. The number most frequently retired number is #9, which has nine players on eleven teams including defunct teams:
  • Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens.
  • Gordie Howe, Detroit Red Wings and Hartford Whalers.
  • Johnny Bucyk, Boston Bruins.
  • Bobby Hull, Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets.
  • Lanny MacDonald, Calgary Flames.
  • Clark Gilles, New York Islanders.
  • Glenn Anderson, Edmonton Oilers.
  • Adam Graves, New York Rangers.
  • Andy Bathgate, New York Rangers.

Now that I have polluted your mind with an excess of facts about retired number, it's time to discuss the questions posed at the beginning of the article. If you take a glance at all of the names that are listed here and on the "List of NHL Retired Numbers" page, at least 90% of the names belong to players you know about. The scorers, the legendary goaltenders, the multi-time Stanley Cup Champions, and the legends of a time no one can remember. Some names that appear on that list are unrecognizable to even the most hardened hockey buffs. Who is Barry Ashbee? Bob Gassoff? Michel Brière? The latter two had their careers cut tragically short from accidents, while Ashbee was struck by in the eye and later died of leukemia.

The criteria for retiring a number is entirely dependent on context. Players who have been mediocre scorers or had only menial impact on the ice, all due respect to them, have had their numbers retired. Statistics do not matter as much as you would think they should. The retiring of a number is about more than the game itself. Men who have been deemed the "heart and soul" of a team, those who have died tragically or had their careers cut abruptly short, and those who served their team loyally have earned their place in the rafters of the home team arena.

The perfect example to demonstrate my point is New York Islanders forward Bob Nystrom. Dubbed "Mr. Islander" and beloved by Long Island fans, Nystrom's career statistics are not by any means mind boggling: in 900 regular season games, Nystrom scored 235 goals, 278 assists, 513 points and 1248 penalty minutes. In 157 playoff games, Nystrom had 83 points and 236 penalty minutes. His statistics are somewhat comparable to Tomas Holmstrom with the except of Nystrom's seemingly fearless attitude towards taking penalties. But he will always be remembered for the goal.

Skip to about 1:30 to get to the good stuff. Tonelli to Nystrom, back of the net. The beginning of a dynasty. Nystrom would remain a central piece of the Islander dynasty that would go on to dominate the NHL for four years before the Oilers finally toppled their empire in 1983-1984. Nystrom's play would peter off after the successful run of the Islanders until he retired in 1986. Nystrom was a power forward who was not afraid to get physical, but more important to his legacy are the four playoff overtime winners and his dedication to the Long Island community. After retiring he remained with the team in a number of positions, including Director of Special Projects, Director of Community Relations, Director of Amateur Hockey Development & Alumni Relations, and finally Director of Corporate Relations. His jersey was retired in 1995.

Nystrom wasn't the power scorer like Mike Bossy, but one could argue no one was or will be. He also wasn't the two way dynamo that was Bryan Trottier. He may not even have been as strong a power forward as Clark Gilles. Yet all four men have their numbers retired by the Islanders, rightfully so, and Nystrom will not be forgotten by Islanders faithful for being the man who put the puck in the net for their first championship. It's players like Nystrom who belong in the rafters alongside the Potvins and the Bossys. The easy choices are always the trophy winners, the all-time scorers, or the legendary defensemen. The best choices are the players who represent the heart of a team and the soul of the community.

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