Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 has been retired across the NHL, unable to be worn by anyone in the league in honor of the game’s most recognizable player and inarguably one its greatest. Gretzky is the only player with that honor, but, if it were up to him, he’d have some company.
With Gordie Howe’s passing, Gretzky was asked about the possibility of the NHL following a similar path as they have with his iconic jersey number and putting No. 9 in the rafters around the league and removing it from the jersey rotation. Gretzky, who grew up idolizing Howe, said he completely supports the idea.
"I'm pretty biased," Gretzky said, via ESPN. "If I had my way, I would do it. But that's for the league. I'm not involved with the league right now. But listen, whatever they choose to do is going to be very special because Gordie deserves something really special and unique.
"I don't think anybody helped promote, support the game, the sport or our country better than Gordie Howe. He was proud to be a Canadian, proud of being from Saskatchewan. And I don't think the NHL is going to overlook the fact of how important he was to the game, so I'm sure they are going to do something real special for him.”
Gretzky is right in that the league will do something incredibly special for Howe, but it’s tough to say if they’ll go as far as pulling No. 9 out of rotation. That’s not to say retiring No. 9 isn’t possible.
In fact, if there was any common jersey number to take out of rotation, No. 9 may be among the easiest in that nine teams already have it retired. The Edmonton Oilers (Glenn Anderson), Boston Bruins (Johnny Bucyk), New York Islanders (Clark Gillies), New York Rangers (Adam Graves and Andy Bathgate), Chicago Blackhawks (Bobby Hull), Calgary Flames (Lanny MacDonald), Dallas Stars (Mike Modano) and Montreal Canadiens (Maurice Richard) are among the teams to retire the number, as well as the Detroit Red Wings who retired Howe’s number in March 1972.
However, the thing about retiring Gretzky’s No. 99 league-wide was that the number itself is unique to Gretzky. Not a single player wore the number before Gretzky came into the league and only three players wore the iconic 99 during Gretzky’s NHL career: Rick Dudley for one season with the Winnipeg Jets and Wilf Paiement for three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But following a trade to Quebec in 1982, Paiement switched his jersey number and Gretzky was the only player to wear the digit for the next 18 seasons.
That Gretzky was the only one to wear the number made removing it from rotation much easier. And even if it wasn’t removed from the rotation, it’s likely that players simply would have strayed from wearing No. 99. Take Mario Lemieux’s famous No. 66, for example.
One player, Milan Novy with the Washington Capitals in 1982-83, wore 66 prior to Lemieux entering the league. Then, from Lemieux’s debut in 1985 until his retirement in 2006, only two players wore No. 66: Vancouver Canucks rookie Gino Odjick in 1990-91 and Philadelphia Flyers winger Yanick Dupre for the one game he played in 1991-92. Odjick switched his number to 29 during his rookie year. The only other player to wear No. 66 is Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie, and that was for a three-game stint in 2010-11. Not in the past five years has anyone donned Lemieux’s number.
No. 9 is a different story, though. In league history, the number has been worn by 278 players and 15 players wore the number this past season alone. It’s a number that’s been worn by some of the game’s greats and one that’s worn commonly throughout the league to this day.
But it doesn’t matter if the league chooses to honor ‘Mr. Hockey’ by retiring his number forever because the number will always be synonymous with Howe, retired or not. And everyone will always know who the greatest No. 9 of all-time was.