The Great One started off life wearing the number 9, in honour of his hockey hero, Gordie Howe. When he was drafted 3rd overall by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the 1977 OMJHL draft, the number 9 was already taken by Brian Gualazzi. Coach Muzz MacPherson made the suggestion that Wayne should wear number 99 instead. He agreed and the rest is history.
The first use of jersey numbers in ice hockey can officially be tracked back to the 1911/1912 season, where players in the National Hockey Association (the predecessor of the NHL!) required numbered armbands. The Patrick brothers who founded the PCHA put numbers on players’ backs so they could sell programs in which the players were listed by their numbers.
The first ever retired jersey was that of Ace Bailey, whose #6 was retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1934 following a career-ending fight with Eddie Shore during a game against the Boston Bruins in 1933. To make matters worse, the fight happened because Shore mistook Bailey for another player!
But why do players choose the numbers they do? Is there any meaning behind it?
Well, yes, for many there are, but it’s not as black and white as it was their hero’s number, or their birthday. We spoke to numerous players at all different levels and found out that it could be simply their first ever number or it could be to do with Greek mythology!
From NHL to EIHL to Rec to juniors – Here’s what the players themselves had to say:
Evan Ritt (Guildford Flames): “Number 39 was just given to me. It was my first ice hockey number ever, I wore it from when I was 7 to when I went to play juniors”
Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers): “My first development camp with the Flyers they gave me 79, just because the rookies get the higher numbers. Connor (a 7-year-old autistic boy) and Cavan (6-year-old) were there since Day One when I was in Everett. I remember those two kids ever since I started playing there.
“When I came back to Everett, Connor was there waiting for me, like he usually did, and he was yelling at me trying to show me his new jersey. He had a Flyers’ jersey with Hart No. 79 on the back. When I saw that, I decided I had to stick with No. 79, because there is a No. 79 out there.
“I probably would have stuck with No. 70, because that was my number in juniors. But because Connor had the Hart No. 79 Flyers’ jersey on, I realized I couldn’t change the jersey number now. I didn’t think Connor would have been too happy if I had the wrong jersey with the wrong number on the back. Because it was Connor, he was one of our biggest fans and it was really cool how much love Connor and Cavan gave us. To them, they’re 6, 7 years old, they look up to us. I couldn’t let them down.”
Patrick Killeen (MK Lightining): “I have no real reason for wearing my current number. I’ve worn a couple other numbers but I’ve always enjoyed wearing number 1. Although, next season I would like to switch to number 32 because it’s my son’s birthday (March 2nd). I never really had a reason to care about which number I wore. I just liked #1 and how traditional it was and how simple and clean it looked on a Jersey. I was given #1 in the OHL because you had to wear a traditional goalie number (1, 30 or 31). I was given 1 because the other two were taken already. When I turned pro I didn’t really see any reason to change it. Although I wore #40 for a few months in Orlando. When I went to college I went back to #1 and then kept it so far throughout my pro career.”
Matt Ginn (Manchester Storm): “I don’t have any cool reason really. Wore it growing up playing minor hockey and that’s about it.”
Calle Ackered (Guildford Flames): “15 was my first choice but when I saw that number was retired in Guildford, I had number 8 as my second choice because I had that number when I was very young playing football and had a lot of success. I really like number 8 now!”
Belfast Junior Giants netminder, Blaze Shields-Pettitt chose number 33 in homage to the ex-Edinburgh Caps netminder Kevin Forshall.
The junior system stateside is slightly different than the UK in regards to player numbers, as explained by Ashley, our resident Anaheim Ducks writer:
“I’m sat talking to my nephew – He originally wore number 23 as it’s his birthday but he was then moved to number 3 because he moved to top line and there’s a weird rule on junior jerseys and lines apparently. When he plays up for the U11’s he wears number 32 because it’s his birthday backwards.
“He moved from number 3 to number 9 for the u9’s…because he grew out of the number 3!”
Our resident Dundee CTP writer, Jaq Inglis: “I wore 8 because it was my Maw’s field hockey number when she played. Hasn’t served me that well though!”
And Jaq isn’t alone in choosing a number in honour of his mother – He’s joined by NHL superstar Alex Ovechkin! Tatyana Ovechkina wore 8 as a point guard for the Russian women’s basketball team that won gold medals at the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics.
NHL superstar Sidney Crosby wears the number 87 because his birthday is on the 7th August 1987 (8/7/87 in American!)
Mhairi Dobbin (Caledonia Steel Queens): “I wear 30 because I wanted a classic goalie number, but thought 1 was too intense – didn’t wanna give the impression I was any good!”
Sam Duggan (Cardiff Devils): “There’s no real reason I guess, it’s just always been my favourite number for some reason, and I’ve always worn it if I’ve been able too!”
IceTime TV commentator Olli Hampson: “I wore # 17 in juniors because my favourite player at the time was Russ Romaniuk, and currently where # 92 because I’m unoriginal and it helps me remember my year of birth better!”
Nate Schmidt (Vegas Golden Knights): “I went to Washington for my first development camp as an unsigned free agent. All of us guys in that boat, we got high numbers. From 85 to like 98. They gave me 88 and, to be honest, it was a little high for my liking. But I wasn’t going to say anything. Then, when I signed with Washington and went to camp, it was there in my stall. So, I was 88. And now I’ve just always worn it. It’s funny but we get attached to numbers. Now it’s part of what defines me as a hockey player.
“Some of my buddies call me 8s. And my godson Clark, he only knows me as 8-8. He sees me on TV and says, ‘8-8.’ So, even if I wanted to change, I can’t now!”
Ex-NHL’er Steve Heinze wore number 57, purely because of the famous Heinze ketchup’s 57 varieties!
Then there’s Jordin TooToo… And yes, he did wear number 22!
And of course there’s the number reverse, which is exactly how Steve Stamkos decided to wear the number 91 jersey. His intention was to wear the number 19 jersey that his heroes Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman wore, but when he arrived at the Sarnia Sting and realised the number was taken, he flipped the numbers and it’s stuck ever since.
Only 1 player in the NHL has ever worn the number 0 – Hartford Whalers defenseman Neil Sheehy in 1988. When his family emigrated from Ireland, their name was O’Sheehy. Neil figured it was the best way to get the O’ back on his back.
There’s political reasons behind some numbers. The most famous of which would be Jaromir Jagr. The Czech winger donned the number 68 in honour of the “Prague Spring” in 1968, where democratic reform movement tried to free Czechoslovakia from Soviet domination.
Adam Goss (MK Lightning): “Sure I’ll tell you the story but it’s kinda weird and long. In university I took a few electives in Greek and Norse history as part of the core curriculum (it was a liberal arts university) and through that I really became fascinated with the mythology part. So outside of class I took a deep dive into the stuff and kinda empathised with the people and loved their god culture where people would pay tribute to all these different gods.
“This led me to start doing it in hockey because some of them relate pretty well to sport and going to battle and that stuff. So now I pay tribute to 8 Greek (Olympian) gods and 4 Norse gods before a game, if I’m playing. Hence the number 84…. Could’ve been 48 though I guess!”
Former Panthers, MK & Blaze netminder Miika Wiikman has always worn 20 and because it was Ed Belfours number.
Peterborough Phantoms Jordan Marr & Glasgow Clan’s Joel Rumpel both wear number 33 because it was Patrick Roy’s number
Brett Perlini (Nottingham Panthers): “My Favourite number is actually 11 because my dad wore it in Guildford and had it retired. I would look up to the rafters every time I was on the ice as a kid, and see PERLINI 11 up there and I thought that was really cool. When 11 is unavailable I then go to number 9. A lot of hockey greats wore this number like Howe and Gretzky (before 99 obviously) so I think it represents a scorers number and that’s what I try to be”
So from paying homage to their favourite players or even parents – From having to choose a different number if their first pick was taken, to political reasons – From having a number chosen for you to choosing a number which sounds like your name – Most numbers do have a backstory.
And there are so many more stories out there. If you know of any good ones, let us know! And be sure to speak to your favourite players and ask them the next time you see them, because it’s a personal choice which they made and wear proudly in front of us each week.
Photo credits: Scott Wiggins Photography, John Uwins Photography, Guildford Flames, MK Lighting, IHUK, NHL.com