109 players have had their numbers retired by their team. Six of these players have had their number retired by two different franchises. (Seven other players had their numbers retired on now-defunct teams.) Retiring a number is a big deal, and I believe that the player should fulfill certain requirements to receive such an honor.
Ray Bourque was a fantastic player, one of the greatest defensemen of all time. Yet, I do not believe that his number should have been retired by the Colorado Avalanche. Obviously, nothing I say is going to change the fact that #77 is retired by the Avs, but I wanted to see if my discomfort was justified. Before I get started, I just want to say that this argument is not meant to be an attack on Bourque as a person, or Bourque’s career as a whole. This has to do with the fact that Ray Bourque is not an Avalanche, not at heart. This has to do with the fact that Bourque spent very little time in Colorado. This has to do with the fact that Bourque was given the distinguished honor of jersey retirement (the Avalanche’s very first at that), and that I do not agree with it.
I wasn’t sure if I was setting my expectations higher than they are, so I thought I would take a look at all of the players who have had their numbers retired. I believe there are three main requirements for a player’s jersey to be retired.
- The player should be one of the best in franchise history. (Not necessarily Hall of Fame, but that is a nice touch.)
- The player should have spent a significant portion of his career with the franchise.
- The player should “bleed” the team’s colors. The player should be a member of that team to his very core.
Now, it would be very tedious to go through the careers of 109 different people, and determine if they qualify as “one of the best in franchise history”. So while looking at the entire class, we will merely look at who has reached the Hall of Fame, and who hasn’t. Exhibit A:
It is easy to see that the majority of players who have their numbers retired by their team enjoyed Hall of Fame careers (65% to be exact). A player must be retired for three years in order to be eligible to be entered into the Hall of Fame. Of the eight players categorized as un-eligible, three are technically up for eligibility this year. However, the announcement of the inductees will not happen until the 26th of June. Personal speculation leads me to believe that six of the eight who have not reach eligibility will eventually reach the Hall.
The second category that I feel is important when it comes to retiring a number is the amount of time spent with the organization. So, without further ado, Exhibit B:
78% of the players with retired jersey numbers spent 10+ years with their organization. 96% spent 5+ years with their organization. A closer look at the five players who spent less than five years seems necessary.
- Bill Masterton- Bill Masterton scored the very first goal in North Stars history. Three months later, he died. During a game against the Oakland Seals, he took a check from two different players at the same time. He fell backwards, his head hitting the ice first. The trauma of the fall caused a massive brain hemorrhage, and two days later he died. This death led to intense pro-helmet lobbying, as Masterton had not been wearing a helmet while playing. Today, the Bill Masterton award is awarded to a player who exemplifies perseverance and sportsmanship.
- Michel Briere-Michel Briere had just finished his first season in the NHL, with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Many experts predicted that he would be one of the NHL’s next great superstars. On May 15, 1970 he was involved in a single car crash with two friends, during which he was ejected from the car. Briere suffered major head trauma, and he spent months in the hospital. Meanwhile, the Penguins began training camp, and their season. Ken Carson, the team trainer, made sure that they always traveled with Briere’s jersey, and his equipment bag. Shortly after the season ended, on April 13, 1971, Briere died in the hospital. Each year, the Penguins present the Michel Briere award to the best rookie on the team.
- Tim Horton-Tim Horton played in the NHL for 25 years. He was in the middle of his second year with the Buffalo Sabres when he died. Horton was traveling from Toronto back to Buffalo following a game between the Leafs and the Sabres, when he hit a turn too fast. He proceeded to hit a culvert made of steel, which flipped his car upside down. He was not wearing a seatbelt, and was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.
- Bob Gassoff-Bob Gassoff played for the St. Louis Blues for four years. During Memorial Day Weekend of 1977, he and his wife Diane attended a post-season party at the property of teammate Gary Unger. Eventually, several of the men decided to ride motorcycles around the property. Gassoff rode off the property. He did not go very far, and was on his way back to Unger’s property, when he was involved in a head-on collision with a car. Gassoff died upon impact.
- Ray Bourque-Ray Bourque was in his 19th year with the Boston Bruins. He had yet to lift the Stanley Cup, and the Bruins were currently at the bottom of their division. He requested a trade, stating that he wanted to win a Stanley Cup before his impending retirement. On March 6, 2000, Bourque was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs would lose to the Dallas Stars in the Conference Finals that season. Bourque came back to Colorado for the 2000-2001 season. He was an important part of the team, (an alternate captain). The team would go on to win the Stanley Cup, and Bourque ended his career.
The four players not named Ray Bourque, who have their number retired with <5 years in the organization, never had a chance to finish their careers. They never had a chance to become stars. They died as a member of the organization. The decision to retire their jerseys was meant to honor their life, and meant to honor what could have been.
Ray Bourque was an important part of the Cup-winning team, yes. However, he is a Boston Bruin at heart. A parade was held in Boston for one of his days with the Cup. He still lives there, and is currently a team consultant for the Bruins. He has had nothing to do with the Avalanche since the retirement of his jersey.
Players with Their Number Retired by More Than One Team
Six different players have had their number retired by more than one team. I thought my next step would be to look at each player and view their contributions to not one, but two franchises.
- Gordie Howe-“Mr. Hockey’s” number was retired by both the Detroit Red Wings and the Hartford Whalers. However, the Carolina Hurricanes (previously the Whalers) have allowed his number to enter circulation, so it is only currently retired by the Red Wings.
- Bobby Hull-Also known as “the Golden Jet”, Bobby Hull’s number is retired by both the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes and the Chicago Blackhawks. Hull spent the first 12 years of his NHL career with the Blackhawks. A statue of him stands outside of the United Center, and he is considered one of the ambassadors from the great teams of the past in Chicago. Hull spent eight years of his career in Winnipeg. (The team was a member of the WHA for the first seven, joining the NHL in his eighth year). Hull was the first major signing by the team, and helped to earn the league credibility. He is the all time leader in games played, goals, and points for the franchise as a member of the World Hockey Association.
- Wayne Gretzky-If you don’t recognize the name “Wayne Gretzky”, you must be very, very lost. This is a hockey website. And Wayne Gretzky is considered to be the greatest hockey player of all time, “The One”. Gretzky’s number is retired in Edmonton, where he played for nine years, and in Los Angeles, where he played for eight years. His number was eventually retired league-wide. However, unlike Jackie Robinson, whose number is found in every MLB ballpark, Gretzky’s number only resides in the rafters of the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers.
- Mark Messier-Another player from the Oiler’s dynasty, Messier is one of the best of all time. He spent 12 years in Edmonton with the Oilers, and 10 years in New York with the Rangers. Each franchise honored his devotion by retiring his number. He is the only player to captain teams of two different franchises to a championship.
- Patrick Roy-“Saint Patrick” is regarded as one of the best (and by many as THE best) goaltenders of all time. He spent 10 years with the Montreal Canadiens and eight with the Colorado Avalanche. He won two Stanley Cups with each franchise, and is the only player to ever win three Conn Smythe trophies (awarded to the most valuable player during the playoffs).
- Ray Bourque- One of the best defensemen of all time, Bourque spent 19 years with the Boston Bruins. He also spent a year and a half with the Colorado Avalanche, where he eventually won his first (and only) Stanley Cup Championship.
I’ve covered the first two “requirements” I listed at the beginning when it comes to jersey retirement. The third thing I listed was a player “bleeding the team’s colors.” Once more, I don’t think it prudent to look at all 109 players. I don’t know enough about each team or each player, and you would probably like to finish reading this sometime today, so I will just look at the players I do know: the Avs who find themselves immortalized.
Ray Bourque- For those of you with a short memory: Bourque spent a year and a half with the team. He was a part of the Championship team, but since his jersey retirement has not been involved with the franchise whatsoever.
Patrick Roy- Roy finished his career in Colorado, spending eight years with the team. He was the goaltender who backstopped the team to the only two Stanley Cup Championships in franchise history. He spent half of his career in Colorado. He almost came back to the team to coach, however the contractual details could not be agreed upon.
Joe Sakic- Sakic spent his entire career with the franchise, seven years in Quebec and 13 in Colorado. He spent 17 years of his career as the captain (16 as the only captain, and one as a co-captain). Sakic is considered one of the greatest captains ever, and was one of the most productive players of all time. He now serves as Executive Advisor and Alternate Governor for the team. He and his family still live in Colorado, stating that “Colorado is our home.”
Peter Forsberg- Forsberg was a member of the Avs for 12 years. Though he was often hampered by injuries, he is fourth of all-time in the league when it comes to assists per game. He played 591 of his 708 games wearing an Avalanche sweater. He still keeps an apartment in Denver, and said to his fiancé during the jersey retirement ceremony “no pressure, but if we have a son, I want him to wear the burgundy and blue.” (Coincidentally, she recently gave birth to a baby boy. I believe we all know who the Avs will pick in the first round of 2030.)
While no announcement has been made, it is generally assumed that Adam Foote’s jersey will be retired, and that Milan Hejduk will receive a similar honor once he is retired. Foote spent 17 years with the organization, and became only the second captain in Avalanche history. Hejduk will begin his 14th season with the team in October, and serves as the third captain in Avalanche history.
At the end of the day, Bourque fails to meet any of the requirements that I personally believe warrant jersey retirement. His Hall of Fame Career did not happen in Colorado, he holds no team records. He did not spend a significant portion of his career with the Avs. He never bled burgundy and blue.