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On Honouring or Retiring Numbers

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The announcement of the honouring of Wendel and Dougie's numbers got me searching through the archives for a post that I wrote September 6, 2006 when my site was just a couple of months old. Some of the following is new, some recycled, and it's all re-worked.

For those unfamiliar with the sentiments expressed in a series of posts by a few bloggers I thought that today was a good time to raise the main arguments: Should jerseys be retired or honoured? and what criteria should be used to determine who is worthy?

Who doesn't remember where they were when the Leafs announced that they would be honouring the jerseys of three Leafs Legends: Hap Day, Red Kelly, and Borje Salming on the opening night of the 2006-2007 season? MF37 did not (and I assume continues not to) agree with the Leafs' policy of 'honouring' jerseys rather than retiring them. It is definitely a shame that stringent application of the guidelines led to Tim Horton's number not being retired when his career was cut tragically short while a Buffalo Sabre. And it was pretty embarrassing that the Leafs crammed in three tributes, videos, and banner raisings into opening night.

Is honouring a player's jersey some sort of cop-out with regard to the history of the franchise?

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 had 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 but how many of you would recognize those two names? 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.

MF37, in a subsequent post, drew up a proposal for a two-tier system of criteria to provide guidelines to decisionmakers:

To be eligible to have a number retired, the player has to meet both of the following two baseline criteria:
  1. Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame
  2. Spent the majority of their NHL career as a Leaf (e.g. played for 10 years, six or more of those had to be with the Blue and White)

In addition to the above, the player would also have to meet at least 2 of the following 3 criterion:

  1. Won or been nominated for one of the major NHL trophies such as the Stanley Cup, Hart, Vezina, Jennings, Calder, Rocket Richard, Conn Smythe, Norris or Lady Byng while playing as a Leaf
  2. Lead (or have led) the Leafs organization in at least one major statistical category (e.g. career games played, career goals, career assists, career +/-, career points, shut outs, GAA, wins, etc.)
  3. Been a pioneer or transformational player for the organization
I think the team should also have special dispensation to retire a number in the event that a player had promising career cut tragically short a la Tim Horton, Bill Barilko or Doug Gilmour (kidding about that last one, at least he got to retire a Leaf after that one magical last shift).

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. Wardo, at the now defunct Leafs Club, helped give the jersey honouring system the perfect final touch:

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.

One only needs to take a look at soccer (real football). Unlike in North America, numbers are not retired but are passed on as a legacy that every successive player must strive to match to the best of their abilities. Take the number 10. That 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. The number 9 at Liverpool reads like a honour roll of the club's greatest from Ian Rush to Robbie Fowler to legend-in-the-making Fernando Torres.

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.