A Different Kind Of Numbers Problem


Before I get into this post, let me start with one thing – if you’re looking for a critical post about David Clarkson as a player for the Devils, or a potential player for the Leafs, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for somebody to break down how crazy the contract is, you’ll want to read literally every other post written on a Maple Leafs site for the past week instead. 

Now, carrying on – David Clarkson is going to wear #71 with the Toronto Maple Leafs and that’s really silly.

As anybody who’s familiar with me probably knows, I’m not a huge fan of the idea of retired numbers, or putting special stock into them. I came to Nicklas Backstrom’s defence when he wore #99 in the KHL (one of the dumbest controversies of our time). I recently pointed out how stupid the Matt Cooke / Derek Boogaard number issue was. Bluntly, I think that players should absolutely be honoured by teams for what they contribute to the franchise, but a number is an identification device that should only mean something to the player. The player, who may come into a team wearing a number his entire life, only to be told "you can’t have this because we don’t think there’s any way you’ll be better than this other guy".

That’s why I’m a huge fan of the Leafs’ method. In theory. For those who don’t know, the Leafs have only retired the numbers of Bill Barilko (who died in a plane crash shortly after scoring the Stanley Cup Winning Goal in 1951), and Ace Bailey (who suffered a career-ending head injury at the age of 30). Beyond that, there are 16 other players in the rafters, whos numbers are free to be used again. In theory.

In practice, the modern additions may take a while to join active circulation:

# Player(s) Honoured Last Worn Player
1 Broda / Bower 1995 2009 Pogge
4 Day / Kelly 2006 2013 Franson
7 Clancy / Horton 1995 2010 Exelby
9 Kennedy / Conacher 1993/1998 2012 Armstrong
10 Apps / Armstrong 1993/1998 2009 May
13 Sundin 2012 2008 Sundin
17 Clark 2008 2000 Clark
21 Salming 2006 2013 van Riemsdyk
27 Mahovlich / Sittler 2001/2003 2007 Peca
93 Gilmour 2009 2003 Gilmour

As you can see, nobody has really attempted to wear Clark, Sundin, or Gilmour’s numbers since they left. Clark’s 17 in particular has been dormant for 13 years. When David Clarkson came into town and preached about being a fan of his growing up, I thought that he would end that trend. He is, after all, pretty much the only acceptable style of player to wear the number to the average fan, and even has a close enough name. Yet here we are, about to watch him wear #71 as a tribute but not quite effort.

It’s crazy. Clark was no doubt a major part of keeping Leafs fans sane in the 80’s and 90’s as they (very) slowly inched away from turmoil. He was a rather good player, but also the least qualified honouree of the bunch, being the only one who won’t get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. But even if he wasn’t, Clarkson isn’t fooling anybody by swapping the numbers around. If you’re going to use your jersey to say "I really want to be like Wendel to you all" (minus the sharp decline at what would be midway through his contract), take advantage of the team’s policy and wear 17. 

Worried about fan pressure? You’ve already created it by bringing up that you were a fan of his, by allowing the "Wendel Clarkson" jokes, by showing up to Leafs events with Wendel within days of signing, and by having a number that even hints at it. You accepted the fans breathing on you the second your contract in Toronto. It’s inevitable. Media pressure? Well, that’s a lost cause; this is a city that freaked out about Nazem Kadri wearing 13 on the AHL affiliate (despite their high number policy not allowing his junior-preferred 91 or NHL 43). This is a city where Mark Bell felt the need to ask Tie Domi for permission to wear 28

If Clarkson was in any way concerned with reactions, his #23 from New Jersey was open for the picking. He could have even made us forget that Ryan O’Byrne existed. Instead, we have a tribute where the only difference from going all-in is that we now have a number that isn’t retired essentially deemed untouchable.

It’s silly. It’s just a number. But, all the same, you can counterpoint this entire post with "it’s just a number".

I guess it is a touchy subject after all.

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