There is a superstition that is never spoken in so many words but that exists all the same. In a nutshell, players never wear the number of a player who has died during his career. There have been several instances of this, and in each case there is a double meaning of superstition and respect.
Take the case of Steve Chiasson, for instance. The Carolina Hurricanes defenceman died after he crashed his truck while drunk late on the night of May 3, 1999. A solid if unspectacular player, Chiasson had not had the kind of career that called for retiring his number, and his death was entirely self-inflicted. The Hurricanes have never officially retired his number 3, but no player has worn it since and it is understood that no one will.
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Going back a little farther, Pelle Lindbergh crashed his car into a wall while driving drunk on November 10, 1985. At the height of his career, with Philadelphia, the Flyers chose not to retire his number 31 (in part because he hadn’t been a star for very long; in part because of the way he died), but no Flyers player has worn Lindbergh’s 31 since.
Sensational Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Michel Briere also died after a car accident. He remained in a coma for eleven months before succumbing to his head injuries in 1971, and it wasn’t until 2001 that his number 21 was officially raised to the rafters of the Igloo. However, no Penguins player ever wore number 21 after his accident. He had been a promising youngster but had played only one full season with the team.
Dan Snyder has been similarly honoured by the Atlanta Thrashers since dying as a result of injuries suffered while being a passenger in a car driven recklessly by teammate Dany Heatley on October 5, 2003. Snyder was only at the start of a promising career, but his number 42 has been in official retirement ever since.
The protocol is very simple. Any player who has had an outstanding career with a team or has made a great contribution to, or had a great impact on, a team will have his number retired if he dies during his career. But any player who doesn’t have the same outstanding career but suffers a fatal injury will likely have his number unofficially retired in that the team will simply never issue it again. And players, being superstitious, would never want to wear a number that bestowed death upon its last wearer. Sounds a bit cruel and creepy perhaps, but it’s a deeply ingrained superstition all the same.
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