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THN.com Blog: Retiring numbers about more than just stats

Wendel Clark watches as his number is raised to the rafters prior to game action between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.(Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Wendel Clark watches as his number is raised to the rafters prior to game action between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.(Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

Of all the hockey world critiques I’ve heard and read from my associates in the media this season, the nastiest and most uncalled for has to do with the honoring of Wendel Clark’s No. 17 in Toronto.

Granted, the timing was unfortunate. The Maple Leafs raised Clark’s No. 17 banner to the rafters on the same Nov. 22 evening the Montreal Canadiens feted Patrick Roy. Clark’s career pales in comparison to Roy’s, in terms of length, individual awards and championships. But there’s no justification in comparing the two.

I heard more than a couple of cruel commentaries that the evening was so indicative of how disparate the two Original Six franchises are: the legendary and first-class Canadiens honor perhaps the greatest goaltender of all-time, while the stuck-in-the-mud Leafs throw a bash in the trailer park for one of their unwashed heathens.

How wrong is that?

I don’t buy the belief the Leafs had no business honoring Clark’s number just because he’s not in the Hall of Fame and likely will never get there. Retiring or honoring players and their sweater numbers is all about the passionate feeling between the team, the player and the fans, not about Hall of Fame standards.

By my count, 108 players have had their sweater numbers retired or honored by the 30 NHL teams. And remarkably, 33 of them are not in the Hall of Fame, although Steve Yzerman, Brian Leetch, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille will surely get the nod when they’re first-time eligible in 2009.

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Some, like Doug Gilmour, Rogie Vachon, Brian Sutter and Mike Richter, probably deserve to be in the Hall. Save that argument for another day.

Others, such as Bill Masterton, Barry Ashbee, Michel Briere and Bill Barilko, are honored for having left the game and the brotherhood of the living, before their time.

And there’s another group, which includes Clark, who are recognized because of the impact they had on a particular city and the franchise. No one in the fifth estate has the grounds to tell an organization who shouldn’t be honored with a retired number.

Names such as Al Hamilton, Ken Daneyko, Bob Nystrom, Thomas Steen, Barclay Plager and Stan Smyl all had decent careers that fell well short of Hall of Fame standards. That shouldn’t stop the organization from honoring them for their character, leadership and personality.

And how about Yvon Labre in Washington? He was a run-of-the-mill defenseman on an expansion Capitals team that won just 137 times in 560 games over his seven seasons. But the franchise retired Labre’s No. 7 long ago because of his resilience and unconditional dedication on a bunch of dreadful teams.

And what’s so wrong with that?

Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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