Like Mess, these 10 deserve some pomp, circumstance
Mark Messier, the unparalleled combination of sublime skill and merciless ferocity, is going back to his roots, to Edmonton, where the No. 11 burst into prominence.
The Messier tribute at Rexall Place on Tuesday night will be the latest in a spate of jersey retirement ceremonies that tend to drag on longer than Oscar telecasts or particularly contentious video reviews back at NHL headquarters in Toronto.
These days, you can't turn around without the day's highlight reel containing a misty-eyed future Hall of Famer watching a Zdeno Chara-sized sweater being cranked up to the ceiling of some building. Remember Messier's shedding a few tears during his first ceremony at Madison Square Garden last season?
Within the past few months, Mike Vernon's No. 30 went up to the rafters in the Pengrowth Saddledome; also Ken Dryden's iconic No. 29 and Serge Savard's No. 18 at the Bell Centre, Steve Yzerman's No. 19 at The Joe, Brett Hull's No. 16 at the Scottrade Center, and Luc Robitaille's trademark No. 20 at the Staples Center.
This sort of honoring of iconic individuals is invariably a tricky affair. Outside of a Hockey Hall of Fame nod, the retiring of a sweater is the highest accolade a player can wish for. But who makes the grade and who doesn't? From a franchise standpoint, how many is too many?
There are difficulties surrounding great players from franchises that have relocated. Well-turned-out hockey buffs in the Lone Star State, for instance, wouldn't know Dino Ciccarelli if they ran over him in their stretch limo. But they certainly remember his goal-scoring antics in Minnesota.
The retiring of jerseys is, on the whole, a grand thing for the game, lending history and depth to franchises while celebrating unforgettable individuals. A handful of current players, so tied to certain uniforms, are only a retirement announcement away from such adulation: Martin Brodeur in New Jersey, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Mike Modano in Dallas, Rob Blake in Los Angeles, Chris Chelios in Chicago (and maybe Montreal, too) and Joe Sakic in Colorado.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, of course, ridiculously don't retire numbers, choosing only to "honor" players. (Watching Matt Stajan trooping around in the No. 14 made famous by Dave Keon is enough to make Leafs fans of a certain generation pop blood vessels in their temples.) Oh, well. At least that means Tie Domi's publicity-shy No. 28 will never hang atop the ACC.
In the spirit of the trend, and with an eye toward Tuesday's pregame party in Edmonton, here's a subjective list of 10 other retired players fully deserving of the same sort of pomp and circumstance:
Larry Robinson, No. 19, Montreal Canadiens
It is a legendary, almost mythic, lineup: Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Henri "Pocket Rocket" Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Howie Morenz, Dickie Moore, Savard, Dryden. One name, Larry Robinson's, is conspicuous by its absence, even in such illustrious company. His inclusion at the gates of Hab Heaven is imminent, but still overdue. With more than 1,200 games in the fabled bleu, blanc et rouge, nearly 900 points and five Stanley Cups, Robinson was a big, physical presence who helped eradicate the Broad Street Bullies era from hockey. He still owns the top two point-scoring seasons by any defenseman in Habs history (85 points in 1976-77 and, amazingly, almost a decade later, 82 in 1985-86). Both seasons, by the way, were Stanley Cup campaigns.
Guy Lapointe, No. 5. Montreal Canadiens
The third member of the Big Three on Montreal's blue line alongside Savard and Robinson, Lapointe was the most offensively gifted of the trio. The winner of five Stanley Cups during the '70s, Lapointe was one of Canada's best performers during the legendary 1972 Summit Series. Over 12 seasons, he had 572 points, making him a worthy addition to the catalogue of Canadiens legends.
Brian Leetch and Brad Park, No. 2, New York Rangers
It's inevitable Brian Leetch will join Messier, Rod Gilbert, Eddie Giacomin and Mike Richter in the pantheon of Madison Square Garden hockey greats, probably as soon as next season. So smooth and adept and dynamic with the puck, Leetch was a two-time Norris Trophy winner and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1994, when the Rangers ended all that pain. He played 15 seasons in Broadway Blue and served as captain for four of them.
And while the Rangers are at it they can add baby-faced Brad Park, a superb offensive defenseman whose only crime was to come along in the Bobby Orr era. Joe Frazier was a great heavyweight, but he was no Muhammad Ali. Tony Bennett is a marvelous singer, but, by his own admission, is no Frank Sinatra. Brad Park can feel their pain. He spent seven seasons on Broadway, leading the Rangers to the 1972 Cup finals, where, predictably, they were defeated by Orr and the Bruins.
(In case you're wondering, the precedent of one number being retired twice has already been set in Montreal with a pair of No. 12s, Moore and Yvan Cournoyer. The Rangers could do worse than follow suit for two of the finest defensemen in their history.)
Theo Fleury, No. 14, Calgary Flames
Small, fiery, insolent, brilliant, damaged. The image of the tiny terror at Northlands Coliseum in the spring of 1991, having scored after stealing the puck from Messier to send the Flames' playoff series against the Oilers back to Calgary for a Game 7, remains an iconic moment. Love him or hate him, Fleury still holds the franchise records for goals (364) and points (830).
Mike Gartner, No. 11, Washington Capitals
The second overall choice in the 1979 draft, Gartner symbolized scoring punch in the way Rod Langway did efficient defense and Dale Hunter unconquerable anarchy. Think about the stats: He scored 30 or more goals in nine of his 10 seasons with the Capitals, hitting a high of 50 in 1984-85. Eighteen years after he was dealt to Minnesota, Gartner, the quiet assassin, still ranks second on franchise lists in goals, assists and points. It took Peter Bondra 14 seasons to surpass what Gartner accomplished in 10.
Kevin Lowe, No. 4, Edmonton Oilers
Maybe this current GM thing is what's holding the Oilers back. But, certainly, no one has contributed more to the Oilers organization on as many levels as Lowe, who was the quiet, unsung defensive linchpin of those Wayne Gretzky-Messier-Jari Kurri-Grant Fuhr-Paul Coffey outfits that revolutionized the game. No one played more regular-season games in the colors than Lowe with 1,037. He won five Stanley Cups as an Oiler.
Pavel Bure, No. 10, Vancouver Canucks
He may never be forgiven in Vancouver for walking out on the Canucks in the fall of 1998 after demanding a trade, a move that saw Bure branded a deserter and a traitor. To date, only the Stan Smyl's No. 12 has been retired by the Canucks. For sheer entertainment value, for edge-of-the-seat excitement, no one from his era could compare with Bure. "The Russian Rocket" made fans gasp with delight. The Calder Trophy winner in 1992, Bure piled up 478 points in 428 games on Canada's West Coast, the only major producer in franchise history to average over a point per game. A two-time 60-goal scorer for the Canucks, Bure compiled seven seasons in Vancouver that were worth a dozen, or more, from lesser lights. Bure's family made precious watches for the Russian czars from 1815 to 1917. Bad ending or not, he's the crown jewel in the Canucks' timepiece of memory.
Red Kelly, No. 4, Detroit Red Wings
Ol' Red and the Wings parted on less-than-friendly terms. Kelly played with a broken ankle during the 1959 playoffs and apparently enraged GM Jack Adams by disclosing the injury to a reporter midway through the next season. In 12 seasons wearing the Winged Wheel, three of them as Detroit's captain, the skilled defenseman collected a Norris Trophy, three Lady Byng trophies, eight regular-season league titles, four Stanley Cups and six All-Star nods. (And he went on to win Cups in Toronto, too.) There's no doubt Kelly's No. 4 belongs next to contemporaries Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio. Its absence is a grievous oversight.
Al MacInnis, No. 2, Calgary Flames
The Blues may have beaten the Flames to the punch, but MacInnis' jersey belongs. He won a Conn Smythe in Calgary during that memorable spring of 1989. He used raw talent to become an accomplished, Hall of Fame-caliber defenseman, not just a guy with an elephant gun for a shot. He remains the Flames' franchise leader in games played (803) and assists (609).
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.