Saturday, September 12, 2009
On this day in 1940, the NHL board of Governors eliminated the requirement that only jersey numbers 1-19 be allowed to designate players in NHL games.
This opened up a can of worms that I'm not sure the Board of Governors anticipated at the time. Traditionally, goaltenders always wore #1, while the defensemen commonly wore numbers 2 through 6, a tradition that continues to this day.
When I was young, goalies always seemed to wear #30 or #35 and numbers such as Don Beaupre's #33, Ken Dryden's #29 or Gilles Meloche's #27 were out of the ordinary.
I don't recall any regular skaters wearing anything higher than #29 when I was a kid. Then I became aware of fringe players wearing numbers in the 30's, which looked odd to me.
And then came the Phil Esposito trade to the New York Rangers in 1975. Esposito wore #7 with the Bruins, but when he arrived in Manhattan, #7 was already being worn by veteran Rod Gilbert, and Esposito doubled his #7 and became #77, while Ken Hodge did the same and became #88. There certainly may have been earlier examples of unusually high numbers, but for my then 13 year old mind, it was the first time I was aware of numbers over 35 for anyone.
Then came Wayne Gretzky...
#99 was so far out of the norm and seemed to open the floodgates for "football numbers" in my teenaged recollection.
Brian Lawton followed with the unfortunate choice of #98, which would prove impossible to live up to due to it's implied expectations of being so close to Gretzky's #99. Mario Lemieux arrived bearing #66. Eric Lindros made #88 famous. Steve Heinze donned #57. Certain players found their preferred number taken and swapped digits leading to even more numbers which would be more at home on a linebacker than a goaltender. Ron Hextall's #27 was in use on Long Island, and he began to wear #72.
Speaking of goaltenders, Domink Hasek and his unconventional #39 has influenced a generation (or two) of goalies who now wear #39, such as the Islanders Rick DiPietro. Or does he wear that because that's the number of years of his contract? I can't remember...
Now high numbers are obviously here to stay, especially when young stars such as Rick Nash (#61), Phil Kessel (#81) and of course, Sidney Crosby and his #87 came into the league wearing high digits and making them their own right from the start, than switching to them mid-career for various reasons like Esposito, Hodge, Hextall and Ray Bourque all did.
The storied and traditional Montreal Canadiens have now retired so many numbers that the players have little choice in the matter. With 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 16, 18, 19, 23, 29 & 33 all out of circulation, the Canadiens last season featured a roster with decidedly un-traditional numbers such as 40, 41, 44, 46, 51, 53, 67, 68, 70, 71, 74, 79, 80 & 84 - 14 out of 33 players wearing #40 and above.
Compare that to the 1967-68 team, during the first year of expansion, when the highest number on the team was goaltender Rogie Vachon at #30 and no skater wore anything higher than #26.
Jump ahead another 10 years to 1977-78 and Rod Schutt with #30 and Pat Hughes with #31 were the only skaters out of the 20's. Ten more years shows the trend creeping upwards, thanks in part to the influence of Gretzky who arrived in the NHL in 1979. The 1987-88 Canadiens now had John Kordic #31, Claude Lemieux #32, Mike McPhee #35, Sergio Momesso #36, Mike Lalor #38, Brian Skrudland #39, Vincent Riendeau #40 and Stephane Richer #44 on the roster for a total of 8 "high numbers", but you will note they are all still under 50.
1997-98 shows #34, #37, #38, goalie #41, #43, #44, #46, #48, #49, #51, #52, #55 & #71 for 13 high numbers and seven of those higher than any seen in 1988, which brings us to today with the "football numbers" in the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's & 80's now being commonplace.
One oddity that we recall was the Vancouver Canucks of 2005-06, with #22 Daniel Sedin, #33 Henrik Sedin, #44 Todd Bertuzzi, #55 Ed Jovanovski and #77 Anson Carter, which has to be a record for doubled digit players on one team, especially with #66 virtually being and #99 officially being off-limits and #00 now outlawed. Too bad #11 Mark Messier had left for New York by then...
Just in case you were wondering, the Third String Goalie collection has all the numbers from #1 through #41 (as partially proven during our July by the Numbers theme), followed by numbers 66, 68, 71, 77, 81, 83, 87, 88, 91, 96, 97 99 and 00 (which I, and my database, treat the same as "100"). We'd love to add a Neil Sheehy #0 Hartford Whalers jersey some day. To complete the numbers from 1 to 41, we did specifically choose to have jerseys customized with #23 and #36 to fill the last two gaps in the sequence.
Here are some fun and interesting links related to hockey jersey numbers for you to check out today.
The A-Z Encyclopedia of Ice Hockey Jersey/Shirt Numbers (shirt? Please, it's a "jersey" or a "sweater"!)
This includes all the players who have ever worn a particular number of your choosing, which players have had a particular number retired (an exhaustive list that includes leagues other than the NHL) and some odd-ball numbers including #0, #00 and a few three digit numbers.
HockeySweaterNumbers.com You can browse by teams, players or numbers in this website dedicated to only hockey jersey numbers.
HockeyDB.com The Internet Hockey Database is another fairly good source for jersey numbers in addition to their excellent player stats. They don't always have the numbers listed, but often enough to be a valuable resource for who wore what when.
JerseyDatabase.com - Not limited to just hockey, this is a great way to lose a day of your life. With the advanced search feature you do have the ability to search for a particular number in a particular league, such as the good ol' NHL, but you get to see the jerseys the player in question wore with all manner of functionality for the images you find.
When Guillaume Latendresse took to the ice wearing #84 in 2006, it was the last unworn number in NHL history, spawning this Sports Illustrated.com article, The top 101, listing the best player to have ever worn each number from #00, #0 & #1 to 99, 101 in all. You may not always agree with them, Marian Gaborik's two weeks in #82 over Martin Straka?, and some players are "the best" because they are the only one to have worn an obscure number, but it's a fun read which will hopefully spark some debate.
If you find that fun, perhaps this book is for you, By the Numbers: From 00 to 99. It's often a frustrating book, as many of the players pictured are wearing a different number than the one being discussed, but still more fun than the single player per number list on the SI.com article, since they list the other significant players who shared the number with their chosen favorite and some stories about why certain players chose their numbers, which I always find interesting to know, unless it's the "that's the number they gave me, and I'm just happy to be here" line.
My favorite one is Sheehy, who claimed he wore #0 because "zero is the furthest number from 99 and talent-wise I was as far away from 99 as possible".