Most NHL players have a lucky number or choose a sweater number for a particular reason. In Sidney Crosby’s case, for instance, his 87 represents both the date and month of his birth (August 7) as well as his year of birth (1987). Alexander Ovechkin wears number 8 because that was his mother’s number when she played basketball at the Olympics.
Generally speaking, once a player makes the NHL wearing a particular number, he feels it gives him luck and wants to keep it. But when he is traded, complications arise. Often someone else is wearing his number on the team he has been traded to. Players overcome this obstacle by several means. The easiest is that, if he is a big enough star, the incumbent on the new team will simply surrender the digit out of respect. Failing that, the incoming player can offer a cash incentive.
CHANGE OF NUMBERS, CHANGE OF LUCK NHL Photo Gallery
Or, the traded player can become creative. When Scott Gomez always number 19 signed with Montreal in the summer of 2009, he did so knowing that number 19 was in the rafters for Larry Robinson. Gomez merely flipped the digits and wore number 91. When Phil Esposito was traded from Boston to the Rangers, Rod Gilbert had number 7, so “Espo” doubled the digit and wore number 77. This is also how Wayne Gretzky got from his favoured number 9 (in honour of his hero, Gordie Howe) to 99; when Wayne arrived in Sault Ste. Marie for his first year of junior hockey, number 9 was taken, so he doubled it to produce 99.
Perhaps the most egregious form of succoring the greater talent happened in Vancouver when Mark Messier signed as a free agent. He had had number 11 his whole career, but that number was unofficially retired by the Canucks in honour of Wayne Maki. The Canucks, without consulting the Maki family, simply gave the number to Messier, who accepted it without much moral dilemma. Coincidence or not, the Canucks never even qualified for the playoffs during Messier’s three years with the team, and after his departure no one wore number 11 ever again.
Of course, some players simply switch numbers when they get to a new team to change their luck. After all, being traded is not a form of flattery, so playing in a new city might well merit a new number. Still other players change their number for simple good luck. Joe Thornton wore number 6 with Boston for a while, but it simply “didn’t feel right.” He went to number 19, and he turned into one of the top players in the league.
Perhaps the greatest example of a number change, though, is Maurice Richard’s switcheroo from number 15 to 9. In 1940-41, his last year in the senior league, with Quebec, he broke his ankle during the first game of the season. The next year, he broke it again after just sixteen NHL games with the Canadiens. The summer of 1943, though, his first daughter was born. Huguette weighed nine pounds, and to celebrate her birth and to try to change his fortunes on ice he changed to number 9 for the upcoming season. The rest, as they say, is history.
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