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Honouring Leafs Legends

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Unfortunately for all involved my first attempt at this post, which was both humourous and eloquent as befits the occassion, was lost when my internet connection timed out.

The Leafs are honouring the jerseys of three Leafs Legends: Hap Day, Red Kelly, and Borje Salming.

Bitter Leaf Fan is not a big fan of 'honouring' jerseys rather than retiring them. He is right that Tim Horton's number should have been retired when his career was cut tragically short while a Buffalo Sabre. And it is pretty embarrassing that the Leafs are going to try to cram in three tributes, videos, and banner raisings into opening night. I guess when there is no Cup banner for a 40th straight season you have to do something to kick off the season.

However, I disagree with the view that honouring jerseys is some sort of cop-out with regard to the history of the franchise. In fact, I would argue that some franchises go too far the other way and retire far too many jerseys. The Boston Celtics provided a good example. They have retired 21 jerseys with #18 only being honoured but not retired at the request of the player. What luminaries have gotten their numbers retired?

Cedric Bryan "Cornbread" Maxwell has his number 31 retired and is remembered as "an efficient shooter and a colorful character, his biggest claim to fame is as a clutch playoff performer." He won one NBA Finals MVP in his career and has a Hall of Fame Probability of .004.

Donald Arvid Nelson had his number 19 retired after a career in which he joined Boston in 1965 and put together his "best NBA season averaging 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, and led the Celtics to NBA title as one of their role players." His Hall of Fame Probability is .024.

Granted, most of the players who have had their jerseys retired are in the Hall of Fame or were members of multiple championship teams during the Celtics great eras in the 50s/60s and 80s. However, when great franchises hit a prolonged dry spell there could be the desire to retire a number in order to connect with the past glories of the club. This also results in players wearing numbers like 30,43, 50, and 55. These are not classical basketball numbers. Imagine some yo-yo wearing 80 for the Leafs because all other 'good' numbers were taken? That would be ridiculous.

Imagine (and this will not be too much of a stretch) 20 years down the road the Leafs are still Cup-less. What easier way to remind the fans that their club has a rich history than to retire a jersey. The Leafs have 35 Hall of Famers and only two retired jerseys and ten other honoured players. Which of the other 23 would have their jerseys retired and who would decide which of those Hall of Famers did enough to merit having a jersey retired?

The Habs have 43 Hall of Famers but only nine jerseys have been retired. When their current 13-year drought turns into 20 and into 30 and into 40 which of those 34 un-retired jerseys are they going to hoist up? How will they decide which jerseys deserve to the honour of never being worn again? and what numbers will their team wear after all of that?

The Red Sox have actually outlined three criteria that a player must meet in order to have their number retired:

  • Election to the Hall of Fame
  • At least 10 years played with the Red Sox
  • Must end career with the Red Sox

Those are actually pretty good criteria to ensure that a player that receives the honour truly deserves to have their number put aside. If there were criteria like that to ensure that we did not have players getting their number retired just for winning a title or two (you know if the Leafs won the cup that most of that team's stars would be up for sainthood let alone retiring their jerseys) then I would agree with retiring numbers. But then deserving players might miss out because they left the team at the end of their career or only spent nine seasons with the club so it still would remain a contentious issue.

Football offers a few great examples of how clubs have dealt with depth of history without retiring every really good players number. The Green Bay Packers have only retired five jerseys in their history. The rest of their Hall of Famers are honoured in the 'Ring of Honor/Fame'. The Dallas Cowboys have a Ring of Honor in lieu of retiring jerseys. This allows for the franchise to acknowledge both the players and the management side of success. Both of these, much like the Leafs' system, allows the club to honour members of the club in a prominent fashion.

When you're growing up one of the best days of each season is when you get to choose your number. This is the one day that everyone is early to practice to try to get their favourite number and the coach's kid (me ;)) has already pulled his from the pile on the drive to the field/rink/pitch. Athletes are really just big kids and they sometimes choose numbers for the same reason. David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves both wear 23 because they admired Michael Jordan. Shayne Corson chose 27 when he joined the Leafs because he admired The Big M, Frank Mahovolich. Little things like that can give players the impetus to up their performance. Granted, no one thought of The Big M when Khavanov was tarnishing the shirt but Corson's heart and grit during the good times with the Leafs were a testament to Frank.

Finally, take a look at soccer/football. Unlike in North America, numbers are not retired. For instance, the number 10 jersey could be retired for almost any footballing club/country in the world. Instead, it is used alternately as a carrot to draw out a player's best or as a reward for being the best. For Brazil, the 10 shirt has been donned by all-time greats such as Pele, Zico, and Ronaldinho. Similarly, numbers at certain clubs hold a lot of cachet. The number 9 at Newcastle is known as the Shirt of Legends because of the great players that have been bestowed the shirt.

While I do see how players can devalue a number they can also enhance it and themselves. I would much rather prefer a system that saw only deserving players wear the honoured numbers rather than just letting any Mariusz, Mike, and Alex choose to don those sweaters.

Now here's a fun fact about each of the celebrants courtesy of wikipedia:

Clarence "Hap" Day will be honoured post-humously for his Stanley Cup as a Leafs player and five as their Coach. He also was one of the original Leafs having been a St. Pats player before Conn Smythe bought the franchise.

Leonard Patrick "Red" Kelly retired when he did not want to be traded to the New York Rangers (who knew that this was such an old trick). Even though he "disliked Maple Leaf Gardens and was disappointed by the scathing assessment of a Toronto scout as a young player" he still let Punch Imlach talk him into joining the Leafs. Good thing too because he was a key member of four Stanley Cup winning teams.

Anders Börje Salming holds the franchise record for assists with 620 as well as the goals and points records for Leafs defencemen with 148G and 768P. He was also the first Swede elected to the Hall of Fame and he started an underwear company after retirement; Salming Underwear. Here is a wicked english translation found on the site:

1992 Salming introduced underwear in the Swedish market. The minimalistic sport design and the high quality of men´s underwear became very quick a successful introduction. A couple of years later Salming introduced underwear for women as well.

Sounds like Sweden used to be a pretty swinging place. I think it was a mistake to give women underwear. I think we can all agree that is probably the only way Swedish women could be hotter. And 'minimalistic sport design'? that sounds like a speedo. Eww.

In conclusion, congratulations to all three for having their contribution to the Toronto Maple Leafs recognized. Hopefully, the Leafs can cram all three in one night in a fitting way.