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I remember a fellow with whom I went all through public school and high school, whose favourite pastime was one-upmanship. He was a brain, the son of parents and older siblings with the same superior intelligence. He was always coming to class with some item of unusual information that the rest of we peasants would never have any way of knowing. He would delight in correcting us about saying “Happy Birthday”, with: “It’s not your birthday—that’s the day you were born—it’s your anniversary.” He enjoyed clever quips with which to impress us. Back in those primitive days cars got new license plates every year—not just a sticker to latch onto the old bent and blistered one as we do now.
After his dad had his new one—probably in about 1947—as we compared notes about this exciting news, he announced theirs was “2 M not 1”. (equating “M" with “am”), I think you know what he tried to pull on us. It was “double talk”.
In 2015 Devin Slawson submitted a blog, headed “Number nine is number one!” Again, double talk, but still right on target. He went on to recall that “Number nine is the most retired number; put to the rafters ten times by nine different teams (New York Rangers have done it twice). Number nine is often referred to as the best number of all time for the number of superstars to have donned it on their backs.”
Back in the year 2000, Steve Dryden was Editor-in-Chief of the Hockey News. In the September issue he penned a feature article headed, “Sweater No. 9’s NHL glory days are long gone.” Included in that essay was: “Children of the 1960’s and early 1970’s knew instinctively to look across the ice surface during warm-ups to see who was wearing No. 9. That was the quickest way to identify the best player on the other team.”
But as his heading claims, “those days are long gone.”
Between 1943 and 1980, that digit maintained a Utopian status in shinny circles. But it was not always thus—and it does not currently hold that kind of honour.
In the game’s early days numbering either was non-existent, or it held little significance. The Patricks are rightly credited with the introduction of several innovations in hockey. Included is the numbering of the sweaters of players on the ice. However that claim has since been corrected. According to the Winnipeg Telegram it was already in place in January 1911. In a match between Kenora and the local W.A.A.A. club, “....every man had his number, while in a neat little programme, distributed gratis at the door, he was properly classified and his position given”.
Three years earlier, in Ottawa, when “Cyclone” Taylor played his first game, none other than the Governor General excitedly commented: “That new number 4 is a cyclone if I ever saw one”.
Still, players’ numbers generally held little priority in the nation’s national sport. There is no evidence that these numerals were chosen except at random. As for number nine, it certainly could not be matched with competitors known for their unusual skills. The 1920 Quebec Bulldog’s numero neuf was Alex Wellington. Alex who? For Ottawa, in 1919, that digit was sported by Skene Ronan — no slouch to be sure — but no early Wayne Gretzky. The Wanderers didn’t boast any — and the Canadiens ascribed the numeral to on Billy Coutu, known more for his dirty play than his talents. The Toronto Arenas gave that I.D. to Sammy Hebert, who was their goaltender.
It’s not that there were no notable number nines before the “golden era” of Richard, Howe, and Hull. But their acclaim did not coincide with the digit on the back of their sweaters.
Cecil “Babe” Dye (so nicknamed because he played pro baseball too), was a poor skater, and registered only 5’8”, weighing 150 pounds. But he made up for it with his tremendously hard and accurate shot. Opposition defensemen regularly had their sticks splintered trying to ward off his drives. It is said that the year he scored 31 goals, 12 of them resulted from shots made before he crossed centre ice. He started with the St. Pats in 1919, made a brief stop in Hamilton, but came into his own as a member of the St. Pats. He led the NHL in goals in 1920-21, and in points in 1922-23 and 1924-25. When his team won Lord Stanley’s coveted old mug in 1922, he tallied four of the five markers in the decisive game to earn them the championship. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970.
“King” Clancy entered the shinny scene in 1922 with the Ottawa Silver Seven. He also sported that proverbial length of a cat’s life sewn on the back on his jersey. What can be said about this mischievous little leprechaun that has not already been repeated ad infinitum? Also small in stature, he was big on spirit, and left his mark on the game’s scene—as player, coach, referee, manager, and good-will ambassador. He is one of the few who played every position—and that in one game. He never finished a fight he started—he was either on the run, or it finished him. He was the key to the Maple Leafs’ success following his much ballyhooed trade to Toronto in 1930. He is also a Hall of Fame member.
Joe Malone spent much of his career in the NHA, forerunner of the NHL, and is less known than many others who excelled in the early days of the world’s premier circuit. He wore that celebrated numeral in 1924, his last season with the Canadiens and the NHL. He was called the “Phantom” because of his uncanny way of getting into scoring position. And score he did. In 1912-13 he potted 43 markers in 20 games. And in 1916-17 he upped that total to 44 in the same number of contests. In 1920 he put the puck into Toronto’s cage an amazing seven times in a single match—a record that has never been matched. His NHL days saw him first in the Mount Royal City, then with Quebec, then to Hamilton—where he was player/coach—and finally back with the Habs in Montreal. He also has been honoured by the Hall of Fame selection committee.
George “Buck” Boucher’s younger siblings. Bob, George, and Billy, also played in the NHL. He was a stalwart rearguard in the league from 1917 through 1933 (the first defenseman to tally a hat trick in a Stanley Cup game. Murray Murdoch, the original “iron man”, was also a worthy wearer of that distinctive digit.
But Charlie “Big Bomber” Conacher’s exploits outweighed them both. When the famed Toronto Maple Leaf “Kid Line” was formed in 1929, Chuck was the right winger of the trio. His shot rivalled that of “Babe” Dye. More than once his blasts penetrated the boards surrounding the playing surface. From 1932 through 1936 he was almost automatically selected to either the first or second All Star squads. Twice he won the scoring championship, and was runner-up to Eddie Shore in the Hart Trophy voting in 1935.
Even though, as has already been noted, players’ numbers did not hold the glory they did in a later era, Conacher’s came to light because of good old-fashioned hero worship. Ted “Teeder” Kennedy from the little hamlet of Humberstone, a stone’s throw from Port Colborne, like many Ontario lads, dreamed of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He especially wanted to be like Charlie Conacher—whom he idolized—including wearing the big winger’s number 9.
But when he finally made the team, it wasn’t “9” he was wearing, but number “10”, Syl App’s old ID. That was in 1942. Finally, in September 1953, the “Big Bomber” personally passed his old numeral on to the budding star—in a ceremony in the team’s dressing, just previous the opening of training camp.
Ted, called “Teeder”, because a playmate couldn’t pronounce “Theodore”, carved out a legendary career with the Queen City sextet. There are those who say he was the best Leaf ever. Not because he was flashy; nor that he was the franchise’s highest scorer; but because he radiated the spirit which brought the club into existence in the first place. He was a poor skater, but was gritty and hard-working—and as captain of the Blue and White, led the team to two Stanley Cup victories. Never in the class of some of the more noted number nines, he was the heart and soul of the team as long as he played.
The aforementioned Steve Dryden wrote: “…..during the 1950’s and 1960’s it (number 9) was almost exclusively reserved for the best players.”
Maurice Richard got the ball rolling. When he joined the Canadiens in 1942 he was assigned #15. When his first daughter was born in 1944, she weighed nine pounds. “The Rocket”, as he known by then, requested that he be allowed to reflect that on the back of his sweater. His rapid rise to stardom, especially his 50 goals in 50 games in 1945, launched the equating that digit and greatness. Soon speaking of “number nine” automatically meant Richard.
Gordie Howe followed basically the same pattern. He became a Red Wing in 1946—and wore number 17. When Roy Conacher was traded to Boston, “Mr. Hockey” quickly asked to be allowed to wear the big “9” that Conacher had sported. But it had nothing to do with renown. The lower berths on the train had lower numerals, and it was more comfortable to roll into one of them, rather than climbing into the upper level. But his climb to the top of his class only added to the prominence of that number.
Bobby Hull wore number 16 as a rookie with the Blackhawks in 1957. By 1963-64 he had four All Star selections, two Art Ross Trophies, and a rare 50-goal season under his belt. Opposition goalies cringed whenever he headed in their direction, ready to unleash his frightening slapshot. Management had no alternative but to line him up with other elite pucksters, and have this prominent ID stitched on his jersey.
Two other skaters from that era are usually classed together as “the Big Five”.
Johnny Bucyk, who spent the bulk of his career with the Bruins, is most worthy of that tribute. In fact, no player for that team has worn that numeral since he retired. During his 23 seasons in the NHL he managed an amazing 556 goals. Even though Mr. Hull was hoarding All Star votes during those years, Johnny was honoured twice for his left-wing prowess. A burly competitor, who had no need to back down from anyone, he still was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy on two occasions. At age 35 he scored 51 goals during the regular campaign.
Andy Bathgate skated on gimpy knees most of his career. He wore braces for stability. But this right-winger, who took his number nine with him when he was traded from the Rangers to Toronto, and again when he joined the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins, had a nose for the net. He hung up the blades with 349 tallies to his credit. Four times he was chosen an All Star. He was one of the first, along with Mikita and Hull, to popularize the curved blade in modern-day hockey.
Not surprisingly all of these superstars are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And it was their performances on the ice that equated that celebrated number with stardom.
It’s not that there have not been any pucksters wearing that digit who played after that era, who were standouts in their trade. It’s just that the magic that was formerly connected with it has faded. Three years ago, Dave Feschuk interviewed several NHL’ers regarding the importance or indifferent attitude toward sweater numbers. Some still were obsessed with their choices — even to having it included in their signings. But Gary Lupul opined that “…..jersey numbers are not a symbolic as they used to be.”
Dick Duff, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, is hardly an also ran. Neither was Wilf Paiment — or Bob Nevin. Clark Gillies patrolled left wing, pairing with Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy on the Islanders’ “Lilco” line, during the team’s heyday. Certainly Adam Graves and “Nifty” Middleton left indelible marks in league’s annals.
There are seven, all adding their merit to the mix during the gradual decline of that ID, who deserve recognition.
Norm Ullman, who was second in the points race in 1964-65 (though wearing #7 at the time), and who was numbered in the top 10 scorers three years running, deserves recognition. His career “line-score” was 490-739-1229.
Bernie Nicholls scored 70 goals and added 80 helpers pile up 150 total points in 1988-89, as a member of the L.A. Kings. He continues to be at the centre of arguments about whether or not that should qualify him for membership in the Hall of Fame.
When Doug Gilmour came to the Maple Leafs in 1992, he was credited with changing the fortunes of that storied franchise. Pound for pound, he was without equal as a scrappy leader on and off the ice. It earned him the nickname “Killer”, and the Selke Trophy in 1993. He managed 1414 point offensively, while shining as a defensive force as well.
Lanny McDonald gained All Star honours only twice. But he skated during the era when Mike Bossy and Guy LaFleur ruled the right wing lanes in the NHL. Still he potted 66 goals in 1982-83 while with Calgary, falling short of the magic 100 points that year, by two. He totalled 500 goals, 506 assists, for 1006 points overall. The man with the most recognizable moustache made his mark in shinny history.
Glenn Anderson was born at the wrong time. His teammates in Edmonton were “The Great One” and Mark Messier. But the speedy forward was a natural sniper, scoring over 50 goals per season on two occasions. Three times his point totals exceeded 100. He bulged the twine 498 times, and added 601 assists, for a total of 1099 points.
The last player of note to wear this magic marker was Mike Modano, who called it quits in 2011. For 22 seasons he was always “Johnny on the spot”, finishing in the top 10 three times, and accumulating 561 goals and 1374 points. He was anything but a sissy when he approached the game. But he was known for his campaign against violence on the ice. He was so disgusted he said he wished he could play golf. He commented: “It’s something you could play the rest of your life and not have to worry about somebody crossing the green and two-handing you with their putter or something!”
And who is blessed this season with the honour of sporting that number? How about Gerry Blais? Or Andrew Copp? Or Clayton Keller? Hardly household names in Canada’s National sport. Of the 15 in that category, only Taylor Hall, Jack Eichel, Mikku Koivu, and Bobby Ryan come close to carrying the equipment bags of the plethora of shinny icons mentioned above.
Like the “Old Gray Mare” in that vintage novelty song, that digit “ain’t what it used to be, many long years ago”. Or, as Steve Dryden put it: “No. 9 is dead. Long live No. 9”.
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