For many athletes, their jerseys are an important...
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Jan 30, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

For many athletes, their jerseys are an important numbers game: Feschuk

Sweater numbers have often become hallowed things to be mass-produced on replica jerseys and lifted into rafters. They are synonymous with the stars who wore them best. Numbers are often treated with reverence

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When Joffrey Lupul arrived at his first NHL training camp with the Anaheim Ducks in 2002, he had plenty to be thankful for.

He was a seventh-overall pick with a Southern California address. But for all he’d been given, there was one thing he wanted to get rid of — the No. 59, his team-assigned sweater number.

“I couldn’t wait to change it. It was like, ‘I need a new number. I need a new number,’ ” Lupul, now a Maple Leafs veteran, was remembering recently. “I remember it being really important to me that I switch this number.”

Lupul did just that. He made the team and was permitted to adopt his beloved junior number, 15. In his six seasons with the Maple Leafs, he has worn No. 19 in admiration of Hall of Famers Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman. The digits mean something to him.

But Lupul’s numerological pickiness stands out as an anachronism in the Leafs dressing room. Nazem Kadri, a first-round pick of Toronto’s, was handed No. 43 at his first training camp. And although he said it doesn’t hold the sentimental value of the No. 9 he wore in minor hockey or the Nos. 19 and 91 he donned in junior, Kadri continues to wear it. Morgan Rielly, Toronto’s fifth-overall pick in the 2012 draft, was issued 44 by the Leafs and, though he says he “wasn’t crazy about it,” he hasn’t agitated to change it. Leo Komarov, the all-star forward who wears No. 47, acknowledges the number he was given upon arrival in Toronto “is not the best one.” If he had his druthers, he’d wear 87 for his birth year, a la Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. But the fact Komarov, too, hasn’t felt compelled to change speaks to what Lupul has observed as a subtle change in the game.

“Lots of these guys just wear the number they were given when they got here,” said Lupul, 32. “I don’t think jersey numbers are quite as symbolic as they used to be.”

It’s been nearly 100 years since the Cleveland Indians became the first team in North America’s four major sports to experiment with jersey numbers. And in the century since, numbers have often become hallowed things to be mass-produced on replica jerseys and lifted into rafters. They are synonymous with the stars who wore them best. Wayne Gretzky is 99. Mario Lemieux is 66, Michael Jordan 23, Derek Jeter 2.

Numbers are often treated with reverence. Players’ wives have them fashioned into jewellery. Players sport them as tattoos. Gretzky’s daughter Paulina had her father’s famed digits inked on her pelvic region. And certainly there’s a level of numerological devotion that can be spotted in Leafland. Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf, for one, has a close attachment to his No. 3.

“When you go train at ’Neuf’s house in P.E.I., he’s got a No. 3 on all his weights and a No. 3 on the floor, that kind of stuff,” Rielly said. “He really likes his number.”

But for every player who is fanatical about his personal numeral, there are others who offer an indifferent shrug about theirs.

“I don’t think the number makes a difference,” Komarov said. “It’s like, ‘whatever.’ It doesn’t really mean a lot to me.”

Leafs goaltender James Reimer, who was given No. 34 in Toronto and has stuck with it even if he previously preferred a handful of other traditional goalie numbers, particularly 30, 31 and 35, is similarly non-plussed.

“As long as there’s a jersey for me, that’s all I care about,” Reimer said.

While NHL sweater numbers in the 40s and 50s and beyond were once shunned as “training-camp numbers,” they’ve more recently been embraced. Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals goaltender currently leading the league in wins, said he hasn’t traded in the No. 70 he was handed when he was still a would-be NHLer because he saw fans buy his jersey and “felt too bad to change it.” San Jose’s Tomas Hertl, who wears No. 48, has said “it’s not important what number is on my jersey.” Tyler Toffoli, the L.A. Kings forward, is one of just 16 NHLers to wear the not-so-coveted No. 73, a training-camp inheritance. Perhaps because the Kings won the Stanley Cup in his rookie year, he has chosen to stick with it.

Sports-uniform expert Paul Lukas, the proprietor of ESPN’s Uni Watch blog, said there’s a perceptible shift in the way sweater numbers are perceived in the NHL. While many teams have historically enforced bans on high numbers, with GMs like Lou Lamoriello only allowing exceptions for players deemed elite, even hockey’s conformist culture seems to be accepting a new normal.

“You would have never worn a number in the 50s or the 60s a decade ago, and now that’s okay,” Lukas said. “I wonder if the loosening of orthodoxies has contributed to this lack of pickiness.”

Don’t get it wrong: The personally selected, long-considered sweater number is still alive and well in the NHL. When generational prodigy Connor McDavid arrived in Edmonton, he happily pulled on his trademark No. 97, a Crosby-cribbing birth-year choice. Star Buffalo Sabres rookie Jack Eichel, whose favoured No. 9 was already taken by teammate Evander Kane and whose fallback No. 11 is retired by the organization in honour of Gilbert Perreault, mulled over various options before he settled on No. 15, his draft year. Arizona rookie Max Domi chose No. 16 in tribute to Bobby Clarke, the Hall of Famer and a fellow diabetic.

But as much as the game has seen its share of so-called “vanity numbers” — Mario Lemieux’s 66 and Jaromir Jagr’s 68 and Alexander Mogilny’s 89 among them — a lack of preciousness about personal branding is also a part of the game’s DNA. The great Gordie Howe inspired legions of players, Gretzky among them, to wear No. 9 — and Gretzky only opted for his iconic double-9 after finding Howe’s number already taken when he became a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. But it’s sometimes overlooked that Howe originally wore No. 17, only switching to No. 9 because players with lower digits were assigned the bottom beds in sleeper cars of trains to road games.

“(By) switching numbers I could get a lower berth and sleep more comfortably,” Howe wrote in his autobiography.

John-Michael Liles, the ex-Leaf now playing for the Hurricanes, said when he first came into the league in 2003 it wasn’t uncommon to hear about an NHLer negotiating a price for a preferred number.

Certainly that’s been a long-reported phenomenon in pro sports.

NFL cornerback Darrelle Revis, in the days after he was acquired by the Tampa Bay Bucaneers in 2013, paid $50,000 to new teammate Mark Barron for the right to wear his beloved No. 24. Toronto’s major-league baseball clubhouse has seen its share of such swaps through the years. Roger Clemens once gave Carlos Delgado a Rolex for Blue Jays No. 21. A Hall of Famer named Rickey Henderson once paid Turner Ward $25,000 for No. 24.

“I heard a rumour Paul Kariya gave somebody two tickets to Hawaii for No. 9,” said Liles, 35. “I’ve heard about guys giving up a Rolex for a number, too. It was something that occurred more often than not.”

That was in the pre-salary-cap era, mind you, when veteran players set in their numerical preferences often came to new teams at the trade deadline en masse.

“It’s a younger league now,” Liles said.

Rielly, 21, said he has heard stories of such dressing-room deal-making and was hoping to partake in such a transaction when the Maple Leafs acquired veteran defenceman Matt Hunwick in the off-season. A 30-year-old journeyman, Hunwick wore 44 for the New York Rangers last season. Rielly suggested he wouldn’t have been averse to giving up his 44. Rielly, after all, wore No. 4 playing junior in Moose Jaw, this at the behest of his father, an admirer of Bobby Orr. But when Rielly got to Toronto, No. 4 was occupied by Cody Franson. So Rielly took what was given, even if he wasn’t smitten.

“When I think of 44, I always think of big, hulking, slow-footed defencemen,” Rielly said. “Chris Pronger’s not slow, by any means, but he’s the one guy I think about. And I think about (Todd) Bertuzzi. There hasn’t been a lot of smaller, two-way defencemen that have used it, except for (Kimmo) Timonen, maybe.”

Alas, the opportunity for change didn’t come. It turned out Hunwick, who was given No. 2 by the Leafs and has also worn Nos. 22 and 48 as an NHLer, wasn’t particularly choosy about the digits on his back.

“I was hoping he was going to make me an offer so I could negotiate a little bit,” Rielly said. “But it never happened. A lot of guys are just happy with what they’ve got and they stick with it. That’s kind of the trend now.”

Toronto Star

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