TORONTO – Hayley Wickenheiser’s retirement from the women’s national hockey team elicited an interesting suggestion from @MrShurrie on Twitter: why not retire Wickenheiser’s No. 22 in recognition of the significance of her contribution to the growth of the women’s game?
My initial reaction was to agree wholeheartedly with the suggestion. In my lifetime, I can’t think of another hockey player who has had as much of an impact on his or her sport at the grassroots level in this country. In fact, the only other athletes in her category would be Christine Sinclair or, perhaps, Steve Nash. With all due respect to Wayne Gretzky, Canadian boys would have played hockey with or without him …
There may at some time be another women’s hockey player as good as Wickenheiser, but barring a women’s player cracking an NHL lineup at some point in the future, I can’t see anybody leaving an imprimatur to match hers.
But retire her number? The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether there aren’t unintentional sexist overtones to the idea — not to suggest there was in any way, shape or form a pejorative thought behind the initial idea. Would we consider retiring a men’s national team number? Chris Pronger has played more games in the Olympics than any other player since NHL players were allowed back in; Eric Lindros, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby have all been or were loyal servants, going above and beyond whenever asked. But nobody’s suggested retiring any numbers — hell, Toews can’t even get his usual No. 19. Argentina tried to retire Diego Maradona’s No. 10, but FIFA wouldn’t allow it. It’s still listed as a retired number … but it’s also still in use.
This might be one of those cases where it makes more sense to ‘honour’ a number than retire it. What about a banner with Wickenheiser’s number and name at every Canadian NHL arena? What about some corporation getting behind the idea of having Wickenheiser banners produced for smaller rinks across the country? That’s an idea we could all get behind, I think …
WRAPPED UP IN LOGIC
Well, that couldn’t be much simpler, could it? Speaking with myself and Stephen Brunt on The Jeff Blair Show on Friday, Toronto Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman made an obvious observation about all the trade chatter that has surrounded the club in the last month.
Summed up, Weltman noted that it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense to make a significant trade until the team saw how Jared Sullinger fit into the current roster — which seems to make an inordinate amount of sense even to those of us who wonder whether the team, as currently constituted, has what it takes to advance farther than the Eastern Conference final.
"We brought him (Sullinger) in for a reason," said Weltman, before the Raptors went on to steamroll the Brooklyn Nets (the franchise formerly known as the New Jersey Nets) and the franchise formerly known as the New York Knicks. "What he does as well as anybody in the game is rebound the ball, and that’s where we’ve had an issue. So, when you can bring in a top-15 rebounder who has tremendous (basketball) IQ in effect for free, you need to find out where you are before you move pieces around."
Sullinger, signed as a mid-level exception in the off-season, has been given medical clearance to resume full practising and the Raptors have circled early February as a return date. The NBA trade deadline is at 3 p.m. on Feb. 23, and while there is a school of thought that says his defensive contributions with the Boston Celtics last season owed more to being on a unit with the likes of Amir Johnson, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, it makes no sense to make a deal without at least seeing how Sullinger adapts to Dwane Casey’s defensive structure and fits in with the various combinations the head coach might use in the post-season.
Different player and different circumstances, but Patrick Patterson wasn’t expected to be as much of a contributor when he joined the Raptors in the Rudy Gay trade. Plus, as Weltman noted, the Raptors aren’t interested in adding what he called a "mercenary" in a trade. "Even with a win-now scenario, you want to extend your window, and look forward."
So let’s hold off on the trade stuff, OK? I promise I’ll try. In the meantime, something to keep in mind: if the Raptors beat the Nets on Tuesday at the Barclays Center, it will be their 28th victory, which would break the franchise record for wins through the first 41 games of the season. The Raps won 27 of their first 41 games in 2014-15, going on to register a then-club record 49 regular-season victories.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• Around much of the world, Sunday’s Manchester United-Liverpool Premier League match was the biggest football game of the weekend, and when James Milner hit his spot kick to give Liverpool a 1-0 lead in a match that ended in a 1-1 draw, it continued his streak of never having lost a Premier League match in which he’s scored. That number sits now at 46 (37 wins, nine draws); which equals the record held by Darius Vassell (36 wins, 10 losses).
• Wickenheiser’s retirement dominated the headlines of what was a significant week for women’s sports in Canada. Whether it was Olympian Penny Oleksiak sticking her toes in the water of a debate in Toronto regarding possible cuts to funding for school swimming pools; the retirement of three members of the back-to-back bronze-medal winning Canadian women’s soccer team (the splendid Melissa Tancredi, who scored 27 goals in 124 international games, Rhian Wilkinson, capped 180 times, and Marie-Eve Nault); and Calgary’s Elizabeth Vathje and Ottawa’s Mirela Rahneva finishing first and third in World Cup skeleton race in Winterberg, Germany, shortened to one run due to inclement weather. It was the second podium in four races for Rahneva (her first in Europe) and the first time Canadian women shared the same World Cup podium since Sarah Reid and Mellissa Hollingsworth won gold and silver at a race in Lake Placid four years ago. Canada should continue to be a sliding sports power heading into the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. And once again it’s tough to say enough about our female athletes. Principled, strong … we really need to brag about it more often.
• The Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet Monday night, the start of one of Golden State’s toughest stretches of the season with a follow-up game against the Oklahoma City Thunder and against the Houston Rockets on the road. The Cavaliers have won four consecutive games between the teams, including Games 5 and 7 of the NBA Finals at the Warriors’ Oracle Arena and at home on Christmas Day, but the only Eastern Conference teams to win regular-season games at the O are the Boston Celtics last season and the Chicago Bulls in 2014-15. Warriors historians will watch these three games with interest, since no team beat the Warriors twice in the regular season in 2015-16. More to the point, it’s been 126 games since the Warriors lost back-to-back games. That’s an NBA record — well ahead of the 95 games of the Utah Jazz between Nov. 22, 1997, and March 19, 1999 — and here’s how it compares to North America’s other major professional sports:
NHL: 164 – Montreal Canadiens, Jan. 6, 1962-March 1, 1964 (includes ties).
MLB: 97 – Chicago Cubs, July 26, 1906-May 26, 1907
NFL: 81 – Green Bay Packers, Sept. 11, 1938-November 4, 1945
(Source: Elias Sports Bureau)
Jose Bautista’s re-signing would seal it: as Mark Shapiro, the Toronto Blue Jays president and chief executive officer, all but told Stephen Brunt and myself, he in fact won’t be able to check off all the boxes in his preferred off-season scenario of getting younger, more athletic and less right-hand hitting heavy. He also suggested that he would be loathe to trade, say, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., for, say, an Andrew McCutchen in the winter. “If you feel you are within grasp of a world championship, you’ll probably be willing to sacrifice to take the leap,” Shapiro said, speaking about dealing prospects in general. But if it’s a world-class long jump, you better be pretty careful about how much you’re going to give up and look to get players elsewhere.” I think we’re going to see the Blue Jays make a move or two in these next 10 days – there’s a lot of background chatter about it – but I’m not sure the moves will be all that sexy.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan.