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How should the Flames handle retired jerseys going forward?

This topic popped up out of nowhere on a radio segment last week (skip to about 1:42:50) when I asked: what jersey should the Flames retire next? It’s a fun question that became a whole lot more relevant when Calgary retired Jarome Iginla’s #12 in March 2019. Theoren Fleury and Miikka Kiprusoff are easy, deserving choices that immediately come to mind. But what about the two players previously honoured using the team’s “Forever a Flame” program? Let’s dive into what has become a pretty nuanced conversation.

A brief history

The Flames retired Lanny McDonald’s #9 on Mar. 17, 1990, less than a year after their Stanley Cup win over Montreal. Lanny’s jersey remained the only one hanging in the Saddledome’s rafters for nearly two decades. Then, on Feb. 6, 2007, Calgary retired Mike Vernon’s #30, recognizing the second member of the 1989 Stanley Cup team. Things changed after that. The team introduced Forever a Flame in 2012 to replace retired jerseys as the team’s highest honour. Al MacInnis was the program’s first inductee when he was honoured on Feb. 27, 2012. A little over two years later, Joe Nieuwendyk was recognized in a ceremony on Mar. 7, 2014. Forever a Flame was met with anything but universal approval. Many believed it was not a high enough honour for players like MacInnis and Nieuwendyk. Then, five years later, things changed again. When Iginla announced his retirement in July 2018, the conversation about how Calgary should handle the most important player in franchise history started heating up. Could the Flames really forego retiring Iginla’s jersey and risk #12 being worn by another player down the road? In the end, the team made the right choice and retired Iginla’s jersey in front of a sold out crowd on Mar. 2, 2019.

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Going retro

Retiring Iginla’s jersey has given the Flames an opportunity to alter course on MacInnis and Nieuwendyk. While I believe Forever a Flame is a worthy program to continue (more on that later), #2 and #25 should both be retired. The fact Brandon Bollig, Freddie Hamilton, and Nick Shore have worn Nieuwendyk’s number SINCE he was honoured doesn’t compute. Thankfully, MacInnis’s number hasn’t been touched since 2004. The concept of retiring MacInnis’s jersey is anything but controversial, but I’ll quickly make the case.

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MacInnis is the Flames franchise leader in assists, is third in points, fourth in games played, and seventh in goals. Overall, MacInnis played parts of 13 seasons in Calgary, and won the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy in 1989. He’s also the all-time franchise leader in playoff points at 102, which is 50 more than second place Paul Reinhart. MacInnis is the best defenceman in Flames history and that deserves a retired jersey. Personally, I don’t believe the case for Nieuwendyk is overly controversial, either. However, I’m aware there are some who aren’t quite as on board.

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All-time, Nieuwendyk sits third on the franchise list for goals and fourth in points. He started his career with two straight 50-goal seasons, won a Calder Trophy in 1988 and was an integral part of the team’s Stanley Cup win a year later. Nieuwendyk is also Calgary’s last bona fide number one centre, with no disrespect intended to the likes of Craig Conroy, Daymond Langkow, or Sean Monahan. The case against Nieuwendyk stems from the fact he played more games away from the Flames than with them (680 vs. 577). The same is true with McDonald, though. At 492, Lanny played fewer games in Calgary than Nieuwendyk and also spent more time away from the organization (619 games) than with it. I firmly believe both deserve to have their jerseys hanging at the Saddledome. Making this change isn’t rocket science, either. The ceremonies for both MacInnis and Nieuwendyk have been done and were awesome. It’s as simple as making an announcement in the next few years that #2 and #25 are now retired. When the Flames open their new arena, part of the hoopla could be raising those numbers to the rafters, potentially with MacInnis and Nieuwendyk in attendance. Boom…”problem” solved.

The next ones

Some don’t love the way Fleury’s tenure ended in Calgary. Others don’t agree with his political views. None of that should get in the way of two honours he deserves: a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the retirement of his #14. This isn’t a hot take, so again, I’ll only briefly make Fleury’s case, because it’s pretty iron clad.

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Fleury is number two all-time in goals and points, and sits third in assists. Before Iginla established himself, Fleury was Calgary’s superstar and led the team in scoring for seven of nine seasons between 1990-91 and 1998-99. Fleury is one of the most important players in team history and the fact no one has worn #14 since speaks loudly to that fact. Just as obvious is the case to retire Kiprusoff’s #34.

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Kiprusoff is the franchise leader in all of the categories above, and by a massive margin in both wins and shutouts. Opinions vary era to era, but Kiprusoff is either the best goaltender in Flames history or number two behind Vernon. Regardless, retiring his number is something that needs to happen in the near future.

The future

Remember when I said Forever a Flame is worthy of continuing? I honestly believe it’s a good program if it works alongside a jersey retirement program. The very best and most important players in team history should have their numbers retired. But what about those that were really good and really important? I really like what the Vancouver Canucks have been doing for the last decade. Kirk McLean and Alex Burrows shouldn’t have their jerseys retired like Trevor Linden and Stan Smyl. Instead, they’ve been inducted into Vancouver’s “Ring of Honour” with their own ceremonies and permanent displays at Rogers Arena. It’s a great companion and similar to how Calgary should use Forever a Flame going forward. Go through the decades and you’ll find tons of players worth honouring. Craig Conroy. Kent Nilsson. Gary Roberts. Val Bure. Robyn Regehr. Tim Hunter. Matt Stajan. Jamie Macoun. Hakan Loob. Gary Suter. Paul Reinhart. Joel Otto. Jim Peplinski. Any one of those names have a solid case to be honoured for what they did in a Flames jersey without actually retiring their number. It turns into a really fun conversation. And that leaves us with players still active in Calgary. Has anyone built, or started to build, a case for a retired jersey? Guys like Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, and Johnny Gaudreau are still in their 20’s, so any talk of that is crazy premature. Where we do have a much more complete picture, though, is with captain Mark Giordano. Already second on the all-time games played list at 893, Giordano needs four more full seasons to surpass Iginla’s record of 1,219. At seven seasons and counting, Gio is also the second longest-serving captain in franchise history, behind Iginla at nine. It’s an interesting debate knowing Giordano’s story, Norris Trophy, and tenure as captain. We can have that debate another time, though.