Picture this scene unfolding two generations from now:
A wet-behind-the-ears defenceman, recently drafted by the Calgary Flames, is asked by the organization which number he’d like sewn on his jersey.
“No. 2,” he drops, assuredly.
“Uh… well… I guess that’ll be OK… are you sure you want to wear No. 2?” the number-assigning guy responds.
“What do you mean you guess?” the rookie responds. “Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve been wearing No. 2 since novice. What’s the problem? Is it taken?”
“Well, technically, no, but…”
“But what? Stitch that sucker up.”
“But you see, there was this great Flames defenceman. Name was Al MacInnis. Your grandfather would’ve seen him play. Won the Cup here in ’89 and the Conn Smythe too. Al was an all-star 13 times and scored more than 100 points one season wearing that flaming C. Won a Norris Trophy and a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics. Could conduct a power-play like a Vienna symphony and blast a point shot like nobody’s business.
Once split this goalie Mike Liut’s face mask in half with his slapper… and the puck went in. Won the hardest shot at the all-star game on seven occasions.”
“How hard did he shoot it?”
“Sometimes as hard as 100 miles an hour.”
“Ha! What was his stick made outta, wood?”
“Yes. Yes, it was.”
“But I can still wear the number, right?”
On Feb. 27, prior to their game versus the St. Louis Blues, the Calgary Flames will honour Al MacInnis’s No. 2 jersey at the Scotiabank Saddledome as part of the hockey club’s new Forever a Flame program.
The key word in that last sentence is honour. It’s not retire.
At first glance, it sounds like semantics, but it’s not. By honouring the legendary rearguard, MacInnis’s No. 2 will still be in circulation. And if anyone deserves his number properly and permanently retired by the Flames, it’s MacInnis, who spent 14 seasons with the franchise and led Calgary to its only Stanley Cup victory, scoring 31 points in 22 playoff games in 1989.
“Whether the number is being honoured or retired, it really is the same thing,” the 48-year-old MacInnis told the Calgary Sun last week.
But what else is he supposed to say? “Honouring is a half-ass acknowledgment. At least the St. Louis Blues had the decisiveness to retire my number outright. And I didn’t even win them a Cup in the decade I spent there.”
MacInnis is a class act, a father of four who fundraises for arenas in his hometown of Port Hood, N.S., and now works as the Blues’ vice president of hockey operations. But if his ceremony isn’t overshadowed by NHL Trade Deadline Day, it will be knocked down a peg by the absence of full-blown, retirement.
“I think it’s absolute bull—-,” one anonymous Flames alumnus told the Sun. “That’s like being half-pregnant or ‘We’re gonna get engaged but not get married…’ It’s not a commitment at all.
“I understand a team like Toronto (not retiring numbers) because they’re so rich in history, but you can count on one hand how many guys in this organization deserve to have their number retired here the next 20 years.”
Currently, and we suppose for good now, only two Flames have their numbers properly retired: Lanny McDonald’s No. 9 and Mike Vernon’s No. 30. Fans suspect that Joe Nieuwendyk, Theo Fleury, Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff will eventually join MacInnis on the Saddledome concourse’s planned Wall of Fame as Forever Flames — a cute bit of alliteration that falls short of the respect most of these greats deserve.
“It’s the beginning of a new tradition, and we need to be bold and brave enough to do it for all of the good reasons we have,” said team president Ken King. “There can’t be a downside to honouring a player we think so much of.”
The Flames are not being bold and brave; they are half-stepping, playing it safe. If Vernon’s number is retired, MacInnis’s should be as well. There is something to be said for the truly rare ones to have their jersey breezing in the rafters, so that future generations will be told, no, you cannot wear that number. And here’s why:
Tradition, exclusivity: that’s real honour.
Make no mistake, the retired number is the NHL’s rarest honour.
While 251 players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, including MacInnis (2007), only 96 numbers have been retired. (By comparison, more than 150 Major League Baseball numbers have been retired.) The NHL’s retired number club includes five players — of which MacInnis could have been the sixth — to have had their numbers retired by multiple teams joining Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky (league-wide), Ray Bourque, Mark Messier, and Patrick Roy.
There’s even instances of teams retiring one number to represent multiple players. Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer share No. 12 in the Montreal Canadiens’ rafters, as do Henri Richard and Elmer Lach with No. 16; two Chicago Blackhawks represent No. 3 forever (Pierre Pilot and Keith Magnuson); and Andy Bathgate and Adam Graves share No. 9 for the New York Rangers.
Admittedly, it’s an imperfect system. When the Minnesota Wild entered the NHL in 2000, they retired No. 1 to honour the greatest player of all: their fans. Ah, how sweet.
The seven retired numbers combined by the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques were thrust back into circulation when the respective franchises relocated.
And although Mario Lemiux’s No. 66 was unofficially untouchable league-wide, T.J. Brodie slapped his surname above the double-six to start the 2010-11 season. Brodie, of course, is young (only 20 at the time, he was seven when Lemieux was inducted into the Hall). Brodie is also a Flame. He has since humbled down to No. 7.
“The number retirement system works for some teams as their tradition, but there is no longer a universal tradition for honouring players,” King told the Sun.
He is referring to the only other NHL franchise that has made the switch to not-so-honuorable mentions, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs, the first team to adopt the number-retiring custom back on Valentine’s Day, 1934, were also the first to abandon it.
Ace Bailey’s No. 6 was the beneficiary. The Leafs later retired Bill Barilko’s No. 5 for his success in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Ironically, Barilko only wore No. 5 for one season, 1950-51; the defenceman spent more games dressed in Nos. 21 and 19.
That was it.
Since then, the Leafs have made like a staff room coffee collection and switched to the honour system. Earlier this month, Mats Sundin, a retirement-worthy Leaf if there ever was one, became the 16th Toronto player to have his number honoured.
On the same night as the Sundin ceremony, Jeremy Roenick had his No. 97 properly retired by the Phoenix Coyotes.
Meanwhile, Sundin and MacInnis are only “honoured.”
Two generations from now, anyone who survives Leafs or Flames training camp has the right to grab Nos. 13 or 2, respectively.
Hopefully they won’t, respectfully.
How do you feel about teams retiring vs. honouring their legends’ numbers?