Stop retiring numbers

“To you from failing hands we throw. The torch; be yours to hold it high.”
From “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.

The highlight of my brother-in-law’s hockey career was when he got a pair of second-hand pants from the club. They had once belonged to Mats Sundin and then been handed down to kids in the same club. They weren’t a torch but they did make my brother-in-law feel a connection to a local hero.

Most hockey fans, and all Canadiens fans, know that line from Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s First World War poem because it is and has been on the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room wall since 1952 when coach Dick Irvin had it painted there for the first time.

The same reminder of the club’s traditions has been printed on the inside collar of the players’ jerseys in 2018.

The Canadiens have always been great at remembering their past and honoring the players that have made the team what it is. Maybe that’s why they have also retired fifteen sweater numbers – which is way too many, and unnecessary.

Three of the numbers have been retired twice, which may sound a little odd but it also reminds us of the fact that the number retirement is a fairly new phenomenon. Of the Canadiens’ 18 retirement ceremonies, eleven have been held in the 21st century, long after the end of two fantastic careers, such as in the cases of Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer, who both wore number 12.

Moore, one of the 100 greatest NHL players in history last year, won the Art Ross Trophy twice and the Stanley Cup six times, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974, when Cournoyer was ten years into his career.

By then, “The Roadrunner” had also won six Stanley Cups, the Summit Series, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP. He, too, was on the list of 100 greatest players in history.

And yet, he had got Moore’s number 12 as a rookie in 1964 right after Moore’s retirement.

“I always respected No. 12. There were pictures in the room of people who had played for Montreal and I knew what (Moore) had done before, so I wanted to continue the good work,” Cournoyer told AP in 2005 when the number was retired.

“He turned out to be a great hockey player with a lot of achievements,” Moore says. “I’m very happy for him. He carried it very, very well.”

Wouldn’t it be better to have a ceremony for the players who carried the sweater but also leave the numbers in the rotation? That way they’d never be out of sight – nor out of mind. We don’t remember what we can’t see.

Naturally, great players should be celebrated and honoured but there’s no need to retire the number in order to do that. The clubs could still raise the numbers as “honoured numbers” (as the Toronto Maple Leafs used to do), there can still be a beautiful ceremony, a patch on the sweaters. They could even have the player in question more involved with the team during the entire season. Why not? But if the number stayed in the game, the continuum through the years would stay in tact, and, even in our era of personal branding, that’s a valuable thing,

Getting to wear the sweater of a former great would (and should) also be a big honour for the next one in line, something to be earned, even.

Other players wore number 12 in Montreal, too. One of them was captain Mike Keane.

“I’m not the player of the caliber of Dickie Moore or Yvan Cournoyer, but I just tried to basically not embarrass the number,” he said.

Is there a better way to honour a former player?

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