Mitch Marner, a good hockey player who is going to be a very good rookie in whichever year the Leafs feel he’s ready to make his debut, is still without a jersey number. So much so, that he did his Upper Deck photo shoot this week with just a nameplate on. Typically, he’s worn #93, but now that he plays for his home team, he recognizes that taking the number that people associate with Doug Gilmour might be a little out of line.
Given the present culture, he’s probably right. But why does that culture have to exist?
First off, let’s boil down jersey numbers to their rawest form. Why do they exist? Well, when you’re gliding on knives at twenty miles an hour while trying to avoid being knocked out by a flying elbow, you don’t have the available time to squint at everybody’s nameplates to figure out who is who. Primarily, a jersey number is an identifier; you could probably make do with weird shapes if there were enough of them.
There was some semblance of a pattern involved in jersey numbering in the early days of the game, but most of that came down to economics. Teams would never carry more than thirty players on a roster at any given time, so they bookended their supply with goaltender cut jerseys; the starter wore #1, and the backup wore #30. From there, you generally picked the number you liked, unless you cared about where you slept. Just look at Gordie Howe’s reasoning for switching from #17 to his famous #9:
“The No. 9 became available and it was offered to me. We travelled by train back then, and guys with higher numbers got the top bunk on the sleeper car. No. 9 meant I got a lower berth on the train, which was much nicer than crawling into the top bunk.”
So, one of the most famous player-number associations in the history of professional sports was inspired by “I wanted an easier sleep when we traveled”. Assuming that this trend, or similar ones, were common (and given the few star players wore numbers in the high twenties in the original six era, that’s likely the case), how can you justify calling those numbers untouchable in the sport?
The range of selections further grew with the arrival of Wayne Gretzky, another player who is always in (and is the most popular answer for) the greatest of all time discussion. He wore #99, the highest available number, because he was a big fan of Howe’s and a team that he played for didn’t have #9 available. That’s it. He had a backup number, and it happened to stick.
Now, nobody in the NHL is able to wear the number out of respect. At the same time though, carrying the selection over to the NHL, along with the introduction of names on the back (for TV reasons) making jerseys objects that weren’t likely to be recycled amongst players allowed for much more creativity. Numbers in the 40’s to 90’s, while not as ubiquitous as the lower ones, became more frequent. Playres got more unique.
Around this time, teams became much more prone to retiring jersey numbers. Until 1970, only six numbers had been retired in the entire league. Even by the time of Gretzky’s debut, that number was only at 14; and the bulk of them were in honour of players who died young or had injuries that abruptly ended their career.
Fast forward to today – it’s become an arms race to retire anybody who was “notable” for a franchise. The Montreal Canadiens, who had retired just four numbers up until 1975, have raised eleven banners to the rafters in the past ten years. The only single digit number that remains is #8, and that’s only because they haven’t found a way to spin Mike Komisarek into a legend yet. Other teams have followed suit – Adam Foote, for example, is in the rafters in Colorado. Rod Brind’Amour is there for the Hurricanes. Ken Daneyko, whose career highlights include not scoring, has had his #3 removed from circulation for nine years now.
Get To The Point
Which brings us to the Leafs, and to Mitch Marner. The leafs were the first team to retire a number, and it was for better reason than most; Ace Bailey had a career ending injury and they felt it was a good way to honour him. Bill Barilko joined him as a result of his tragic death in 1951, but it took them 41 years to actually make the decision to do so.
Now, the Leafs honour numbers, mostly so they can follow the same arms race. Sixteen numbers are up in the rafters of the Air Canada Centre, but are available for circulation – at least in theory. It’s become increasingly hard to find players actually wearing the numbers, particularly when it comes to modern players.
The only player to wear Wendel Clark’s #17 since he was traded in 1995 was Wendel Clark when he came back. Mats Sundin was the last to wear #13. The same goes for Doug Gilmour’s 93. It’s been over half a decade since anybody has worn 1, 7, 10, or 27, all common numbers. Colby Armstrong was the last to wear #9 in 2012, despite it being one of hockey’s most common numbers. The only exceptions to the rule have been 4 and 21, worn by the now-departed Cody Franson and present left winger James van Riemsdyk respectively.
This doesn’t even solely apply to retired numbers. It carries over to fan favourites. Just ask Mark Bell, who contacted Tie Domi to make sure he was okay with him using #28:
“I realized that and talked to Tie about it. He said: ‘Go ahead, it’s got a lot of goals left in it.’ Tie and I bumped heads a few times, but we didn’t play each other a lot (being in different conferences).”
Tie Domi. The Leafs are so locked into tradition, that players worried about sullying Tie Domi’s number.
It’s such a crazy concept, when you think about it. There are many players out there who would like to wear these numbers in tribute to their heroes, and once they get to the teams that they idolized because of these players, are told that trying to pay tribute would actually be disrespectful.
Or, even worse, they may have personal reasons for wanting the number on their back. Marner was a post-Gilmour child, who picked up his admirations thanks to footage his dad saved up (and this lovely thing we have called YouTube). But just as much as he liked Dougie, he wore #93 in tribute to his brother’s birth year. I get that – one of my personal fallback numbers is 94 for that reason (Too many do their own birth year. Also, sorry, Sergei Berezin).
But if they have that deep personal attachment to a number, they might get stuck having to switch because they didn’t get to a team close enough. The twenty plus years they spent with it will suddenly come to an end. But it’s okay, the teams will say – it’s about the crest on the number on the back.
If that’s the case, why not just go back to that? Let’s worry about remember players for the impact they had on the ice, and honouring their ability, not the numeric block that their teammate used to decide who to pass to. Let the front of the jersey express the history of the team, and the back express the emotions of the player.
Even if their reasons for picking that number are silly, they’re probably no worse than the ones of the person who came before them. Nobody even takes the train these days anyway. Let Mitch Marner wear whatever he wants.