Everybody knows the clothes don’t make the man. Likewise, the jersey number doesn’t make the player. But when somebody’s good enough for long enough, a player can transform any ordinary number stitched to the back of his jersey into a truly iconic emblem synonymous with individual on-ice greatness.
I’ll bet a few of the NHL’s most recognizable numbers have already come to mind, like No. 9 or No. 66. How about No. 87? Each one was a run-of-the-mill integer until the man behind the proverbial mask made it a symbol every bit as recognizable as the name displayed above it.
Some numbers have deep, personal meanings to their owners, while others are simply assigned at training camp and never get changed. Some players even cite superstitious beliefs for the digits they pick for their uniforms (I’m looking at you, Rocket Richard!).
Throughout the NHL, the retired jersey numbers of each team’s most famous former players deck the rafters of their home arenas, preserving forever the legacies they left in that city. One number in particular – and I think you know which one – was retired league-wide in 1999, never to be worn by any player on any team ever again. That’s how you know when you’ve made a number your own.
Be it an all-time points leader or a formidable defensive foe who earned his keep in the trenches, here’s a list of the all-time greatest NHL player to wear each jersey number from 81 to 99.
19 Marian Hossa
Slovakian superstar Marian Hossa edges out his fellow countryman and runner-up Miroslav Satan for the No. 81 jersey title. The first-rounder in 1997 has racked up a remarkable eight 30-goal seasons and five All-Star Game appearances in his 18 years in the league. After laboring through his first nine seasons on mediocre squads, the wily veteran used his offensive prowess to take three separate teams to five Stanley Cup Finals in just eight years, including three Cup championships with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, 2013 and 2015. His 1,089 total points is the fourth most of any active player in the league, and he’ll undoubtedly solidify his place as the best player ever to don the No. 81 in the coming twilight of his career.
18 Martin Straka
While only a handful of NHLers have ever worn No. 82, Martin Straka spent 15 productive years in the league sporting the number on his sweater for no fewer than five separate teams. He was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round pick in the 1992 draft and had an unmatched talent for dishing the biscuit. He notched six 30-assist seasons in his career, as well as a pair of 30-goal seasons during his second stint with the Penguins in the 1990s. He topped out at 95 points during the 2000-01 season, good for fourth most in the league behind teammate Jaromir Jagr, after making his lone All-Star Game appearance the season before. Straka called it a career after the 2007-08 season with 717 total points in 954 games.
17 Ales Hemsky
Like Straka, Czech Ales Hemsky doesn’t have a whole lot of company in the No. 83 jersey, but he still holds his own. Another first-round pick, 13th overall, Hemsky recorded at least 30 points in eight of his first nine years with the Edmonton Oilers after entering the league in 2002. He led his team with a career-high in goals (19), assists (58) and points (77) during the 2005-06 season and managed 17 points in 24 games in the Oilers’ unlikely postseason run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they eventually lost in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes. He followed up with the second-best output of his career two seasons later, leading the team with 71 points on 20 goals and 51 assists and was selected to his first All-Star Game during the 2010-11 season.
16 Mikhail Grabovski
With only six players eligible for the jersey No. 84 title, Mikhail Grabovski, currently with the New York Islanders, gets the benefit of the doubt over the now gone Guillaume Latendresse. Grabovski, despite raking in $5 million a year from the Islanders through 2018, hasn’t exactly worn out goal horns around the league over his nine-year NHL career. What he is known for, though, is finding himself in the middle of off-ice controversy. From skipping town to chat with his agent to throwing down in bareknuckle fights in the streets of Vancouver, there’s nary a dull day in the world of Mikhail Grabovski. As far as on-ice performance goes, he’s averaging just over half a point per game through 534 games, so “greatest” player to wear the number is more of a technicality.
15 Petr Klima
Petr Kilma is clearly the greatest player to wear the No. 85 jersey if for nothing more than sheer badassery. Not only was he the first one to ever don the number when he broke the mold with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1985-86 season, but his story puts him far-and-away ahead of the other five players to wear the number. At the age of 20, Klima pulled the ultimate Bourne-like spy move and defected to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia by sneaking out of a German hotel in the dead of night to meet rendezvous with Red Wings assistant GM Nick Polano, who then escorted him to Detroit where he began his NHL career. Klima picked No. 85 to commemorate the year he defected and joined the league. He would go on to wear the number with five different teams for whom he recorded six 30-goal seasons and finished with 573 points in 786 career games. He won a Stanley Cup championship with the Edmonton Oilers after being dealt there in 1991 and made an All-Star Game appearance the same year.
14 Nikita Kucherov
Of the 10 NHL players to have worn the uncommon jersey No. 86, Russian-born Nikita Kucherov stands above all others - this with only 3 years experience in the NHL. It's not only his impressive season numbers -149 points in 211 games- that made him an easy choice for #86. His play in the playoffs so far has been phenomenal, leading the pack with his "triplets" linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Alongside Steven Stamkos, Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman, Kucherov led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals against Chicago in 2015, and was one game away from reaching it this past season, when Tampa Bay ultimately lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins. Look for Kucherov to continue his awesome play which can inevitably lead to the promised land.
13 Sidney Crosby
If it weren’t for Sid the Kid, big, bad bruiser Donald Brashear, who romped through the league from 1993-2010 would take the No. 87 cake. Unfortunately for him, today’s prodigy-on-ice will take the number with him into perpetual NHL lore. Citing his birthday, Aug. 7, 1987, for his unusual jersey number, Crosby was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft and joined the Penguins for the 2005-06 season, where he breached the 100-point mark in his debut campaign. All he’s done since is win two Stanley Cup Championships (2009 and 2016), become the youngest captain to win the Cup at 23, claim two scoring titles, two league MVP titles, a playoff MVP title and six All-Star honors – and that’s just scratching the surface. So far, he’s recorded a whopping 938 points in just 707 career games over 11 NHL seasons and sits 12th in all-time points among active players. Some say he could approach Gretzky’s scoring numbers – unlikely, but if anyone were to do it, it’d be him. Stay tuned.
12 Eric Lindros
Eric Lindros is a big guy who did big things despite a seemingly relentless battle with the injury bug. Highly touted out of the OHL, Lindros was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991. After a dispute before playing a single minute in the league, Lindros was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, where his uncanny playmaking ability helped him average more than 1.3 points per game in his first eight years in the league. Lindros won the scoring title and was named NHL MVP in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season before leading the Flyers to the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals. He would go on to play for the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Dallas Stars in the final five seasons of his career and ultimately retired at just 34 due to chronic concussion issues. In all he had seven All-Star Game selections and finished with 865 points, currently placing him 120th on the all-time scoring list.
11 Alexander Mogilny
Much like Petr Klima, Alexander Mogilny’s No. 89 paid tribute to the year of his defection from Communist Russia in 1989. After escaping to the U.S., Mogilny was a bit of a hot-and-cold player, but when he was hot, he sizzled. During his 1992-93 season with the Buffalo Sabres, Mogilny potted an eye-popping career-high 77 goals and a total of 127 points. He tied for the league’s season goal title but surprisingly finished second in team scoring to linemate and now-Hall-of-Famer Pat LaFontaine. He eclipsed the 100-point mark again three years later while skating with the Vancouver Canucks, notching 55 goals and a career-high 52 assists. He was a four-time All-Star during his 16-year career and won a Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2000.
10 Mike Modano
I know what you’re thinking; Mike Modano always wore the #9 with the Dallas Stars. Upon joining the Detroit Red Wings in 2010, however, he added a 0 to go with the 9 and it was thus impossible to exclude him from contention among the number 90s. Arguably the greatest American-born player to ever play the game, Mike Modano scored 1359 points in 1459 games and won the Stanley Cup in 1999, cementing his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
9 Sergei Fedorov
Current playmakers like Tyler Seguin, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Vladimir Tarasenko might all one day make a play for the title, but for now, 2015 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Sergei Fedorov owns the No. 91 crown. Another Soviet defector to the U.S., Fedorov was considered one of the greatest players in the world during his time with the Detroit Red Wing in the 1990s. He was a playoff superstar who could move the puck from end-to-end with ease and thrice led the Wings to Stanley Cup Championships (1997, 1998 and 2002). He also appeared in six All-Star games and was named the 1994 league MVP. Fedorov compiled 1,179 points over his prolific 18-year career and currently ranks 49th on the all-time scoring list.
8 Gabriel Landeskog
Short of jumping the gun on a promising, young star, Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog gets the nod for the No. 92 jersey. While true it’s true fellow Swede Michael Nylander wore the number for most of his 15-season career between 1992 and 2009, Landeskog has already made a deeper impact in his first five seasons in the league. A second-overall pick by the Avs in 2011, Landeskog became the youngest NHL captain ever at just 19 years old and the second-highest draft pick of a Swedish-born player, along with countrymen Daniel Sedin and Victor Hedman. During the 2013-14 season, his ability to make clutch plays helped the Avalanche win the Central Division title and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
7 Doug Gilmour
Doug Gilmour’s Hall-of-Fame career spanned three decades, but it really flourished in the middle, during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1990s. He switched his number from 39 to 93 after being dealt there from the Calgary Flames in 1992 and promptly posted back-to-back 100-point seasons. He was a small forward at just 175 pounds, which might explain why no one took him until the seventh round of the 1982 draft, but what he lacked in size, he more than made up for in physical play. Clearly outplaying his draft stock, Gilmour had nearly point-per-game totals over his career with 1,414 points in 1,474 games despite his reputation as a defensive-minded forward. Currently, he ranks 18th on the all-time scoring list.
6 Brendan Shanahan
Sure, Canadian superstar Ryan Smyth scored the most points of any player while wearing a No. 94 jersey, but this list is the greatest player to wear each number, period. So despite the fact that Brendan Shanahan only wore No. 94 for one season with the Hartford Whalers in the mid-1990s, his storied career that transformed him from a hard-nosed tough-guy who never backed down from a fight, to a crafty goal-scorer who lit the lamp with finesse, outweighs Smyth without a doubt. Shanahan was an eight-time All-Star, scored 1,354 points in 1,524 games and helped his teammate Sergei Fedorov lead the Red Wings to three Stanley Cup championships in 1997, 1998 and 2002. On top of that, he’s the only player ever to score at least 600 goals and have at least 2,000 penalty minutes.
5 Aleksey Morozov
Aleskey Morozov is in rare company as just one of five players to ever wear No. 95. He wasn’t the first to do it, but he did it the longest. The talented forward was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the draft in 1995 and showed plenty of early promise, but he ultimately never took the next step in his career to propel him to true greatness. He had three 30-point seasons and topped out with 50 points during the 2003-04 season, but after returning to his native Russia during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, he opted to stay put the following season instead of rejoining his teammates in the U.S. and never came back. He once scored a natural hat trick for the Oilers against legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur in 1999, though, so there’s that.
4 Pavel Bure
Hall-of-Famer Pavel Bure, best known as “The Russian Rocket,” was a lightning-fast forward who recorded better than point-per-game totals during his 12-year NHL career. He joined the Vancouver Canucks in 1991 after being selected 113th overall in the 1989 draft and notched 34 goals and 60 points in his NHL debut campaign, earning Rookie-of-the-Year honors for his trouble. His fiery offense helped him post back-to-back 100-point seasons in 1992-93 and then again in 1993-94 when the Canucks lost by one goal to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals. During his time in the league, he was a three-time leading goal-scorer and was selected to six All-Star games. He only wore the No. 96 for two seasons – both while in Vancouver, but he was the best player ever to do so.
3 Jeremy Roenick
After wearing No. 27 with Chicago during his first eight seasons in the league, Roenick switched it up and became the first player in the NHL to rock No. 97 when he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996. He would continue to wear it during his time with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Los Angeles Kings, before reverting back to his No. 27 in his final two years in the league with the San Jose Sharks. He posted 66 points during his first full season with the Blackhawks in 1995-96 and then exploded for a total of 411 points over the next four years, including three straight 100-point seasons from 1991-1994. After the hot start to his career, Roenick would settle into more of a grinder on the ice and an outspoken leader in the locker room as the years wore on.
2 Brian Lawton
By default, Brian Lawton is the greatest NHL player ever to wear jersey No. 98. But that also makes him the worst, since he’s the only one ever to dare get that close to the man one number up. In 1983, Lawton became the first-ever U.S. high schooler selected first overall in the NHL draft. According to him, he had enough natural talent to liken himself to The Great One, but as you might guess, he was sadly mistaken. After managing just 42 points during his first two years in the league with the Minnesota North Stars, Lawton came to his senses and dropped the 9 from his jersey but still never even sniffed a 50-point season. In nine years, the left-winger from New Jersey managed a measly 154 points in 483 games.
1 Wayne Gretzky
Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the Yukon bush for the past 40 years, this comes as little surprise. Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 is hands-down the most iconic uniform number in all of sports. From the time he first strapped on skates just short of three years old on his grandfather’s farm in Canada until his final career game in 1999 at the age of 38, Gretzky was – and still is – the greatest player to ever play the game. His extraordinary talent and knowledge of the game will likely never be matched.
Over his career, Gretzky set every single relevant NHL scoring record, including the most career goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857); the most goals in a season (92); the most assists in a season (163); and the longest-ever point streak of 51 games, just to name a few. At one time he had three consecutive 200-point seasons, and in his career, he made 18 All-Star Game appearances while leading the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cup championships in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988.
As an amateur, Gretzky wanted to wear jersey No. 9 like his boyhood idol, Gordie Howe. When it wasn’t available, he settled on 99, and the rest is history. Today, Gretzky’s No. 99 can be seen in every NHL building as the only number to be retired league-wide.
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