Given that we are in the dog days of summer, I’ve decided to write an article on one of my personal pet peeves concerning the Montreal Canadiens. Specifically, their random use of numbers on backs of their player jerseys.
On most NHL teams, players are typically identified with the numbers 1 through 30. When the Habs are on the ice though, you rarely see such numbers on the roster. For the most part, many wear an NFL/CFL football type of number.
Of course, the main culprit behind this annoying occurrence is Montreal’s incredibly storied history. This is one of the minor drawbacks of having so many retired Hall of Fame jerseys hanging on its rafters.
Now the Habs could go the Toronto Maple Leafs’ route and simply just continue using the numbers of their greatest players while acknowledging them individually through the use of banners. This might be a good idea for our less lustrous rivals on the other end of the 401, but not for the Canadiens. No offence Leaf fans, but Mats Sundin, for instance, as good as he was, was no Jean Beliveau or Maurice Richard – not even close.
No. The retired numbers of Hab greats need to be kept retired because virtually every one of them belonged to a generational talent.
But what could be a workaround?
Sometimes, management has tried doubling-up on the numbers of former Canadiens icons. For example, when Serge Savard was the team’s general manager, he gave Stephane Richer the number 44 hoping that Richer would become the next Jean Beliveau. That did not exactly pan out but a simple repetition of 4 was a good idea nonetheless.
Likewise, Savard and subsequent GMs would often give the number 27 to offensively gifted players as an homage to star forward but retirement unworthy (at least for the Habs) Frank Mahovlich. Likewise, I believe that the Canadiens gave rookie Ryan Poehling the number 25 in his debut because he might become the next Jacques Lemaire.
Overall, though, it seems as if Montreal’s GMs have either randomly assigned jersey numbers or allowed players to pick their own. This policy needs to end. Instead, the Canadiens should assign rookie players’ numbers based on a year that this franchise has won a Stanley Cup.
Why have rookies wear meaningless NFL/CFL football like double numbers when so much more meaning can be added whenever they don the bleu, blanc, et rouge?
Such a policy would keep all newcomers and current players’ eyes on the proverbial Stanley Cup prize. It would also help further promote a winning culture by instilling within them an enhanced appreciation of the Habs’ unmatched glorious past. In addition, it would also both remind fans and opposing players of Montreal’s special standing in the NHL community.
Let’s also take into consideration that most of the Habs’ faithful only watch TV broadcasts. They rarely get a glimpse of the team’s historic banners. Seeing rookies wear these meaningful numbers though, will constantly act as moving billboards of the Canadiens’ incredible achievements.
In terms of Stanley Cup years, the jersey numbers that they can use – excluding Henry Richard’s retired number 16 – are: 24, 30, 31, 44, 46, 53, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 65, 66, 68, 69, 71, 73, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 86, and 93. This gives the Canadiens 23 numbers to work with. Less than a handful are currently being used. Each one can eventually be phased in as standard team policy.
What’s truly astounding is if the Montreal Canadiens chose to do so, they could dress an entire roster, including their game-day scratches, with a number corresponding to the years this franchise has won Stanley Cups! This is an embarrassment of historic riches.
Given the upcoming stable of promising young talent that this team has recently amassed, wouldn’t it be nice to see the likes of Nick Suzuki, Ryan Poehling and Cole Caufield wearing more meaningful numbers on the backs of the sweaters?
Many years ago, as a young pup in the media, I remember writing an email to the Montreal Gazette’s legendary Red Fisher about this idea. In gruff, Fisher like fashion he simply replied,
“They’ll never do this.” and left it at that.
With all due respect to the late great Mr. Fisher, why not?
If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you will notice that I often argue about taking care of the “little things” because they all add up. Championships are won by fractional differences. Any edge that an organization has over its competitors needs to be exploited.
In a 31, soon to be 32 team league, no NHL franchise, certainly in most of our lifetimes, will be able to match Montreal’s incredible achievements. Continually reminding players, coaches and fans on the importance of excellence is always a good thing. New recruits must feel that they belong to something special, that is, Le Tricolore.
The past matters and should never be forgotten. There’s a treasure trove of jersey numbers waiting to be worn. And as the expression goes, “If you got it, flaunt it.”
In this unique regard then, the Montreal Canadiens’ new motto for its rookie players should be,
“From failing ‘numbers’ we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”