It’s among the highest honors an NHL team can bestow upon one of its star alumni. Retiring a jersey number not only cements in eternal tribute the name of one of the franchise’s most impactful players in all its history, but more notably, takes the digits he wore on his back during his playing days with the team permanently out of circulation, commemorating forever the legacy he created while wearing those threads.
With pomp and circumstance, the honored former player’s jersey ascends to the team’s home-rink rafters, typically in a pre-game ceremony, where it will sway to-and-fro from that point forward in the wafts of its lofty arena perch for all the world to see.
There’s no specific guidelines for whose number can or should be retired, but we typically think of a long-time franchise asset who dedicated his career to affecting a lasting, positive influence both on the ice and in the community as those most deserving of the honor.
Bobby Orr – yes. Mark Messier – yes. Wayne Gretzky – obviously. Those honorees are pretty open-and-shut cases. But what about some other ones? Al Hamilton? Yvon Labre? Bob Gassoff? Um, Who?
With well over 100 jersey numbers retired across the league, a lot of us would argue that it’s probably a little overdone. Seriously, at what point does stop it being monumental and become nothing more than a trivial routine in acknowledging a decent past player's career?
So lacking any real benchmark other than a reasonable analysis compared to their more-deserving peers, here are 15 NHL numbers that should NEVER have been retired.
15 Glen Wesley’s No. 2 (Carolina Hurricanes)
Glen Wesley was a lot better as a Boston Bruin during his first seven years in the league than he ever was as a Carolina Hurricane. Nonetheless, Wesley, durable as he was, had his number retired by the franchise in 2009, just the second one to earn the honor since its move from Hartford.
Here’s a little perspective to consider. His seven years in Boston produced 307 points in 537 games. He spent nearly twice that amount of time with Carolina/Hartford but only managed 227 points in 913 games there, and you don’t see his number hanging from the TD Garden in Beantown. He played with an intense, almost reckless style in his own zone and was able to help the team win its first Cup in 2006, but on almost any other team, Wesley’s number would never have been retired.
14 Bobby Plager’s No. 5 (St. Louis Blues)
Former defenseman Bob Plager was an all-around good dude – and still is – but the Blues never really should have retired his No. 5. After joining the team via expansion draft in 1967, Plager was a member of three St. Louis teams that advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. He played a bruising, physical game and perfected a devastating hip-check that helped the earliest iterations of the team maintain a defense-first mentality. But he averaged less than 13 points per season, never made an All-Star game, never won a Stanley Cup and finished with a -17 plus/minus rating over his final two seasons.
Besides those little tidbits, two other players have since worn No. 5 for St. Louis, and both of them have more points as a Blue than Plager did his entire career.
13 Yvon Labre’s No. 7 (Washington Capitals)
Similar to Plager, Yvon Labre is a defenseman perhaps most notable for joining the Washington Capitals as one of its very first players when they selected him in the 1974 NHL expansion draft. He also scored the first goal in the history of the franchise and was fairly involved with the youth in the community inside the Beltway.
But looking at his career stats and comparing him to other, more notable NHL rearguards who have had their numbers retired, Labre is woefully unworthy. Yes, the Caps were atrocious those first few seasons, but a combined -92 plus/minus rating in his first two seasons in Washington are anything but deserving of eternal commemoration. In seven injury-plagued seasons with the Capitals in the ‘70s, Labre only had 96 points and finished -89.
12 Minnesota Wild’s No. 1
In a completely unoriginal move that copied the Seattle Seahawks’ retired No. 12 jersey commemorating its fans’ impact on the team’s success in the 1980s, the Minnesota Wild retired the No. 1 in October of 2000, before the team had even played its first official game and before anybody even had a chance to wear it.
It’s a bit of a pandering copout in order to sell tickets, and it seems a little silly to retire the “fans’” number before any of them had actually witnessed an actual Wild game. This is what I’m talking about with diminishing the significance of a player having his number retired.
If you’re just going to hand it out as part of a PR scheme, what will it say about the first Wild player who will actually earn the distinguished honor?
11 Peter Forsberg’s No. 21 (Colorado Avalanche)
No one would argue Peter Forsberg was one of the better players in the game when he actually made it onto the ice. The issue with Foppa, though, is that he put a sour taste in the mouths of Avalanche fans for more reasons than one.
I mean, I get the argument for why they retired his number. He did some great things for the Avs. He was a three-time All-Star, won Hart, Calder and Art Ross Trophies and had Gretzky-like play-making abilities that helped them win a couple of Cups.
But the guy only played eight real seasons in an Avs sweater, and a lot of that time was spent on the IR. To say injury-prone would be downplaying Forsberg’s fragility. He missed the entire 2001-02 season, most of the 2007-08 campaign and only managed a two-game comeback before unceremoniously quitting hockey just hours before his vaunted Pepsi Center return in the 2010-11 season – again blaming injury – much to the chagrin of Avalanche fans and the team’s sales staff alike.
Great player, yes. Number-retiring-worthy? Nah.
10 Barry Ashbee’s No. 4 (Philadelphia Flyers)
At the risk of coming off mean and unsympathetic, the late Barry Ashbee’s No. 4 jersey has no business being retired from a team that not even Eric Lindros’ or Ron Hextall’s numbers have been.
Don’t get me wrong, Ashbee was a decent defenseman during his four seasons in Philadelphia in the early ‘70s, but his lack of longevity, the fact that most of his career was spent in the minor leagues and his meager 85 NHL points in 284 games don’t qualify him even within the top-20 or -30 former Philadelphia skaters.
Granted, Ashbee’s career was cut short due to a nasty eye injury he sustained after absorbing a Dale Rolfe shot with his face in the 1973-74 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and he later passed away after a short bout with leukemia in 1977, but this number-retirement seems based more on emotions than statistics.
9 Dale Hunter’s No. 32 (Washington Capitals)
While Dale Hunter’s number-retirement in 2000 was probably an oversight by the Washington Capitals brass, what was fitting was the presentation to him of a penalty box from the old Capital Centre, the team’s former home rink.
Second all-time in NHL penalty minutes with 3,565, Dale Hunter spent 19 seasons in the league – 12 with the Capitals – and never finished with fewer than 100 penalty minutes in a season and 11 times had over 200. In other words, Hunter was mean.
Though he was a fan-favorite during his time both in Quebec and Washington, he was a gigantic nuisance to his opponents. He could score, though. He had 556 points in 872 games with the Caps, and that’s pretty darn good. But his malicious hit after the whistle on the New York Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs that separated Turgeon’s shoulder and earned Hunter a 21-game suspension the following season, tainted his legacy and probably should have precluded him from the honor of having his number retired.
8 Bob Gassoff’s No. 3 (St. Louis Blues)
Bob Gassoff’s story parallels Ashbee’s in a lot of ways. He had four NHL seasons under his belt when he was killed in a tragic Memorial Day Weekend motorcycle accident on his friend and teammate Garry Unger’s Missouri farm at just 24 years old.
Up until that point, Gassoff had gained the reputation as a gritty, fighting enforcer with the St. Louis Blues and was even sentenced to a whopping 306 penalty minutes during the 1975-76 season, the most on the team and fourth-most in the entire league.
In 245 games, Gassoff had 11 goals and 47 assists go along with his -15 plus/minus rating and 866 penalty minutes. No doubt, his four years of toughness was invaluable to a still relatively new expansion St. Louis team, but his mostly insignificant impact never warranted the sympathy number-retirement.
7 Tim Horton’s No. 2 (Buffalo Sabres)
Any sane person would advocate Timmy Horton’s league-wide number-retirement based their love for the coffee and donuts chain he founded, but let’s get down to the heart of the matter at hand.
I have no issues whatsoever with the Maple Leafs retiring his number No. 7 last year. He spent 20 seasons in Toronto, winning four Stanley Cups, and was known for his tremendous strength and lasting durability. He’s a Canadian icon through and through.
But why did Buffalo have to butt-in first and retire the No. 2 he wore there during his two brief seasons as a Sabre before he died? All of his career accomplishments happened as a Leaf. He just happened to play his last NHL game in a Buffalo uniform – and in Toronto, nonetheless.
Not that he doesn’t deserve it, but Buffalo totally stole Toronto’s thunder here. No need, guys.
6 Al Hamilton’s No. 3 (Edmonton Oilers)
During the first eight years of his pro career, Al Hamilton bounced around here and there from the Central Hockey League to the NHL’s New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres and to the AHL before finally landing in Edmonton with the Oilers in the startup WHA in 1972.
He played there for six seasons and moved back into the NHL for one final year with the Oilers when the league absorbed the WHA in 1979. Over the course of his seven seasons in Edmonton, Hamilton totaled 330 points in 486 games while battling several major injuries.
He had a knack for scoring and captained the Oil for four seasons, but next to the likes of Gretzky and Messier, Hamilton’s name is a little misplaced in the Rexall Place rafters.
5 Keith Magnuson’s No. 3 (Chicago Blackhawks)
By all accounts, Keith Magnuson was a loyal, happy-go-lucky guy whose fiery passion for defending his teammates was trumped only by his larger-than-life personality away from the rink. He was down-to-earth and loved to smile. He was a Blackhawks fan-favorite and even graced the cover of the April 1970 edition of Sports Illustrated.
Magnuson was a two-time All-Star, but after his career-high of 24 points in his debut NHL season in 1969-70, his numbers would decline in each of his successive 10 years in the league. His hard-nosed fighting never went unnoticed, though, and his 1,442 career penalty minutes will tell you all you need to know about the guy, but his 139 points in 589 games probably doesn’t merit his jersey being commemorated forever in Blackhawks lore.
4 Bill Torrey’s No. 93 (Florida Panthers)
The guy never even played a minute in the NHL, yet the Panthers “retired” a number for him? I don’t get it. I totally understand the role he played as GM in turning the lowly New York Islanders into a perennial Cup contender and winning four straight championships in the early ‘80s before helping the expansion Florida Panthers advance to the Stanley Cup Finals just three years after coming into existence. But aren’t there better ways to honor the man than to make up some number, assign his name to it and raise it to the rafters?
Seriously, name a trophy after him or induct him into the team’s Hall of Fame or something, but to retire a fake number for a guy who didn’t even win a Cup as president in Florida in his nine years there is just awkward. He helped the Islanders win four of the dang things, and even they didn’t make up a fake jersey number to retire for him. C’mon, Panthers, you’re better than that… I think?
3 Rick Ley’s No. 2 (Hartford Whalers)
If you’re going to un-retire a jersey number, why even retire it in the first place? Yeah, the franchise relocated and re-branded and all that jazz, but you don’t see the Dallas Stars or Arizona Coyotes erasing the legacies of the most famous former North Stars or Jets players, do you?
And to top it all off – if you hadn’t noticed – this is the second No. 2 on this list to be retired by the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes franchise that never should have received that honor in the first place.
Rick Ley played nine seasons in Hartford, seven when they were a WHA club and his final two after they transitioned into the NHL. In that time, he served as captain for six years and posted 267 points in 559 games and a cumulative -4 plus/minus rating. Not exactly dazzling offense, but I guess when you can just un-retire numbers a few years down the road, the benchmark is a bit lower considering the lack required long-term commitment.
2 Bill Masterton’s No. 19 (Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars)
Bill Masterton’s retired No. 19 for the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars organization is a tough one to argue against, but taking the sentimental part out of it, I think you’ll agree.
At age 28 and with no NHL experience to his name despite signing a deal with the Montreal Canadiens organization five years prior, Masterton had pretty much given up on pro hockey. But when the NHL doubled in size in 1967 and put a team in his hometown of Minneapolis, he signed an offer to become the North Stars’ first player in team history and made his NHL debut at 29 later that year.
He scored the first goal in the franchise’s history on Oct. 11, 1967, but later that season, Masterton died tragically as a result of an on-ice incident just 38 games into his NHL career. He had amassed four goals, 12 points and a -4 plus/minus rating before the incident, which while decent, definitely would not warrant a number-retirement had he not been the team’s first-ever player.
1 Ray Bourque’s No. 77 (Colorado Avalanche)
When you think of Ray Bourque, you think of the all-time greatest NHL defenseman, the career Bruin who went to 19 All-Star games and was the face of the Boston franchise for two solid decades. He certainly earned his retired No.77 B’s jersey and then some.
But to hang his Avalanche sweater in the Pepsi Center, memorialized forever for the rental player who played there for all of one season and some change for no other reason than to try one last time to finally bring home a Stanley Cup, is almost disrespectful to guys like Joe Sakic and Adam Foote, who dedicated the bulk of their careers to the franchise during both the good times and the bad.
Don’t get me wrong – I loved the heart-warming story of Bourque temporarily abandoning his Bruins legacy to finally hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup with the Avs after a thrilling Game 7 victory in 2001, but retiring his number is kind of ridiculous.