At the end of the red carpet stands a man. A spotlight cuts a circle for him in the big dark, a place in the arena all to himself, symbolic of the singular honour to be bestowed upon him. His hair has silvered, and the crows-feet around his eyes will soon outnumber the battle scars he won in glorious confrontation, the reminders that he once sacrificed every measure of himself to become one of the best, and the proof that the time he borrowed from the game lasted longer than for most.
Across his back droops his uniform, not filled now by broad slabs of heroic equipment, but by his narrowing shoulders, his folded surname barely visible amid the billowing fabric. Above him, a standard is cranking to the rafters; a banner, crested with his name and number. It finishes its ascent beside the row of others, the long line of heroes from whom he accepted the torch, the storied past from which he drew his inspiration and strength to carry his teammates to glories of their own. He always understood the great responsibility that was his, and he is proud to have held up his end of the bargain.
For all the blur of days and seasons to come, that number will be his alone; none who will follow will ever be permitted to wear it. Recollections of the digit will come part-and-parcel with the orchestrations he performed for the people in this arena, for the people who mattered most to him.
Always so emotionally contained as a player, his lips quiver, and he widens his eyes in a vain attempt to preserve his manhood, but his feelings betray him at last. Twin streams run from his eyes, cutting a path through his cracking features and twisted roots of ancient stitches to drop to the ice.
The crowd roars its approval.
I always enjoy this spectacle. This season, I’ve seen clips of the various ceremonies, almost too many to recall. McInnis, Savard, Hull – and soon we’ll have footage of Messier, Yzerman, and probably Nieuwendyk crying at centre ice rolling on the highlight shows.
The fact that there have been so many of these is the reason I think the tradition has to end.
Montreal, for instance, has twelve numbers hanging unavailable in the rafters, and they are mostly the small, classic ones associated with the greatest legends who have ever played the game. The best numbers, like 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10. The Boston Bruins have eleven. The Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues, nine. The Blackhawks and Rangers, seven apiece.
In the years to come, players for some of these teams will have only unattractive, anonymous numbers like, “78” or, “82” to choose from, and the limitations will only increase as more banners are hung in the sky. In a game with about a hundred years of history to look back on, these restrictions are growing more significant, and all other, newer teams in the NHL have adopted this tradition themselves.
I believe the only team that is forward-thinking with this issue is the Toronto Maple Leafs. According to club policy, numbers are retired only when the player wearing them has died wearing the uniform, so the team has removed only two from circulation: Bill Barilko’s number 5, and Ace Bailey’s number 6. It’s three if you include Gretzky, whose number was retired league-wide at the behest of Gary Bettman.
When the Leafs desire to recognize a worthy player, his number is “honoured”, and remains in active circulation. Toronto has honoured seven numbers in this fashion in recognition of thirteen players who wore them. It’s a policy that has irked some fans and former players alike, Dave Keon being foremost among them; he will never set foot inside the Air Canada Centre so long as the team refuses to retire his number, and I see that as a good thing. The club rule applies to everyone, no exceptions. If Keon becomes the exception, then the exception becomes the rule; the precedent will have been set, and the floodgates would have to open, and many other numbers would soon join his, removed from active use.
Why is it so awful for Keon that his number remains in circulation? Isn’t it reverential enough to “just” be honoured by his team? The way things are now, the best, classic numbers can still be worn by active players, and as a fan of the history of the team, this seems like a great thing to me. I see the fact that numbers like 1, 7, 9, or any other can be used as a tribute to the club’s history, not as an insult. And besides, there are many years of hockey yet to play, with a young crop of new players arriving every year who will one day merit jersey retirement, if a team follows historical precedent. There will arrive a day when from an operational standpoint, it will not be feasible to retire any more numbers.
But Toronto’s policy of elevated numbers of honour is not above criticism. I believe it is a fundamental disrespect to Ted Kennedy that a rookie with limited potential like Aleksander Suglobov was given permission to wear the number 9. Not as obviously unworthy are Andrew Raycroft (1), Ian White (7), or Matt Stajan (14), but the fact remains that these are all young, unproven players who have yet to build a legacy meritorious enough of wearing numbers that have been honoured for team legends – or in the case of Stajan, a number that should be honoured. Jersey numbers are cherished things, things negotiated for by veteran players and usually chosen for special reasons, and it takes away some of the prestige if anyone at all is allowed to wear them. That isn’t right, and I agree with Keon that this needs to change. At a minimum, club policy should dictate that only deserving, veteran players be granted permission to wear an honoured number. This would respect the tradition of the game, the team, and the contributions of the player who once wore it. I believe it would also enhance the cachet of a special, chosen number for fans and players alike; if this were the new team policy, it would really mean something if a player stepped onto the ice wearing say, number 9, if almost nobody earns the right to use it. It would mean that this is a special player who paid his dues and merits sharing a uniform that has been worn only by the teams best.
And if there is the sense that fans are being denied the enjoyment of a retirement ceremony - well, imagine its replacement, a "Jersey Ceremony": for instance, picture Mario Lemieux waiting on the carpet at centre ice, wearing his number. Out of the tunnel comes Sidney Crosby, chosen by club officials as Lemieux's successor after years of proving his worthiness to the team. After the traditional accolades and speeches are delivered to Lemieux, he passes his sweater to Crosby, who symbolically slips it over his own head, as the crowd explodes in rapture. I get shivers just thinking about it.
And if there is no deserving player for the number, well, then nobody gets to wear it, it’s as simple as that. As the club rule stands now, it is obvious there is little distinction in being honoured at all.
But it’s still better than seeing a lineup card filled with anonymous player numbers more appropriately used on a football field.