Thursday, May 12, 2011

Wearing Number...

As a youngster, I was fascinated by the sweater numbers players selected or were assigned once they cracked a National Hockey League roster. Like most kids growing up in the Original Six era, I discovered number 9 to be very popular with both fans and players. There was Gordie Howe (Detroit), Bobby Hull (Chicago), Andy Bathgate (New York), Johnny Bucyk (Boston), Dick Duff (Toronto) and Rocket Richard (the last Hab to wear #9), who all wore hockey's royal number.

All the low, one-digit numbers, were usually distributed to defencemen. Then, there were the goalies. In the six-team league, most starting netminders wore number 1. When the two-goalie system was adapted, the second goalie was provided with a jersey bearing number 30 or 31.

Former NHL goalie, Dave Dryden, tells an interesting story from his first venture into the National Hockey League. On February 3, 1962, Dryden was in attendance for a game between Toronto and New York being played in Maple Leaf Gardens. The twenty-year-old Dryden was designated as the substitute goalie and would be employed should either goalie be felled by illness or injury. As fate would have it, New York's starting netminder, Gump Worsley, suffered a back injury in the second period. Dryden was summoned from the stands and quickly changed into his equipment.

Then, came the moment all hockey players dream of in living colour. The wonderful ritual of pulling a hockey sweater over your head and letting the team crest unfold before your eyes. The rich colours and insignia of the Leafs, Rangers, Bruins, Canadiens, Red Wings or Black Hawks on display for all to see.

In the case of Dave Dryden, the sweater didn't exactly fall in regal fashion. With Dryden being 6'1" and Worsley generously listed as being 5'7", there was a great deal of pulling and stretching. To describe the New York Ranger jersey as a tight fit, would be a colossal understatement. Dryden still has a good chuckle when he recalls having to wear the Gumper's sweater!

When I attended a contest at the Gardens, picking up a game program was my first priority. I still have the program from my very first live game on Saturday January 9, 1965. The Leafs were playing host to the Boston Bruins. Reading the line-ups and absorbing player numbers was such a thrill as a kid.

On Hockey Night in Canada, games would be joined in progress, often during the late stages of period one. At the start of period two, a crawl of the line-up for both teams would magically appear on screen. In most circumstances, the graphic was imposed over a live shot of the players making their way from the dressing room corridor to the ice surface. From my position on the living room carpet, I had a close-up view of the crawl, which always seemed to move way too fast.

On occasion, one of the goalies would go down, resulting in the back-up being called into service. If Johnny Bower had to come out of the game, his spot in the Toronto goal would be taken by Terry Sawchuk. In subsequent years, it would be Bruce Gamble who made the skate from the Leaf bench to the vacant net. It was something out of the ordinary to watch as Sawchuk or Gamble took their warm-ups. Unlike today, there was none of this just throwing a goalie in cold.

While all this was going on, my focus would suddenly shift. I couldn't miss the announcement. It was vital that I heard it. Quickly, my body moved closer to the speakers on the television. If I turned, my face would be flush against the screen. There was a rhythm to the whole process. Any movement towards the speaker would only come near the end of Sawchuk or Gamble kicking away their warm-up shots. If they survived the endless stream of slaphots from the blueline, their arrival would soon become official. Almost on cue, the next voice I would hear belonged to Paul Morris, the P.A. Announcer at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was like the Royal Speaker was about to declare a proclamation. Everything would go quite as Paul Morris called out, "Now playing goal for Toronto and wearing number 30, Bruce Gamble."

All these memories came flooding back to me courtesy of watching Roberto Luongo play goal for Vancouver. Out of the blue, it struck me as to how rare it is to see a goalie wearing number 1. Of all the goalies who participated in NHL games this season (87 according to my database), only nine wore number 1.

To this day, I can picture Johnny Bower and Glenn Hall, both wearing sweater number 1, leading their respective clubs onto the ice. The first players to come into camera range. At the front of the line, ready to guide the troops over the hill. Their number indicating how important they were. A time when being number 1 meant a great deal.

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