On Jersey Number Retirements

The Red Wings announced yesterday that they will retire the #4 of Leonard “Red” Kelly prior to their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 1, 2019.

Kelly won four Stanley Cups as a defenseman with the Red Wings in the early 1950s, was the team’s captain later in the decade, and then was traded to the Maple Leafs during the 1959-60 season (as punishment for disclosing that he had played on a broken ankle, something Detroit general manager Jack Adams was keeping secret).  He switched to playing center with Toronto and won four more Stanley Cups.

After retiring in 1967, Kelly was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969.  The Maple Leafs honored his number on October 4, 2006, and fully retired it on October 15, 2016, in a celebration of the team’s 100th anniversary.

Retiring Red Kelly‘s number makes sense but I still can’t shake a cynical feeling about it.

It’s an honor that should have happened in the early 1990s.  The Red Wings retired Ted Lindsay‘s #7 and Alex Delvecchio‘s #10 in 1991, Terry Sawchuk‘s #1 in 1994, and Sid Abel’s #12 in 1995.  Kelly would have fit perfectly into that group as the core of the team’s early 1950s Stanley Cup Championships.  That his number wasn’t raised to the rafters then seemed to show that it wouldn’t be.

Since then we’ve seen Steve Yzerman‘s #19 and Nicklas Lidstrom‘s #5 raised, with much pomp and circumstance leading up to the events.  The dates were announced before the start of the season and ticket packages were sold around them.

So to see Kelly’s number retired now, with the announcement tucked into a pregame press availability, gives me a bad vibe.  It feels to me like a ploy to get people to come down to a game between a bad team and a very good team.

That said, as I Tweeted last night, the timing makes more sense than the Wings usually give to jersey retirements.  Toronto is the perfect opponent to raise Kelly’s number against, while history shows the team preferring to do so against a lesser draw on a weeknight to boost their ticket sales.  So if there’s a reason to give the team the benefit of the doubt, it’s that.

Whatever the reason, a deserving number is going to the rafters, righting the wrong of it not having been up there already.

But if I’m talking about wrongs, I have to mention Larry Aurie.  The franchise’s first star player, Aurie led the Red Wings in their early days, including when the team was known as the Cougars and the Falcons.

Jack Adams thought enough of Aurie that his #6 was retired in 1939, when Aurie hung up his skates.  It was later brought back into circulation so that Aurie’s cousin, Cummy Burton, could wear it, then put back into retirement.

Gordie Howe‘s #9 later joined Aurie’s #6 as unavailable, but in old arenas like The Olympia, teams rarely raised numbers to the rafters.

That changed with the team’s move to Joe Louis Arena and Mike and Marian Ilitch buying the team from the Norris family.  Howe’s #9 was the first number given a banner.  Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, Terry Sawchuk, and Sid Abel would follow.  Aurie did not.

At some point, the team’s story became that the core of the 1950s Cup Championship teams were all Hall of Famers and that only those in the HHOF would get banners.  Aurie never made it to the Hall, so his number would be retired but not honored.

Then the 2000-01 NHL Guide and Record Book came out, with Aurie’s #6 no longer listed among the team’s retired numbers.  Suddenly it was not only not honored but not even retired at all.

Despite this seeming lost of status, #6 was not assigned between 2000 and 2010, when Mike Modano signed with Detroit.  Modano – unable to get his usual #9 due to it’s retirement for Howe – asked about #6.

“I wanted No. 6, but they told me about Larry Aurie,” said Modano, referring to Aurie, who played between 1927-39, and had his number retired by former Wings owner James Norris.

“I thought it would be easy to just flip 9 to 6,” Modano said. “I would have loved 6, but maybe 90.”

If the all-time leading American scorer can’t have the number, that sure sounds to me like it’s retired.

They may not have raised banners to celebrate that in the 1930s, but we do now, and it’s time for Aurie’s number to have that honor.

And then there’s Sergei Fedorov.

There was buzz over the summer that Fedorov’s #91 might be retired this season, something that didn’t come to happen.  Chris Ilitch commented on that when Kelly’s number retirement was announced.

“Obviously Sergei was an outstanding Red Wing. He was a big part of bringing three Stanley Cups to Detroit. He’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Ilitch answered. “The subject of number retirement, it’s an important subject, it deserves a lot of conversation, a lot of thought. We’re continuously evaluating that with our organization. Related to 91 and 40 (Henrik Zetterberg), let’s see what the future holds.”

It wasn’t what Ilitch said, though, that really explained where Fedorov stands with the organization.  That was Jim Devellano.

“There are other things that I’m not going to get into,” Devellano said. “Do you realize that he wanted out of the Red Wings (organization) on two occasions? Are you familiar with that? Did you know he turned the owners down on a 5-year, $50 million contract? Did you know he signed an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes and we had to match with a $24 million signing bonus?”

What this makes clear is that this is an organization that holds grudges.

You buy a team, you get to run it how you want, and that means you don’t have to honor any players you don’t want to.  We’ve seen that with Aurie (for whatever reason) and we’ll see that with Fedorov.  We’ll probably see it with Pavel Datsyuk.

Thoughts on Little Caesars Arena

Having had two hours to wander around the Red Wings’ new home earlier today, I’ve finally gotten an opportunity to put together some actual thoughts on Little Caesars Arena.

A new arena won’t save the Red Wings from the issues they face on the ice and the ticket prices at said new arena won’t win them any favors with the fanbase, either.  I’m not excited about this season and Little Caesars Arena doesn’t change that.  That said, it’s pretty easy to be excited about the venue itself.

I came in through the southwest entrance and the first thing I noticed is the ridiculous amount of natural light in the much-promoted Via concourse.  I’m curious how that space will look at night but in the day it’s unlike any NHL arena I’ve been in.

The concourse doesn’t feel like an arena.  It feels more like a mall.  A large, open hallway with shops and food vendors on either side.  Maybe during an actual event the “portals” leading to the arena bowl itself would be more prominent but during the tour that wasn’t the case.

The portals are significantly more prominent on the upper concourse, which is more sparsely-populated in general.

The Production Line statues from Joe Louis Arena have made their way to Little Caesars Arena but are no longer grouped together.  I don’t love that but each statue now has a photo of the player with his jersey number as a backdrop, which does look really good.

The Via concourse includes custom manhole covers honoring people important to Red Wings and Pistons history.  It’s a nice feature but not one that really impacts anything.

My favorite feature is probably the “Olympia” signage from Olympia Stadium having been re-mounted in the east concourse, right next to a giant mural of Gordie Howe.

In the arena bowl itself, the scoreboard is probably the biggest change.  It’s just huge.  I’m not sure if it’ll be overpowering or not but that’s my concern.  I would have loved to see the arena bowl lit up like it would be during a game.

The lower bowl feels pretty standard.  It’s clean.  There are cupholders.  I’m not sure that’s going to feel very different.

The upper bowl is going to take some getting used to.  Accessing it from its own concourse should make traffic in the arena much more tolerable.  The upper bowl is steep.  There are actually handrails and I imagine they’ll get some use.

There are no bad seats in the arena.  The last row of the upper bowl has a great view.  The gondolas block the scoreboard but not the ice.  The gondolas have a great view as well.  You really do feel on top of the ice.

The thing that struck me most after the fact is that I was looking at the concourse and saying “This reminds me of Nationwide Arena.” and I was looking at the seating thinking “This is better than Amalie Arena.”  At no point did I compare it to Joe Louis Arena.  In all honesty, there really is no comparison.

As I noted on Twitter, “Mr. I” appears behind the nets on both the main sheet and the practice rink, so I wonder if that will be a permanent tribute.

Speaking of the practice rink, the team’s Stanley Cup banners from the Joe are hung there.  There are new banners hanging over the ice at Little Caesars Arena, in some kind of box that makes them retractable for different events.  They were retracted during today’s tour.

I overheard someone say that the Red Wings’ banners would be retracted for Pistons’ games and vice-versa but that seems a bit weird to me given their placement in the arena.  The Red Wings’ banners are all on one side and the Pistons’ are on the other.  If only one set was going to be displayed at a time, why not spread them out over the entire arena?

I don’t like the placement of the banners in general, but that’s a rant for another time.

Speaking of rants, a couple negatives…

Unless I missed it, Larry Aurie does not have a commemorative manhole cover.  That’s the least the team could have done if they’re not going to give him a banner in the rafters.

Also, while the Via concourse is pretty incredible, the north and west sides of the arena are a bit more standard.

Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing a game played there to see how some of this works out in actual use.

Little Caesars Arena Tour Photo Gallery

Red Wings Unveil “Mr. I” Patch

Just hours after I posted my proposal for a Mike Ilitch memorial patch, the Red Wings unveiled what the team will actually wear.

Surprising no one, it’s another “text-in-a-box” patch.

Since the 1998 season and the “Believe” patch, the Red Wings have unveiled six special event patches.  The 75th anniversary design was worn only for a few games.  The “Farewell to the Joe” patch was abandoned.  All of the rest (the BM/RS/SL patch, jersey retirement patches for Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, and memorial patches for Gordie Howe and Mike Ilitch) have been some form of text inside a box.

I think it’s lazy and not a fitting tribute.

Thoughts on a Mike Ilitch Jersey Patch

The Red Wings are expected to reveal an on-jersey tribute to owner Mike Ilitch, who died last Friday at age 87, tonight as they host the St. Louis Blues.

I’ve commented before on the Red Wings having a tendency to make their memorial patches “text in a box” and I expect we’ll see something along those lines tonight.  With that in mind, I’ve put together something I’d like to see the Wings do.

First off, if I were the team, I’d scrap the Gordie Howe patch (which I never liked anyway) and make a combined patch for Howe and Ilitch.  I’d put this new patch on the shoulder and restore the “Farewell to the Joe” patch to the opposite shoulder for symmetry.  Since the arena patch is probably gone for good, keeping the memorial patch on the chest is also feasible.

My idea for a Gordie Howe / Mike Ilitch memorial patch.

The patch would feature the signatures of the two men, one over the other, separated by a black band with the Winged Wheel over it.

I thought about using the blue from the “Believe” patch the Red Wings wore in honor of Vladimir Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakonov and the “BM – RS – SL” patch memorializing Brad McCrimmon, Ruslan Salei, and Stefan Liv, but ultimately went with black because I thought the signatures should be black and didn’t want to introduce an additional color.

I have no idea what the team will actually do and I doubt it will be this.  I suppose we’ll see in the coming hours.

Morning After: Senators @ Red Wings – 10/17

That was better.

The Red Wings put forth a nearly-full-game effort on Monday night in the last home opener at Joe Louis Arena, as opposed to the 20-minute efforts to open the season in Tampa and Sunrise, and it got them a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.

Yeah, there were negatives.  There were shifts where they shot themselves in the foot trying to clear the zone.  There were still too many missed passes.  In a game that it feels like the Red Wings dominated, they still allowed 32 shots.

But there were more positives than we saw in the first two games, too.

Mike Green‘s shot has been unleashed.  He’s doing what he was brought to Detroit to do and has his first career hat trick to show for it.  Two nights after an awful outing, he had maybe his best game as a Red Wing.

And Darren Helm finished, too.  I don’t know what he did over the summer but he looks like he’s skating better than he has in a couple years.

Thomas Vanek with three assists is having an impressive start to the season.

I don’t recall Petr Mrazek having to make any insane saves – like he did in Tampa, for example – but after allowing eight goals in two games, he needed a shutdown night.  Only goal against came on a rush where the puck deflected off a teammate’s stick.  Not bad.

And speaking of that goal…  I said it on Twitter, I’ll say it again here, I really liked Brendan Smith‘s effort on that play.  He forced Dzingel to wait until it should have been too late.  If that pass didn’t go off Sheahan’s stick and past Mrazek, I think it ends up in Turris’ skates, not in the net.

I will say that I don’t love the fights.  I don’t think fighting is a necessary part of hockey.  I liked seeing Chris Neil beg for a fight and then Justin Abdelkader land some solid shots on him, but at the same time I wish Abdelkader hadn’t obliged him.  It is interesting, though that the Wings’ fights this season have all been by players who were with the team last year (since Steve Ott‘s “fight” in Tampa was just roughing).  This isn’t a new player skewing the numbers, it’s the existing players playing differently.  I wonder where that change came from.

Of course, I have to talk about the arena itself and the game presentation.  While there was a lot of talk of this being the last home opener at Joe Louis Arena, I don’t feel like the “last” aspect was played up.  There are at least 40 more games left there, including the actual last game.  This felt like a home opener, not a last game.  As it should.

It kind of annoys me that the Wings ended up dropping the Farewell to the Joe patch from their jerseys.  I didn’t like it, and I think they could have done better on the Gordie Howe patch, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have done both.

On the Red Wings’ Gordie Howe Patch

I’ve already established that I’m rarely a fan of the design choices made by the Red Wings or the Griffins.  As such, it should come as no surprise that I’m disappointed by the patch that the Wings will be wearing this season to honor Gordie Howe.

It’s a 9 in a box.  Why is it in a box?  So that you know it’s a patch?  That makes no sense to me.  So you’ve got two design elements and one of them is pointless.  The following are my attempts to make it better.

Howe Patch Revisited v1

My first version simply takes the existing patches and switches which jersey they’re on. By having a contrasting background, you still get the “Hey, this is a patch” thing they seem to be going for without looking like “a 9 in a box” as I said above.

Howe Patch Revisited v2

If you’re insistent on the number itself being the contrasting color, eliminate the box completely and just go with the 9 as a patch. Personally, I think this would look better on the shoulder of the sweater (similar to what the Philadelphia Flyers did for Pelle Lindbergh), but I get that there’s symbolism to having the patch over the players’ hearts.

Howe Patch Revisited v3

I like the tried-and-true method of a black circle with a number or initials inside it. This could go on the chest or on the shoulder.  This is my personal favorite, the following three are really just here to show that there are ways to play with it a bit more.

Howe Patch Revisited v4

If you’re looking for something a little bit more branded, make the number red with a white outline on the black patch.  I think that even with a white outline, the red blends into the black a bit much, though.

Howe Patch Revisited v5

Or you can go way out there and have the Winged Wheel inside the #9. Personally, I don’t think this looks very good in this application, but it was the image DH.N ran with at the time of Howe’s death.

Howe Patch Revisited v6

Finally, you could go with a version that has a bit more information.  In this case, the 9 is black with a white outline on a red circle.  A black circle wraps that, inside of which is the text “Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe 1928-2016.”  It’s more complicated than it needs to be but I still think it’s better than a 9 in a box.

I’m glad that the Red Wings are honoring Howe on their jerseys.  I think they could have done worse.  I just also think that they could have done better, and Howe deserves better.

Red Wings to Honor Howe with Jersey Patch

The Detroit Red Wings announced on Tuesday that they will honor the life of Hall-of-Famer Gordie Howe by wearing a patch on the front of their jerseys for the 2016-17 season.

The patch – a simple rectangle containing Howe’s #9 – will appear on the left side of the chest, above the tip of the Winged Wheel logo and opposite the captain’s C and alternate captain’s A.

The Red Wings' jerseys featuring the Gordie Howe patch (Credit: Detroit Red Wings)
The Red Wings’ jerseys featuring the Gordie Howe patch (Credit: Detroit Red Wings)

On the red home jersey, the patch will be red with a white outline and a white number.  On the white road jersey, the colors will be reversed.

“Our team wanted to honor ‘Mr. Hockey,’ due to his incredible impact on the game of hockey, the Red Wings organization and the city of Detroit,” said Tom Wilson, President and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, in a statement. “Wearing the ‘9’ jersey patch will be one of many ways our team will celebrate and look back on the life and career of Gordie during the upcoming season.”

This patch is in addition to the “Farewell to the Joe” patch to be worn on the left shoulder this season.

Howe’s #9 will also be painted on the ice behind each net.

Reviewing Gordie: The Legend of Mr. Hockey

I was recently asked to review the Detroit Free Press’ Gordie: The Legend of Mr. Hockey.  Due out in a couple weeks, the book is a collection of stories about Gordie Howe‘s career and a celebration of his life.

I say “a collection of stories” because it’s not a single, chronological narrative.  It doesn’t read like a standard biography.

Starting with an obituary by Mitch Albom and coverage of Howe’s visitation at Joe Louis Arena and his funeral, it moves on to a brief biography of his playing years in the context of his recent death.

These aren’t new or exciting stories.  If you were paying any attention last June, you’ve already read some version of them.  They are a fitting tribute, however, and a beautiful read.

From there it’s on – somewhat jarringly – to the debate about Howe’s controversially stem-cell treatment in 2014.  Then to anecdotes about Howe from the Freep’s writers and Howe’s contemporaries, and quotes from Howe himself.

The book closes with excerpts from Mark Howe‘s book, Gordie Howe‘s Son, and from the 1999 Free Press book, Century of Champions, before a look at Howe’s single-shift appearance with the International Hockey League’s Detroit Vipers and a recap of his career statistics.

The knock on this is that it’s structured like a coffee table book but it’s a paperback, with the result something more like a Sports Illustrated collector’s edition.

Of course, like those SI issues, collectors of Red Wings memorabilia will want this on their bookshelves.

As I said, you won’t find anything new here.  My favorite part was the Mark Howe piece, which was just an excerpt from another book.  These aren’t new stories but the value is having them collected in one place.

Gordie: The Legend of Mr. Hockey, will be available on September 1.

How Will the NHL Honor Gordie Howe?

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.

On Gordie Howe

I never met Gordie Howe. I’m too young to have seen him play, outside of his one-shift stint with the Detroit Vipers. I am not the person to eulogize him.

We all know the stories. They’re pouring out onto the internet today. Stories that make us laugh. Stories that remind us of Old Time Hockey. They’ve been told for years, the legends of our sport.

There’s one story that always sticks with me. One video clip from the end of his career. His introduction at the 1980 NHL All-Star Game. The last All-Star Game of his career, returning to the NHL after it absorbed the WHA, his only NHL season not played with the Red Wings, and a game played in Detroit.

Gordie Howe transcended his own name. He defined a number. He defined a sport.

“Representing all of hockey with great distinction for five decades… Number Nine!”

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