Richard, Howe, Hull among No. 9-wearing NHL legends
Now we're going to take a look at uniform numbers from a different angle: Which one has had the greatest collection of talent. It's a difficult choice, because players from different positions traditionally were assigned certain numbers.
In hockey, there are numbers that reflect your position. If you wear No. 1, 30, 31 or 35, you're probably a goaltender. Wear 2, 3 or 4 and you're likely a defenseman; 7, 9 and 10 are among those often given to top-level forwards.
For decades, uniform numbers basically ran 1 through 30, with goaltenders at the front and the back. Top defensemen tended to have the lower single-digit numbers, star forwards the higher ones like 7 and 9. Then No. 31 and No. 35 surfaced, mostly for goaltenders after teams started carrying more than two. The New York Rangers broke the mold in the late 1970s when they gave Phil Esposito No. 77 (No. 7, which he had worn in Boston, was owned by Rod Gilbert, himself a future Hall of Fame member).
That opened the door for all kinds of numbers. Wayne Gretzky, who took No. 99 as a kid because he couldn't get the No. 9 worn by his idol, Gordie Howe, brought it into the NHL; it became so identified with him that the NHL has retired it throughout the League. Other players also became identified with their numbers -- for example, Mario Lemieux with No. 66, Martin Brodeur with No. 30 and Sidney Crosby with No. 87.
In all, there have been 101 numbers worn by NHL players -- everything from 1 to 99, as well as 0 and 00. Of those 101, 37 have had at least one member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who spent most or all of his career wearing that number. But all numbers are not created equal -- some have a disproportionate share of stars and Hall of Famer members who have worn them.
So which number is the "greatest?" We've identified four for which there's a case as the best ever. See if you agree with us.
The case for No. 9
No. 9 belongs to forwards, and especially wings. Ian White, who wore No. 9 with San Jose after a late-season trade, is one of the few defensemen to don the number.
Of the 15 guys in the Hall of Fame who wore No. 9 for a substantial time in their careers, the vast majority were wings. Only two, Norm Ullman and Ted Kennedy, both with Toronto, spent their careers as centers -- and Ullman wore No. 7 during the first half of his career while playing with Detroit.
At one time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, five of the six players wearing No. 9 -- Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Johnny Bucyk, Andy Bathgate and Dick Duff -- were future Hall of Fame entrants. Richard retired in 1960, but Bobby Hull switched from No. 16 to No. 9 a few years later to again make it five future HOF members wearing the same number (no one wore No. 9 again in Montreal, where it hangs from the rafters at the Bell Centre).
Young players who aspire to follow in the footsteps of Howe and Richard had better hope they wind up with the right club: Eight of the 30 teams have retired No. 9, the most of any uniform number; Dallas figures to join the group not long after Mike Modano officially calls it a career. (Toronto lists No. 9 an "honored number" but still allows current players to wear it; Clarke MacArthur did so last season).
The number of elite-level Hall of Fame members gives No. 9 a strong case as the greatest:
Maurice Richard (wore No. 9 for Montreal) -- "The Rocket" was the dominant scorer of his day, as well as the symbol of hockey in French Canada. He was the first player to score 50 goals in a season and the first to get 50 in 50 games (both in 1944-45), the first player to reach the 400- and 500-goal marks for his career. When he retired in 1960, he owned eight Stanley Cup rings and was the NHL's all-time leader with 544 goals.
Gordie Howe (wore No, 9 for Detroit and Hartford) -- There will never be another player like "Mr. Hockey," who broke all of Richard's career scoring marks and set a host of records that stood until Wayne Gretzky's arrival. Howe's combination of skill and durability was unprecedented: For 20 consecutive seasons, he was among the top five in the NHL in scoring. He had 103 points as a 40-year-old in 1968-69 and returned to the NHL in 1979-80 after six seasons in the World Hockey Association by scoring 15 goals and playing 80 games as a 51-year-old.
Bobby Hull (wore No. 9 for Chicago) -- The Golden Jet actually wore No. 16 and No. 7 for the first few seasons of his NHL career, but had his biggest seasons wearing No. 9 -- including his record-setting 54-goal performance in 1965-66 and a 58-goal season in '68-69. He also wore No. 9 while scoring 303 goals in 411 games with Winnipeg in the World Hockey Association and for 18 games with the Jets after they joined the NHL in 1979. Ironically, he finished his career wearing No. 16 after being traded to Hartford -- because no one, not even Hull, was going to take No. 9 from Howe.
Johnny Bucyk (wore No. 9 with Boston) -- "The Chief" made No. 9 his own in Boston, where he played the last 21 of his 23 NHL seasons after being acquired from Detroit. Bucyk was a good player for a long time on some bad Boston teams, then became the oldest player to reach 50 goals when he fired home 51 as a 35-year-old in 1970-71. He had 40 goals at age 37, 83 points in 78 games as a 40-year-old in 1975-76 and retired with 556 goals and 1,369 points.
Mike Modano (wore No. 9 for Minnesota/Dallas) -- Modano will finish his career with the most goals and points by a U.S.-born player. He averaged better than a point a game during a 12-season span from 1991-2003 during an era when the average goals per game dropped by more than 25 percent. Few players have been more identified with one franchise than Modano, who spent all but the most recent of his 22 NHL seasons with the North Stars/Stars.