Thursday November 12th, 2015

The road to history began with a father’s fib. Devils winger Mike Cammalleri first went out for hockey in the Toronto area when he was seven, a year younger than the minimum age, but no one ever asked and his dad never told. At the end of tryouts the coach tossed a box of jerseys onto the floor: Congrats, everyone made the cut. Now pick a number.

Cammalleri’s father suggested that young Mike keep a low profile and choose last. “So I sat there, nervous and anxious,” Cammalleri says. “Sure enough, the last number there was 13.” From watching Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey videos, he knew that Canucks defenseman Lars Lindgren wore the same number—and that one video showed Lindgren accidentally shooting the puck into his own net, the sort of bad luck that explains why hockey players have traditionally shunned the big one-three. In fact, in the NHL every number between 1 and 20 has been officially retired by at least one team, except for 13. “I think I was pretty upset for a couple weeks,” Cammalleri says about getting stuck with the number, “but I’ve worn it ever since.”

• GALLERY: The 13 Best Athletes to Wear No. 13

Almost. He went with another number for two of his 14 seasons in the NHL: 2011–12, when he was traded to Calgary, where center Olli Jokinen already had the number, and last season, when he signed with New Jersey, where former team owner John McMullen was rumored to have banned unlucky 13 for superstitious reasons. That blockade survived McMullen’s sale of the franchise in 2000 and even his death in ’05. But when GM Lou Lamoriello, caretaker of the custom, left for Toronto this off-season, the number became available, and Cammalleri donned Jersey’s first number 13 jersey. “You grow an affinity for the number,” he says. “It becomes part of an identity in a way, something you can relate to.”

Not many others can relate, though. The first 13, according to Hockey, was Montreal’s Edmond Bouchard, who played during the Warren G. Harding Administration, and only 92 other NHLers have dared to wear the number since. The list includes Ray Ferraro, who stumbled into the 13 club upon being traded to the Blues in 2001 after wearing four other numbers for five other teams. Then there are dreamers like Shawn Heaphy (Calgary) and Joey Tenute (Washington), whose lone NHL appearances came with 13 on their backs. Valeri Bure, brother of Pavel, and Jared Staal, brother of Eric, Jordan and Marc, never achieved the success of their siblings but at least managed numerical noteworthiness. 

The well-traveled Bill Guerin is the only player to have worn 13 for six teams. His mother, who hailed from Nicaragua, considered it lucky. His wife was born on March 13. Now one daughter, Kayla, wears it for her college lacrosse team, and his son, Liam, wears it for hockey. “It’s supposed to be bad luck, but it’s not,” the Penguins’ assistant GM says. “I love Friday the 13th. We celebrate it in our house.” 

GALLERY: Greatest NHL Players By Jersey Number

Of all the triskaidekaphiliacs, none enjoyed more success than Maple Leafs center Mats Sundin, who scored 1,349 points in 1,346 games during an 18-year career that included, what else, 13 years in Toronto. Sundin, who was born on Feb. 13, always considered the number lucky, even if others didn’t. “I’ve heard my whole career that I should not wear 13, because it’s going to bring the bad luck,” Sundin said. Not so. A bronze likeness of the Swede, who retired in 2009, stands outside the Air Canada Centre, and his sweater hangs from the rafters, thanks to the Maple Leafs’ tradition of “honoring” jerseys. 

Maybe he’ll soon have help changing perceptions. Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, 37, has won three Selke and four Lady Byng trophies during a 14-year career wearing 13 and seems a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame when he retires. And now that Cammalleri has broken through for the Devils, only one team has never had a player wear 13—the Wild. But hope exists. In Iowa, where Minnesota’s AHL affiliate plays, defenseman Gustav Olofsson, a former second-round draft pick from Sweden, wears 13 in tribute to Sundin.

Oh, and because it was available.

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