If you happened to catch the Canadiens-Maple Leafs game on Saturday night, you may have noticed a lot of Mats Sundin jerseys not only in the stands, but on the ice. The former Maple Leafs captain was honoured by the team for his service, and the players honoured him by wearing his name and number during warm-ups and on a patch during the game. The team also gave him the greatest honour any team can bestow on a player by raising his #13 to the rafters to join the other honoured Maple Leafs players. This move by the Maple Leafs is rare in sports in that his honoured number can still be worn by other players whereas most teams retire the number and remove it from active service. And that got me thinking: why retire numbers at all?
Look, I get that these players hold a special place in the team's history and that the number they wore pushed that singular number into a place of prominence amongst the fans and team, but the number of retired numbers that are being hoisted above stadiums and arenas in North America is staggering.
The idea behind Toronto's honoured number program is that multiple players can be honoured while wearing the same number. And they have indeed done so since 1993 when the Honoured Number program began.
- #1 - Turk Broda ('37-52) and Johnny Bower ('59-70).
- #4 - Hap Day ('24-37) and Red Kelly ('61-67).
- #7 - King Clancy ('31-37) and Tom Horton ('50-70).
- #9 - Charlie Conacher ('30-38) and Ted Kennedy ('43-55, '56-57).
- #10 - Syl Apps ('37-43, '45-48) and George Armstrong ('50-69, '70-71).
- #13 - Mats Sundin ('94-08).
- #17 - Wendel Clark ('85-94, '96-98, '99-00).
- #21 - Borje Salming ('73-89).
- #27 - Frank Mahovlich ('57-68) and Darryl Sittler ('70-82).
- #93 - Doug Gilmour ('91-97, '02-03).
If we look at the Montreal Canadiens, they have 17 numbers currently in "retired" status. No other player may wear those numbers now, and that leads to a lot of players wearing numbers once hardly seen - 63, 84, 75, and so on. Why is it that Maurice Richard can be the only player in Canadiens history remembered to wear #9? Does someone else wearing #9 diminish the legacy and history that Richard wrote as a Canadien?
The NHL has decreed that Wayne Gretzky's number 99 is retired throughout the league. While there is no debating the impact that Wayne Gretzky had on the NHL, why is it that only the NHL has his number out of circulation? I'm pretty sure he made an impact in hockey across the world, so why don't other leagues follow the NHL's lead in retiring #99?
Ok, so that might be a bit extreme, but I have to wonder what purpose removing a number from the options that a player can wear serves? I'm not saying that current Leafs Colby Armstrong and Cody Franson won't be Hall-of-Famers and significant historical figures in the annals of the Maple Leafs franchise at this point, but does their wearing #9 and #4 today diminish the accolades achieved by Conacher, Kennedy, Day, or Kelly? Personally, I say no.
Perhaps it's time to re-examine the idea of "retiring" numbers. While I'm certainly not saying that teams have to change their policies, it might be a better practice to honour a number of superb players in each franchise without banning the wearing of their numbers in the future. This will not only allow future players to wear numbers with which fans are already accustomed, but it will also keep 98 numbers in rotation for, possibly, ever.
What say you, readers: is retiring numbers a good idea? Do you think that honouring players is a better method in terms of keeping traditional hockey numbers in play? Have your say in the comments! I'm certainly interested in your thoughts on this!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!