Is There a “Right Way” To Retire NHL Jersey Numbers?
The New York Rangers’ plan to retire Henrik Lundqvist’s number prompted the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Madden to suggest some teams conduct that practice too frequently.
While taking note of Lundqvist’s 15 seasons with the Rangers, Madden pointed out he never won a Stanley Cup, appeared in just one Cup final and won the Vezina only once. He suggested no one would know who Lundqvist was if he played in Buffalo but he gets his number retired because he played for the big-market Rangers.
Madden also pointed out the Rangers, who’ve won just one championship since 1940, retired eight numbers honoring 10 players but only three won the Stanley Cup. He felt that “when glory isn’t earned, it’s good PR to bestow it.”
That’s a blithe dismissal of Lundqvist’s accomplishments and of his fellow Ranger greats who lack a Stanley Cup on their resumes.
Lundqvist had a career worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame and could become a first-ballot inductee. He was the Rangers’ franchise player throughout most of his NHL career. He’s their all-time leader in games played for goalies (887), save percentage (.918), shutouts (64) and wins (459), ranking sixth all-time in that category among NHL goalies.
Rod Gilbert, who recently passed away at age 80, is another Ranger great who never won the Stanley Cup. He was their first player to have his number retired following 18 seasons from 1960-61 to 1977-78. He still holds the franchise record with 406 career goals and 1,021 points and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.
Jean Ratelle played over 14 seasons with the Rangers, most of those as Gilbert’s linemate. He’s second among their all-time scoring leaders with 336 goals and third with 481 assists and 817 points. He won the Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsey Award) in 1971-72, the Masterton Trophy in 1971 and the first of his four Lady Byng Memorial Trophies as a Ranger. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1985.
Harry Howell was a Ranger for 17 of his 21 NHL seasons, holding the club record with 1,160 games. He was the last player to win the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman before the league expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967. Howell was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979.
Madden also took swipes at teams with “legit history” like the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs who “don’t necessarily get it right” when retiring numbers.
The Canadiens have retired 15 numbers honoring 18 players. Madden acknowledged it’s hard to argue against their choices but felt that’s a bad thing and “stupid” because it leaves too many of their current players skating with numbers in the 40s through the 90s, making them look like a roller-hockey team.
So what are the Canadiens supposed to do? Not honor the plethora of great players who played leading roles in their rich history, including their league-leading 24 Stanley Cup titles? It’s also worth noting the Canadiens aren’t the only team with current players sporting high jersey numbers and they certainly don’t look embarrassing doing so. Some even include such Hall-of-Famers as Wayne Gretzky (99), Eric Lindros (88) and Mario Lemieux (66).
Turning to the Leafs, Madden observed five of their 19 players to have their numbers retired (Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark) played during their Cup-less years since 1967.
As with Lundqvist, Gilbert, Ratelle and Howell with the Rangers, Sundin, Sittler, Salming and Gilmour are among the Leafs’ all-time greats and Hall-of-Fame inductees. The lack of a Stanley Cup on their resumes as Leafs (Gilmour won his with the Calgary Flames) shouldn’t be held against them having their jersey numbers retired.
I do agree with Madden over the retirement of Clark’s number despite being one of my favorite Leafs. He was often the only good thing during the dark ages of the Harold Ballard era and a long-time fan favorite. Retirement of his number seemed mostly for sentimental reasons but that’s the Leafs’ prerogative and their fans don’t have an issue with it.
Madden believes the Pittsburgh Penguins “do it right” when retiring numbers. Only Mario Lemieux and Michel Briere received that honor from the Penguins. Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr and Evgeni Malkin are certain to enjoy the same accolade once their Hall of Fame-worthy playing careers have ended
By the way, Lemieux, Crosby and Jagr all wore numbers in the 40 through 90 range without making their team look like a roller-hockey team.
The argument can be made the Penguins only have a tiny fraction of retired or soon-to-be-retired numbers because they represent two bright periods (1990 to 1997, 2008 to 2016) in the Penguins’ 55-year history. Many of the years leading up to the Lemieux-Jagr era were mostly mediocre. Lemieux’s final seasons were spent with a floundering club on the brink of relocation before a new arena save them during the Crosby-Malkin era.
Using Madden’s logic, we can make the case against the retirement of Briere’s number. That honored was bestowed when the young forward was killed in a car accident in 1970. It was a tragic end to a promising NHL career, but was it really worth retiring his number?
There’s really no “right way” to honor former or fallen players. Those who enjoyed Hall of Fame careers deserve that accolade regardless of whether they won the Stanley Cup. There’s also nothing wrong with retiring the number of a long-time fan favorite or remembering a player full of promise whose career was sadly cut short.
Now, if you want to critique teams that raise banners for meaningless regular-season accomplishments, that’s a bone worth picking.