November 07, 2008
On Nov. 1, Blake Wheeler of the Boston Bruins had three goals on the season and was wearing No. 42. Last night, Blake Wheeler switched his number to No. 26 ... and promptly doubled his goal-scoring total with a hat trick, enticing one female (we hope) fan to toss a bra onto the ice in celebration. (Sounds like someone may have spent some time at the Sam Adams Bru Fest before the game.)
Swapping out an awkward newbie number for the two-six, Wheeler said after the game that it was a homage to University of Minnesota alumni Thomas Vanek and Phil Kessel: "It was just always a cool number. Numbers don't really mean that much to me, but I thought it would be a good one. So far, No. 26 has worked pretty well."
Fact is that, in sports, numbers carry power. Everyone remembers Michael Jordan flipping from 23 to 45, only to adopt the two-three and help the Bulls to another three-peat. Wheeler is just the latest in the grand hockey tradition of number changes; some for better, some for worse. Here are a few of them; please use the comments to remember the thousand or so that we missed:
Cam Neely: No. 8 was hanging above the ice where Wheeler worked his magic last night, but Neely started out as No. 21 for the Vancouver Canucks. He flipped to No. 8 in Boston while defenseman Frank Simonetti had the two-one. The difference between the numbers was 13; the difference in Neely's point totals was 38.
Doug Gilmour: Killer came up with the St. Louis Blues wearing No. 18 in the 1983-84 season as a rookie. But it was all about the nine: Gilmour switched to No. 9 in the following season, and then kept that digit alive through the '39' years with the Calgary Flames and the '93' years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and other teams in his outstanding career.
Maurice "Rocket" Richard: The Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer is well-associated with the No. 9. But the icon actually wore No. 15 to start his career before switching to nine. His first child was born weighing nine pounds, and the Rocket asked for the change after her birth. Things worked out OK for him, from what we saw in that movie.
Alexandre Daigle: Giggle if you must, but know this: Once this infamous draft bust dumped the egotistic No. 91 for a string of less obvious numbers as an NHL journeyman, his attitude and work ethic changed with it. He stuck around longer than any of us believed he would.
Glenn Hall and Martin Brodeur: Two classic cases of goalies coming up to the NHL with one number before making another iconic. Hall was No. 22 with the Detroit Red Wings before owning the No. 1 in a Hall of Fame career. Brodeur wore No. 29 on a glorious Christmas tree uniform before becoming No. 30 -- and what some saiy was the best goaltender in the world for the New Jersey Devils.
Pavel Bure: Bure was iconic as No. 10 for the Vancouver Canucks, but wanted to change that number for quite a while. Once Alexander Mogilny joined the team as No. 89, Bure was given the blessing to shift to No. 96 in honor of the year he could become a Canadian citizen. Bure was limited to 15 games that season; in 2000-01, he scored 59 goals for the Florida Panthers as No. 10.
Paul Coffey: You can't wear No. 77 in Boston, as Coffey discovered. So his meek, 18-game NHL swan song came wearing the No. 74.
Bernie Nicholls: Nichols was a legendary offensive talent with the Los Angeles Kings, finally settling on No. 9 as his digit of choice. It's the number he wore while starring for the New York Rangers, too. He switched to No. 19 for two middling seasons in New Jersey, before reclaiming his touch with the Chicago Blackhawks as
No. 9. (Ed. Note: As was pointed out in the comments, Bernie did not wear No. 9 in Chicago, although Hockey Reference claims he did. This is for a pretty good reason ... and another guy who changed sweater numbers, too.)
Brett Hull: Finally, an interesting case study. He wore No. 15 with the Calgary Flames, but didn't become a star until he wore No. 16 for the St. Louis Blues.
When he came to the Dallas Stars, he dropped the 16 for No. 22, as Pat Verbeek was wearing No. 16. He won a Stanley Cup wearing '22,' which was captured forever along with his skate in the crease. With the Detroit Red Wings, Hull won a second Cup wearing No. 17.
For Hull: No. 16 was great for individual achievement, but couldn't bring him a Cup. Creepy.
We're sure we missed some big number changes and changes of fortune. Got any more?
And who will be the next struggling player to don new digits and earn himself a flying bra?