September 9, 2013

Great Debate: The sanctity of jersey numbers

Every week, a rotating group of NEHJ staff members will share their take on one hot topic in the hockey world. Here’s the latest edition of The Great Debate.

The setup: Players come and players go in the world of professional sports. Some are only making a mere pit stop, or called up for the proverbial "cup of coffee" with the big club. Others manage to make a tremendous impact during their time in town, but unless theiy had a career worthy of a place in the rafters, it won't be long before someone takes their old number and assumes the digits they've come to be identified by.

The question: Should a jersey number be put right back into circulation after a prominent player leaves?


The number choice should be up to a player if he's played with it elsewhere and it is available with his new team. Unless that number is retired or there is some kind of special circumstance involved, does it really matter?

Players are a superstitious lot, so let them have it if that's what they want to play with. Otherwise, you end up with a bunch of training camp digits skating on NHL clubs.

It's all laundry, but unless a team has retired the number or the player was special enough that the team makes its own call to establish a grace period, then let 'em pick the number they think they'll play the best in.



Personally, I'm indifferent to the situation. For the causal fan who doesn't follow hockey in Boston closely, I suppose it could get confusing to suddenly see a No. 21 flying up the wing and scoring goals, but otherwise, I like to think about what hockey is to begin with -- a business. 

Until a player's number is hanging up in the rafters, it's fair game. What's the difference between Loui Eriksson taking well-liked, now-former Bruin Andrew Ference's number versus Jarome Iginla wearing Brian Rolston's number? A season? One could argue Rolston had a better and more fruitful career with the Bruins than Ference but aside from stats or success in the postseason, there's no way to measure that. 

A player's number is something that goes with them all throughout their career. Just because the guy that wore the number before they arrived to their new team was a fan favorite, shouldn't make much of a difference. Past is past, right?



My stance on this all comes down to clout and how much the departing player has done for the organization. Starting in the year 2000, the No. 29 was passed from Marty McSorley to Dixon Ward to Andy Hilbert to Felix Potvin, occupied by Mariusz Czerkawski following the 2004-05 lockout, picked up by Nathan Dempsey, then Alex Auld and finally Petteri Nokelainen in 2009. That's eight players in nine years. Not once could anyone justifiably claim the new owner of those digits was stepping on the former one's legacy.

But when a guy like Andrew Ference leaves after six-plus, highly-respected seasons as a member of the Bruins, it kind of stings to see his No. 21 so promptly sewn onto a new player's sweater, even if it's going to an established NHLer like Loui Eriksson. It's not quite as bad as Steve Begin donning longtime, high-scoring Bruin Glen Murray's No. 27 (holy quality drop, Batman) after it went unoccopied for a single season, or anyone wearing P.J. Axelsson's No. 11 so quickly (Greg Campbell grabbed it one summer after the Swede's departure), but it's still weird to adjust to, especially in the cases of clutch Cup contributors like Ference and Nathan Horton, whose No. 18 will now be worn by Reilly Smith.

We're probably a long ways away from seeing another number raised to the rafters -- be it Patrice Bergeron's 37 or Zdeno Chara's 33. If I were calling the shots, I'd consider adopting some sort of set grace period when it comes to jersey numbers, perhaps something that'd see a number belonging to anyone who played 200-plus games for the team being unavailable for at least a season or two, barring special circumstances.



Over the last few years, I've started to find a distaste for the way we treat jersey numbers in American sports. The retirement of numbers is a silly tradition in many cases (Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente being notable exceptions). That said, I don't mind the idea of a club treating a number with some gravitas. What I'd like to see is teams designate, formally or informally, certain numbers that have meaning.

So, instead of saying, "nobody will ever wear No. X again," why not make it a meaningful gesture when a player earns it? Rather than have them be unavailable altogether, why not have Boston "unretire" 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and so on, and make them available to players who have earned them? Would it be such a sacrilegious thing to make No. 7 the number traditionally worn by a keystone forward, and give it to, say, Patrice Bergeron? Lord knows Phil Esposito would have a conniption, but that's not anything worth worrying about.

Now we turn the question over to you: