NHL Numbers That Never Should Have Been Retired

Ken Klavon@@Ken_KlavonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2014

NHL Numbers That Never Should Have Been Retired

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    They billow majestically up high, glistening from the accelerated arena lights in NHL arenas and catch the eye of just about every young dreamer. They are the retired jerseys in stitched lettering that, if actually worn, would probably hold the likes of three bodies.

    Ever wonder about the history of why numbers are retired? What kind of criteria should be used? Should a former player only be honored if he’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame or is the revelry also reserved for a longtime franchise asset who may have been a fan favorite or active in the community, or both? 

    As it stands, there are currently 122 retired numbers in the NHL. Forty of those players who have been honored are not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, although several of them are surely going to get in. 

    We analyzed the list of retired numbers and developed a short list of those that probably had no business being raised, or came across as rather cloying. Feel free to agree or disagree.

Honorable Mentions

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    Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

    J.C. Tremblay's No. 3

    Why It Was Retired

    A solid defenseman and five-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, J.C. Tremblay jumped to the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972 to join the Quebec Nordiques. He immediately became a star, earning league best defenseman honors in 1973 and 1975.

    Prior to the Nordiques moving to the NHL, Tremblay was the only player to appear with the Nordiques in all seven seasons of the WHA. After the 1979 season, the franchise retired his No. 3 (he's shown wearing No. 2 above in the 1974 Summit Series). It has since been put back in circulation with the Colorado Avalanche.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    Tremblay never actually played for the NHL edition Nordiques, retiring in 1979 just before the team merged. It turned out that Tremblay became one of three players to have a number retired without actually playing for it in the NHLthe others being John McKenzie (Hartford Whalers) and Frank Finnigan (Ottawa Senators).

    Bob Plager's No. 5

    Why It Was Retired

    Bob Plager, whose number wasn't officially retired but considered "honored" by the St. Louis Bluesmeaning the team could opt to keep it out of circulationwas a fan favorite. In his 10 years with the team, he was a bruising defenseman who helped the Blues make three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup finals between 1967 and 1970.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    Current Blues defenseman Barret Jackman wears the number now.

    As for Plager, he never turned in dazzling offensive numbers. In 615 games, he amassed only 146 points. Of course, offense isn’t the sole reason to be honored or have a number retired. Plager was a master of the long-lost art of the devastating hip check. However, he played for many Blues teams that were deep in talent on the blue line.

    Still, with zero Stanley Cups and being, for all intents and purposes, closer to marginal than superstar, Plager’s number doesn't fit the bill.

10. Bob Gassoff's No. 3

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    Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    Bob Gassoff was tough as nails and an enforcer with the St. Louis Blues for four seasons. On Memorial Day weekend in 1977, Gassoff was killed in a motorcycle accident after colliding head on with a vehicle. In a show of respect, the franchise retired his number in 1977.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    It’s really difficult to debate the motive of a franchise that leans toward honoring a deceased player after a tragic event, and almost insensitive. But here goes: Although Gassoff had improved his all-around skills, the other end of the debate says that he wasn’t the kind of player who was going to march the Blues to the promised land.

    If that’s not enough, the Blues prefer to honor and not retire numbers, save for top stars in the franchise’s history.

9. Adam Graves' No. 9

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    Chris McGrath/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    Adam Graves had his number retired in 2009 in an emotional ceremony. The beloved Graves spent 10 seasons with the Rangers, played an in-your-face style and averaged 28 goals per season. He topped out with a then-franchise-best 52 goals in the 1993-94 season, the year the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    This was a tough one to consider because of integral contributions to a squad that also saw the uniforms of Brian Leetch, Mark Messier and Mike Richter retired. With Leetch and Messier in the Hockey Hall of Fame already, and a case to be made for Richter’s inclusion, the same can’t be said of Graves.

    Besides, the jersey was on its way to being re-retired (Andy Bathgate) and Graves was admittedly shocked when Leetch announced at his own number-retirement ceremony that Graves' number would be next to be hoisted. Yet, if jerseys are to be retired for the very best, unfortunately, Graves does not fit the criteria. 

8. Glen Wesley's No. 2

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    Glen Wesley moved with the Hartford Whalers to Carolina after the 1997 season and helped the Hurricanes win their first Stanley Cup in 2006. The team retired his number for his leadership, rugged game and, maybe more important, for being a consistent top-two defenseman who played against other teams’ top lines. Finally, he trailed only Ron Francis for career games played with the franchise, at 913.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    The Hurricanes history doesn't exactly boast of luminaries like Beliveau, Harvey, Lafleur and Richard, so even with the Whalers past included, there hasn't exactly been a wealth of players to honor. That includes Wesley, too.

    For starters, conjure up an all-time best defensemen list and where would Wesley rank? Not high at all. After joining the Whalers in 1994, he never tallied more than 26 points or registered double-digit goals in the 13 seasons he spent with the Whalers/Hurricanes.   

7. Barry Ashbee's No. 4

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    Len Redkoles/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    Barry Ashbee played four seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers until his career ended when struck in the right eye by a Dale Rolfe shot during the 1973-74 playoffs against the New York Rangers.

    A stay-at-home defenseman over 270 games, Ashbee became a Flyers assistant coach until being diagnosed with leukemia in April of 1977. A month later he died. The organization retired his No. 4 thereafter and established the Barry Ashbee Award, given annually to the team’s top defenseman.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    Again without sounding callous or insensitive to tragedy, the question is, "Did Ashbee establish enough longevity to warrant his number being retired?" When older ardent Flyers fans reminisce about the "Broad Street Bullies" days, Ashbee was a third-pairing defenseman. The debate becomes whether the award in Ashbee’s name was honor enough. Or, in hindsight, was it going overboard to hoist his jersey?

6. Barclay Plager's No. 8

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    Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    Barclay Plager, one of three brothers to play for the organization, was a torch-bearer for the franchise during its first three years, which incidentally led to three consecutive Stanley Cup appearances. An intensely physical player, Plager hit like a cement truck over his 614 NHL career games with the Blues. When he retired, his 231 points were a team record and his uniform was retired in 1981.   

    Why It Was a Mistake

    Swear on Rocket Richard’s grave that there is no ill will toward the Plager brothers on this list. Yes, Barclay Plager served as captain from 1972 to 1976 and played an essential role in Scotty Bowman’s system before Bowman left, but Plager contributed more in that of a pre-Dallas Drake role and never averaged more than .49 points per game except for the two games he played in 1976-77.

5. Jeremy Roenick's No. 97

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    In 2012, Jeremy Roenick’s No. 97 was inducted into the Coyotes’ Ring of Honor. He racked up 379 points, good for an eighth-place tie on the Coyotes points list. While with Phoenix, the loquacious Roenick helped form a formidable scoring punch with Keith Tkachuk and Rick Tocchet. While there, Roenick helped the organization make the playoffs every season but one.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    OK, there is no arguing Roenick should have his jersey retired. Except in this case it was with the wrong team. The problem is that he didn’t deliver a Stanley Cup or go points crazy in the desert. He just became the first player in NHL history to wear No. 97. That's it.

    Moreover, his 379 points in five seasons were pedestrian compared to his most productive years (eight) with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he recorded career highs in goals and points. With the Blackhawks, he was unquestionably an elite center/power forward. And hey, he even fought Detroit’s Bob Probert.  

4. Yvon Labre's No. 7

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    Yvon Labre joined the Washington Capitals after being selected in the 1974 NHL expansion draft. The hard-nosed defenseman, who served as captain from 1976 to 1978, scored the franchise’s first goal. Of the 24 selections taken in the expansion draft, only two players remained on the roster through the entire season. Labre was one of the two.

    During his seven years with Washington, Labre devoted himself to community programs to grow hockey among youth. The Capitals retired his jersey in 1981.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    It smacks more of nostalgia simply because he was an original Capital. In terms of statistics alone, though, retiring his jersey was more likepardon the puna capital offense. In seven injury-ravaged seasons, only twice did he appear in more than 62 games. He also accrued 96 career points among 756 penalty minutes and a minus-89 plus/minus rating.

    To be fair, the real issue here is trying to compare his career to someone like Adam Foote, another defensive defenseman who also had his number retired recently. Both were brazen, played tough and were on abysmal teams at one point. The difference was that Foote slowly had more talent fill in around him and blossomed.

3. Ray Bourque's No. 77

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    During the 1999-00 season, the five-time Norris Trophy winner requested a trade while with the Boston Bruins so that he’d have a chance to win a Stanley Cup. General manager Harry Sinden dealt him to the Colorado Avalanche.

    A strong influence in the Avs locker room and on the ice, Ray Bourque essentially played one full season in Colorado. After 1,612 regular-season and 214 playoff games, Bourque took the Cup from Joe Sakic and finally hoisted it, putting a Midas touch on a Hall of Fame career.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    Quite honestly, this one’s a head-scratcher since he was no more than a transient. A rather good one, of course. Before the pro-Bourque contingency bounds upon this writer, let it be said that it’s a no-brainer that Bourque deserved his number to be retiredin Boston only, though.

    This was akin to Larry Bird having his number retired after one season with the Indianapolis Pacers had he left Boston for a season or so. Or better yet, the Chicago Blackhawks retiring Bobby Orr's number during his abbreviated time there had they won a Cup.

    One full season should never make for a retired number unless walking on water is involved. There is no denying he played a pivotal role for the Avs. Yet, Bourque made his name and career as a Bruin. Had this been the Avs' first Stanley Cup in franchise history, maybe there’s discussion to retire it. But doing it for a send-off sentimental reason? 

2. Al Hamilton's No. 3

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    Tim Smith/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    A middling NHL defenseman at best, Al Hamilton actually made his name in the fledgling World Hockey Association, joining the Alberta Oilers (they became the Edmonton Oilers a year later) in their inaugural season in 1972. He stayed with the franchise when the NHL absorbed it in the 1979 season.

    The gritty Hamilton, who had offensive flair, served as a captain and potted 53 goals among 311 points in 455 career WHA games.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    Fans in the stands at Rexall Place must stare at the star-studded sweaters hanging in the rafters and get all warm and fuzzy seeing the numbers of Anderson, Coffey, Gretzky, Fuhr, Kurri and Messier softly sway until they get to Hamilton. Then the quizzical stare comes on.

    No disrespect to Hamilton, but Paul Bunyan was a pioneer too and never had a jersey retired in his name. (Or did he?)

1. Minnesota Wild Retiring No. 1

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

    Why It Was Retired

    In their first year of existence, in 2000, the Minnesota Wild had a, well, wild and seemingly plausible idea from a marketing standpoint. The team held a ceremony to retire No. 1 from circulation to honor the fans. No other explanation exists except that it was a touching effort to show appreciation toward its fanbase.

    Why It Was a Mistake

    Actually, it was a brilliant attempt, though cloying, by the Wild front office to embrace the fans. Yet this one ranks as the biggest mistake of all.

    Why? Dial back the years when the North Stars bolted to the Lone Star state after the 1993 season. One of the chief reasons why can be traced chiefly to poor attendance in a hockey-mad state. The naysayers will label owner Norman Green as a villain because of the string of awful teams he put on the ice and for his failures to reach a deal for a new arena. That said, support for the North Stars still deteriorated and the packed moving trucks throttled toward Texas.

    Being a fan of a team is much like a marriage: love and support your spouse through thick and thin. The fans didn't.

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