April 2, 1989, Borje Salming played his last game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. He went pointless in a game that the Leafs lost 4-3 to the Chicago Blackhawks, capping off a putrid 28-46-6 season, their 10th consecutive under .500.
Salming wore #21 his full career with the Leafs, and his brief stint with the Detroit Red Wings to finish his NHL career. The team didn’t waste too much time giving the number to a new player. On October 25, 1989, checker Sean McKenna, who had worn #8 in the previous two seasons, dressed for his first game of the season wearing #21. The Leafs won 8-6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Leafs have a unique tradition when it comes to retired numbers:
The Leafs historically only retired numbers of distinguished players that have died or had their career shortened due to tragic or catastrophic circumstances while being a member of the team. Irvine (Ace) Bailey (No. 6) and Bill Barilko (No. 5) are the two represented in this category. [Toronto Maple Leafs]
Years later, on October 4 2006, Salming’s number was honoured by the Leafs given that he played a full and complete career devoided of tragic or catastrophic circumstances other than playing under Harold Ballard in the 1980s. Oddly enough, as Salming’s number went into the rafters, John Pohl happened to be in the lineup, wearing #21 in a 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators.
You might be thinking: Sean McKenna? John Pohl? Are average forwards cursed to be wearing this number for the rest of eternity? Probably.
Leafs who wore #21 since Salming (numbers via Hockey Reference):
Robert Reichel is likely the only name of consequence here, even if his scoring totals with the Leafs were indicative of the fact he ended his career here (15.5 goals per 82 games).
Now, perhaps it’s just that the Leafs have employed several awful-to-mediocre forwards since the start of the 1980s. The average Leaf forward has scored 17.4 goals per 82 games since Salming left the Leafs, a number, you’ll note, is higher than Reichel’s total.
Here’s how that breaks down:
|Numbers 1-20, 22-99||19111||4105||17.6|
Only Kirk Muller and Aaron Broten scored over the team average wearing #21. There are a few busts in here, and also a few “who the heck is that”s.
Note that this is entirely unpredictable and not at all applicable to James van Riemsdyk, slated to wear #21 when hockey next starts up. Perhaps he can be the man to break the curse, and hopefully, under contract for the next 6 years, he breaks Reichel’s record of 228 games as a Leaf forward wearing #21…