Retired numbers can be a funny thing. Some are slam dunks, with guys like Teemu Selanne and Martin Brodeur seeing their numbers go up to the rafters almost immediately. Other times, a closer call like Adam Graves or Bob Plager will wait years before a team decides that they’re worthy of the honor. Some teams like to wait, others like to move quickly. And every once in a while, a team will even retire 17 numbers in one shot.
And then there are the cases where a player who seems to have a strong case to be honored ends up going years without getting the call, to the point where it starts to look like it may not come at all. So today, let’s look at five players who’ve been out of the league for a while now, but have yet to see their numbers retired by the team they made their names with.
Kevin Lowe, Oilers
For most franchises, winning five Stanley Cups would be more than enough to get a player’s number into the rafters. But the Oilers aren’t just any team, and when you dominate most of a decade like they did in the 1980s, you might have higher standards.
Still, even without his five Edmonton Cup rings (plus one more with the Rangers), Lowe has a solid case. He was a pretty darn good player; while he never won a Norris, he did play in seven All-Star Games. And he’s the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, and ranks behind only Paul Coffey in points by a defenseman. On the other hand, he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame yet, and every member of that Oilers dynasty to have their number retired is in the Hall.
Lowe is still a member of the Oilers’ organization, having been the team’s GM for years and serving as president now, and that could complicate things; nobody wants to see a ceremony that feels like a team executive is honoring themselves. But there seems to be a growing sense that Lowe deserves his moment. Remember, no Oiler wore Lowe’s No. 4 until first overall pick Taylor Hall arrived in 2010 (which was controversial at the time).
Paul Kariya, Ducks
We could go back and forth on the qualifications of some of the players on this list. But Kariya isn’t in that category. He’s quite possibly the greatest player in Ducks history, and was the face of the franchise for its first decade or so. With his recent (and overdue) selection to Hall of Fame, he should be a sure thing.
But in this case, there’s more to the decision than stats and individual honors. Kariya’s time in Anaheim ended abruptly, with the star winger bolting in free agency after leading the team to the 2003 Cup final. That led to some bad feelings on both sides, and Kariya has had a rocky relationship with the league in general since his early retirement due to concussions.
These days, it sounds like the Ducks are ready to make peace, but Kariya remains (in the words of close friend Teemu Selanne) “very bitter about hockey”. Maybe his HHOF induction presents an opportunity to mend some fences, and Kariya and the Ducks can eventually get back on good enough terms that the star is willing to participate in a number retirement ceremony. Until that day comes, his No. 9 will be conspicuous by its absence in Anaheim.
Sergei Fedorov, Red Wings
Fedorov’s case is similar to Kariya’s. On the surface, his Hall-of-Fame career would seem to make for an easy call. But again, there are lingering bad feelings between organization and player. Fedorov signed a massive offer sheet with the Hurricanes in 1998 that included a poison pill to make it difficult for the Red Wings to match. Ultimately, the team did anyway, but the relationship was damaged even before Fedorov left to sign with Anaheim in 2003. (Somewhat ironically, his signing was seen as the Ducks’ attempt to replace Kariya.)
There’s also the Red Wings’ history to take into consideration. The franchise has only ever retired seven numbers, and all of those have been absolute no-brainers, many of whom spent their entire careers in Detroit. Fedorov was very good, but he’s not in the same tier as Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom or Gordie Howe, so this isn’t as clear-cut a call as it might seem.
Still, the Red Wings seem to be leaning toward welcoming Fedorov back, with GM Ken Holland recently acknowledging that they “probably have to have a conversation”. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s not a slamming door either.
Toe Blake, Canadiens
It feels strange to see a Montreal player on this list, given the franchise’s well-noted affinity for honoring its legends. You’d think a player who spent 13 of his 14 seasons as a Canadien during a Hall-of-Fame career would be at the front of the line. Blake won two Cups and a Hart Trophy in Montreal, and was a post-season all-star five times while playing on the famous Punch Line with Rocket Richard and Elmer Lach (both of whom have already been honored).
So why not Blake? It’s possible that his coaching career managed to overshadow his playing days; he won eight Cups behind the Habs bench, winning nearly twice as many games as he lost, and that’s probably what most of today’s fans think of when they hear his name. Still, coaches don’t have numbers, and Blake would have been worthy on a spot in the rafters even if he’d never stepped behind a bench.
— Dave Stubbs (@Dave_Stubbs) June 8, 2017
While the Canadiens have honored a league-high 15 numbers and 18 players, they still have a handful of deserving names that they haven’t got around too. (Goalie Bill Durnan is notable omission, among others.) Blake died 22 years ago, so it’s possible that his time has passed in the eyes of the organization. His No. 6 is currently being worn by Shea Weber, so this feels like a longshot to happen anytime soon.
Brad Park, Rangers and Bruins
Park is one of those great custody cases among NHL fans. Because his career was essentially split down the middle between New York and Boston (with a quick stop in Detroit), both fan bases like to claim him as their own. And he’s clearly a legend – he was a first-team all-star five times, and the only reason he never won a Norris is because he kept finishing second to some kid named Bobby Orr.
So is he a Ranger or Bruin? It’s a fun debate to have, and for what it’s worth I ruled him a Ranger a few years back. But while guys like Patrick Roy and Mark Messier have had their numbers retired by two different teams, Park hasn’t been honored by either the Bruins or Rangers. That seems odd, especially given that both teams have honored guys like Graves and Terry O’Reilly who didn’t make the Hall of Fame. Park made it in his first year of eligibility, and rightly so. He was even named on the league’s list of the 100 best players ever.
And yet somehow, he’s never had his number retired. You wonder if the number itself might be part of the problem; Park wore No. 2 in New York, which has already been honored for Brian Leetch. But plenty of teams have retired the same number for multiple players. Maybe he just didn’t last long enough with either team. Either way, many fans are surprised to hear that he hasn’t been honored in both cities, let alone either one.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.