Earlier today, Twitter user @KevinParker12 posted (and Winging it in Motown later ran with) that shop.nhl.com was offering up Detroit Red Wings jerseys for new signee Steve Ott carrying the number nine.
I joked that this is the NHL’s promised tribute to Gordie Howe, letting Ott take his retired number.
It’d be easy for the NHL’s online store to ignore retired numbers. I know because I’ve already written code for that.
It’s a mistake that has already been fixed. Ott is no longer listed with a number. It can be assumed he’ll go with #29 as he’s worn it for much of his career and it’s available in Detroit.
But I want to go back to that promised tribute. On June 16, in the aftermath of Howe’s passing, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league would “come up with something that’s an enduring testament to Gordie.” He later called it “special and enduring and permanent.”
Specifically, that was in response to the idea of retiring Howe’s #9 league-wide, an idea that had been circulating and gained the support of none other than Wayne Gretzky, the only NHL player who currently has that honor.
The statement seems to shoot down the idea of a league-wide number retirement. As someone who doesn’t think #99 should be retired, either, I agree with this. It does, however, raise the question of exactly what honor the league will bestow.
The words from that statement that stick out to me are “enduring” and “permanent.” I think it leads to two options.
One is renaming a conference or division after him. The divisions were just renamed three years ago and the inclusion of the awkwardly-named “Metropolitan” Division (which includes Columbus and Carolina) and an Atlantic Division that extends inland to Detroit was met with derision. Renaming the conferences and divisions after legends of the game would get around the issues that arise from geographically naming a division that stretches from Montreal to Miami.
That said, the NHL had the opportunity to eschew the geographical division names when they realigned in 2013 and opted not to. They were the last major league in North America to go to geography-based names in 1993 and seem to have no desire to give them up.
<troll> Besides, the awkward names of the Eastern Conference can be resolved by relocating the Carolina Hurricanes to Quebec City, moving them and the Columbus Blue Jackets to the current Atlantic Division, moving the Florida teams to the current Metropolitan Division, then renaming the Atlantic to the Northeast and giving the Metropolitan the Atlantic name. </troll>
I think the more-likely honor is renaming one of the league’s current awards after Howe.
There’s been a push on and off over the last several years for renaming the awards after more relevant personalities. In most cases it has faced strong backlash as yet another example of the league choosing to ignore its own history. I know that I’ve said the league should focus on educating its fans on who James Norris was rather than removing his name from its award for best defenseman in favor of Raymond Bourque or Bobby Orr.
However, if the league wanted to put Gordie Howe’s name on the MVP award, I think even those of us who prefer to preserve the historical names would have a hard time arguing against it. Similar to the NHLPA’s renaming of the Lester B. Pearson Award after Ted Lindsay, I think the most-negative reaction you’d see is begrudging acceptance.
Of course, thinking cynically, by picking players like Lindsay and Howe to start, you get people used to the idea of renaming awards. Then when it comes time to change the Frank J. Selke Trophy after Guy Carbonneau, then do it again for Patrice Bergeron ten years later, there’s less room for complaint.
If the league is going to honor Gordie Howe in a truly meaningful way, I’d be willing to bet they rename an award after him. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.