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Ice hockey numbers – a lot to do with train-ing

Ice hockey numbers – a lot to do with train-ing

Obviously, the focus here most of the time is the shirt numbers worn in football, but other sports are of interest to us too, and hopefully you might also might something useful in the occasional forays elsewhere.

In 2015, we looked at how rugby union’s numbering system developed, and we would have done something on Formula 1 by now if the excellent F1 Colours had not done so.

When it comes to American sports, we would rank American football and baseball – and probably basketball – above ice hockey in terms of levels of interest, but the there is a lot to enjoy in the stories behind the numbers.

There are no strict rules in the NHL regarding numbers – unlike, say, NFL – but this blog piece, on which we’ll lean heavily, reveals that the first instance of numbering in 1911 by the Pacific Coast Hockey Association used something like which would become the norm in football. Goaltenders wore number 1, the two ‘defencemen’ (using the British ‘c’ spelling, rather than the American ‘s’ – see comments) were 2 and 3, the ‘rover’ was 4 – this position would disappear as the NHA and its successor the NHL had six-man teams – and the three attackers had 5, 6 and 7.

In those days, teams would travel to away games by train, necessitating long journeys, and so Frank Patrick – whose idea it was to have numbering on sweaters – assigned sleeping compartments according to the numbers the players wore. The lower bunks – and therefore lower numbers – made for a better night’s sleep and so were more sought after, with veteran players usually being afforded them.

One player who came to learn this was Gordie Howe, the player with the record for most NHL games and seasons played. Nowadays, he is often referred to as ‘No. 9’, but that only came about almost by accident, as he outlined when interviewed by another great, Wayne Gretzky, for his memoir, Mr Hockey: My Story:

It’s a pretty classic number, and a lot of great players have worn it, but what it meant to me was that I got a better night’s sleep. Many people may not know that my first number with the Red Wings was No. 17 until early into my first season.

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.

Howe was Gretzky’s hero, and when he was drafted by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League in 1977, he sought to wear number 9 just like him. Brian Gualazzi had it, though, and Gretzky wore 19 for a short time.

Then, coach ‘Muzz’ McPherson had an idea. A couple of years previously, Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge had joined the New York Rangers and had decided to wear 77 and 88 respectively after their first choices of 7 and 8 were taken – so why not 99 for Gretzky?

Wayne was really worried that people would laugh at him if he wore number 99. But I convinced him to try it. They didn’t laugh at him.

Gretzky would go on to break Howe’s goalscoring records and was regarded so highly that, when he retired in – fittingly – 1999, the number 99 was retired league-wide.


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  1. April 22, 2017 at 01:29 — Reply

    Perfectly logical Dan – another reason to like Canadians!

  2. Dan
    April 22, 2017 at 01:27 — Reply

    Canadians use mostly British style spelling, hence “defencemen” rather than an American “s”

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Ice hockey numbers – a lot to do with train-ing