The number-retirement discussion is nothing new at the Saddledome.
Just as a for-instance, there was much ado in September about the fate of Flames sweater No. 14 when the guy who vacated the garment a decade ago briefly came back to try it on for size.
Now the curious case of No. 2 has taken a nasty turn thanks to an owly opinion piece from one of the top 25 sports editors in Cape Breton. You’ll forgive Mr. Dunphy if his regional bias is showing in that little smear job.
For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of how meaningful an honour it truly is if it must be begged or bargained for. And let’s ignore the fact this numbers racket matters way too much to the people who care about it and not nearly enough to some of the people making the calls.
The real trouble here is that thanks to some questionable rafter-decorating activity by the Colorado Avalanche (who rewarded Raymond Bourque for his long weeks of service), Washington Capitals (Dale Hunter? Yvon Labre?) and Montreal Canadiens (who were once very conservative but in recent years have gotten so number retirement-happy that some of the training camp prospects have to wear the silhouettes of Sesame Street characters on the backs) the value of this once incredibly rare honour dangerously approximates the feeling one gets when they receive their Safeway savings card. As a result, it’s hard to take some of these debates seriously.
Part of the trouble is that some fans don’t know when to leave well enough alone. Dive into any Flames messageboard thread rehashing the argument about the retirement of jerseys for Al MacInnis and Theoren Fleury and invariably someone will nominate Joe Mullen, Gary Roberts, Gary Suter, Hakan Loob, Doug Gilmour, Brad McCrimmon, Jim Peplinski, Stephane Yelle, etc., etc., etc. for the same honour. Hell, there’s probably someone out there who with a straight face has declared that no one has looked right in No. 62 since Andrei Nazarov has left town.
Number-retirement was once reserved for the most special of players and in many cases, Hall of Fame credentials weren’t enough. Now it seems like any Tom, Dick or Adam Graves can have his very own sweater-hoisting night.
And if the Flames ultimately botch the MacInnis dossier in the eyes of most of their fans, is it really that big a deal? You could argue that the Flames haven’t gotten the number-retirement thing right yet. Mike Vernon, whose No. 30 from his first Calgary stint is mothballed, never won the Vezina and only once earned so much as a second all-star team nod. He isn’t in the Hall yet and may never get there. You don’t even have to delve into his oft-stormy relationship with his hometown to argue against his candidacy for the honour.
And Lanny McDonald, as beloved as he was in Calgary and as Hall of Fame-worthy his entire body of week was deemed, is not as iron-clad a case as many would assume. He ranks sixth in franchise history for goals, a mere 15th in points and finished 13th or lower in team scoring more often (four times) than he cracked the top three (he finished second twice and third once).
Comparatively speaking, the case for MacInnis is superb, even with of his mid-career departure to St. Louis. But while many fans have lambasted the Flames for keeping No. 2 in circulation (and issuing to the likes of Darryl Shannon, Alan Letang and Mike Commodore since MacInnis’ departure) we probably shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the man himself has already politely declined the honour. Perhaps he feels a sense of loyalty to his the Blues, the club which continues to employ him. Or who knows? Maybe Ol’ Chopper simply doesn’t want to be part of any club that would have someone like Vernon as a member.
Besides, at the risk of getting sappy (no, not Oleg Saprykin, whose No. 19 remains in active duty), the most important place to honour the greats of the past is in the hearts and minds of longtime fans and new fans who bother to learn about the history of their favourite squad. What hangs from the rafters of a building that the current ownership is actively trying to replace, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty inconsequential.