The notion of retirement has been around since the 18th century when life expectancy began to increase beyond an average of 26-40 years of age, and since then various factors have led to where we are with it present day, but basically the idea was that at some point in their careers, age and health factors were a drag on an employee’s productivity and it served employers to get them out of the workplace in favour of younger replacements. Even if they had to pay them to do so.
The world of professional sports is no different. Though a fair bit earlier than in many other fields, at some point athletes find themselves in that position where they just aren’t as effective as their more youthful or more healthy counterparts. Some players’ careers are cut short, and some run longer than most, but the average age of retirement in the NHL falls in the 35-40 range.
Many players’ retirements come and go with little fanfare, though those who have had longer careers, or who have endeared themselves to the league and its fans, often get fonder farewells. A small subset within that second group of players get special send-offs, by having their jersey number retired so no other player on that team may wear it from then on out.
The first instance of retiring a number, in any professional sport, was that of Toronto Maple Leafs player Ace Bailey, back in 1934. Baily led the Leafs in scoring in two consecutive years, falling one point shy of making it three consecutive the year after, and scored the cup winning goal for them in 1932.
Bailey’s career came to a rough an sudden end in December of 1933. During a game at the Boston Garden, Bailey’s teammate King Clancy laid out Boston Bruins player Eddie Shore with a hard hit. After getting up, Shore mistakenly went after Bailey thinking he had been responsible. Shore hit Bailey from behind, who went down hard and fractured his skull on the ice. While he lay on the ice convulsing, Bailey’s teammate Red Horner one-punched Shore, knocking him out cold. Bailey would come out of a coma ten days later and make a full recovery, but he never returned to play professionally after the incident. Shore received a 16-game suspension, handed down by league president Frank Calder.
Not only was Toronto’s retirement of Bailey’s number 6 jersey the first ever in the NHL, it was done so by then Maple Leafs owner, Conn Smythe, at an All-Star charity game two months later, in February of 1934, to raise money for Bailey and his family - the first ever NHL All-Star game, which became an annual event 13 years later.
Currently the league has 131 numbers retired by various teams, with only one retired league-wide (guess who). Original Six teams Toronto, Montreal and Boston account for a combined thirty percent of that total, each having more than ten numbers retired. Other teams have a handful or more of retired numbers, for example the New York Islanders have eight, Edmonton and Buffalo have seven, Vancouver and Detroit have six each, and Colorado five. Some teams in the league have not more than a few, or one or two retired numbers..
Currently only four teams have not retired any number (Columbus, Nashville, San Jose, Winnipeg) while two other teams have retired only honorary numbers (Minnesota retired number 1 in its inaugural season to represent the fans, while Vegas retired number 58 to honour the victims of the mass shooting in their inaugural season).
Prior to last season there was a third team that had not retired the number of a former player - the Florida Panthers. The Panthers had retired jersey numbers in honor of Bill Torrey (#93) and Wayne Huizenga (#37), but on March 7th, 2020 Roberto Luongo became the first Panthers player in team history to have his number lifted to the rafters.
With 11 of his 19 NHL seasons played in a Panthers jersey in two stints split over the start, and end, of his NHL career, Luongo’s jersey was hoisted aloft. The franchise record in net for games played (572), wins (230), and shutouts (38). Luongo made 16086 saves on 17501 shots in the Panthers net for a .920 save percentage. Roberto was well deserving of such an honour.
With his jersey cemented firmly in place, it’s time to look ahead, at the current crop of talent, those in the pipeline, and those yet to come, wondering about who’s number will be the next to join Luongo’s in Florida Panthers history.
Is the next Panther to have their jersey retired currently playing for the team or in the farm system?
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