Numbers Game: Time For a Reset Button on Sweater Numbers

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Numbers Game: Time For a Reset Button on Sweater Numbers
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Blame it on Gretzky, Lemieux, the Canadiens, or even the New York Yankees.

At one point in time, hockey-sweater numbers had a nice simple rule to them.

Goaltenders wore number 1, or a number from 20-35. Defencemen wore 2-6 or 20-29. Forwards wore anything between 7 and 29.

It was simple, and it worked in the same way that Danish modern furniture does; it's not fancy, but it's simplicity keeps people too distracted by bigger concerns from screwing up their personal aesthetics too badly. 

Sure, there were exceptions. Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion, both forwards, wore numbers 4 and 5, respectively. Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey, both defensemen, both wore number 7 at the starts of their careers.

And, the most famous number non-conformist of all, Wayne Gretzky, wore 99 for the all but a handful of games in his long professional career. 

Legend has it that Wayne, who previously wore number 9 in honour of his childhood hero, Gordie Howe, adopted 99 when he moved to a junior team and found his preferred sweater to be taken already. A legend, and a horrible trend, were born.

There were other occasional pre-Gretzky exceptions to the number-35 limit. Phil Esposito could not wear the number 7 he used to score 527 goals for the Black Hawks (as it was spelled at the time) and the Bruins, as it sat squarely on the shoulders of Rod Gilbert.

As great as Esposito was, Gilbert was the Rangers' leading scorer and assistant captain at the time, as well as a fourteen-year veteran of the team; not exactly someone you could ask to give up his number with a straight face.

So, Espo donned the NFL-esque 77, and continued to score another 190 for the Rangers before retiring in 1981.

And, during Esposito's tenure on Broadway, goalie John Davidson briefly wore the supremely awkward, and certainly not complimentary, number 00.

Apparently, JD switched back to the more traditional number 30 after hearing the same joke one too many times from wags in the crowd: "00??? That's sure not your goals-against average!"

However, despite Gretzky's rapid ascent to fame with the number 99 on his back, the traditional number rules held relatively firm until the mid 1980's.

Perhaps it was Gretzky's immediate greatness that discouraged others from showing the audacity to be seen as imitating him by choosing a high and non-traditional number. 

That all changed with Mario Lemieux, whom Penguins brass decided would bear an upside-down 99 (or 66, of course) from his first day in the NHL.

Soon, Petr Klima wore 85. Bourque and Coffey both switched to 77. Eric Lindros tried to insinuate himself into the Gretzky-Lemieux pantheon by donning 88. Fedorov bore 91 when he wasn't chasing Anna Kournikova. 

By the turn of the century, NHL rosters started to look more and more like they belonged in the NFL.

Between his number 87 and the dreadful football-helmet-gold the Penguins have adopted, Sid the Kid looks more like he's ready to run a post pattern and pull a cell phone out of the uprights than he is to make a breakaway on Chris Osgood.

Even less heralded rookies have the brass to try to pull off this slap in the face to hockey tradition. Look at Matt Gilroy.

Sure, he won the Hobey Baker in his final year at BU, but he hardly arrived in the league with any of the fanfare or expectations of the aforementioned trend-buckers. 97, Matt? I think you have defenceman confused with defensive tackle. 

At least players like Scott Gomez, who reversed his conventional 19 to 91 upon his trade to the Canadiens, have a semblance of an excuse as the Habs had retired 19 in honour of Larry Robinson.

And, the Canadiens have retired 14 of the numbers between 1 and 35, leaving barely enough for a fully-dressed team, not counting healthy scratches and injury-list players.

As with championship trophies, this leaves Les Canadiens just short of their inter-sport rival for most successful North American pro team of all time, the New York Yankees, who have retired 15 numbers. 

I will comment on the necessity or lack thereof of these retired numbers in another column, but I think it's time for this sweater madness to stop.

It's at the point where it's so expected for a rookie to choose a high number that it comes as a double-take inducing shock when a high-profile player like Alexander Ovechkin chooses a conventional number as he did with his No. 8.

The NFL, which I've firmly maintained is the best-run league of the four major pro leagues of North America, has rules in place regarding which positions can wear which numbers.

After Gary Bettman's repeated peeing in the punchbowl of hockey tradition, he could make some amends by instituting such a rule in the NHL.

Plus, think of all the additional merchandise revenue it would generate in terms of replica sweater sales for all the players who had suddenly been issued new numbers...

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