Friday, October 03, 2008

Never Again

It’s nearly 2 am. Outside, nondescript lights float by in murky black. The bus is dim and quiet, pulsing with the low hum of engines and faintly leaking headphones. Amongst the ordinary commuters, there are seven soon-to-be hockey players dozing in impossibly vast reclining seats; amongst the usual baggage, there are seven hockey bags and sticks rocking in the hold.

Described in certain terms, it is a rather traditional scenario- a late-night scrimmage, a few beers and a long ride home. But the lights outside are Taoyuan, or perhaps Hsinchu. The beer was 7-11 Asahi drunk in uncomfortably intimate humidity on plastic crates. Most of the players haven’t put skates to ice in years or even decades. And that ice surface is (year in, year out) the only ice in the entire country.

Nevertheless, hockey is hockey is hockey. In the NHL, the cultural differences between North Americans and Europeans, or even Americans and Canadians, may seem vast and significant, but viewed on the scale of all cultural difference worldwide, there is a remarkable uniformity to the sport. A rink, even on a Pacific island, is a rink, and a Zamboni is a Zamboni and pucks are pucks. There are still the ass-freezing seats and the fetid sweat smell, and the tap-tap-tap of eager sticks. Most of the overall hockey experience (particularly for a spectator) is a-cultural.

Tonight, however, I saw one truly exotic thing: A player wearing 99. Not, mind you, a 99 vintage replica Oilers and/or Kings jersey bearing a certain venerated surname, but his own jersey with his own team logo (Taipei Typhoon) and his own name (Hsu) and the number 99. As if it was his number. I have never before seen a real live hockey player in real time playing with that number.

99 is Canadian hockey’s single greatest taboo. It might be the only absolute taboo. There are many things one should theoretically never do in hockey- dive, sucker punch, bash one’s opponent in the head with a stick- but most of them happen periodically and are occasionally defended. But nobody at any level ever wears 99; at least, no one over the age of 10, and even then, few things would reflect more poorly on a Canadian hockey parent than allowing one’s offspring to select that number. It would be the closest thing hockey has to a deadly sin; hubris rendered in polyester.

The taboo is a long-standing form of honor most often studied in the context of religion. That which is taboo is forbidden to ordinary people in ordinary contexts, either because it is too sacred or too dangerous for common life. The taboo object or practice is reserved for supernatural beings and exalted persons- the food which only the king may eat, the words which only the priest may speak, the sealed room, the locked box. Greatness draws to itself special privileges in which the mediocrity cannot take part, and paradoxically, the recognition of those privileges by the mediocre elevates the great still further.

However, the strict taboo is pretty much kept to the realm of holy relics and esoteric rituals. In everyday speech, the term usually refers to something more casually frowned upon, like a dirty word or unconventional sex act. Which makes it all the more bizarre that the world of professional sports has, over the course of the twentieth century, engaged in an ever-escalating process of quasi-religious taboo-creation and defense: number retirement.

Wikipedia (the all-seeing eye) tells me that the first number retirement in professional sports was in 1935, when the New York Giants retired #1 for some guy named Ray Flaherty (with whom I am not familiar because American football is a sport for elderly gentlemen with poor eyesight and infinite patience). For the subsequent 30ish years, it appears that number retirements were sporadic and tended to coincide with the actual retirement or sudden demise of a beloved player. The Canadiens retired Howie Morenz’s number in 1937 when the man died in the line of duty; Rocket Richard’s number retired with him in 1960.

But somewhere, sometime in the 70s or more likely the 80s, something in the overarching attitude towards number taboos begins to change, and the rate of official number retirements rises steeply while the standards fall. Retroactive number retirements, for players who left the sport years or even decades previously, become the rule rather than the exception, and it is eventually taken for granted that anybody who had enough statistical or cultural significance in his particular era will be retired. It has become, at this point, a standardized practice, a curiously common honor.

Perhaps (and here I only speculate) there is a relationship between the increase in number retirements and the shift in the way the (North American) hockey world has come to view numbers themselves. Once upon a time, according to the folklore anyway, jersey numbering in hockey was simple and utilitarian. Players were numbered outwards from the net, with the goalie being 1, the defensemen taking the low single-digit numbers, and the forwards the higher single-digits, teens, and twenties. A number signified nothing more or less than one’s literal position on the ice. The skeleton of this structure remains in hockey today- defensemen generally wear lower numbers than forwards, and goalies tend to select numbers in the immediate range of 1 and 30 (the 2nd goalie number).

These are the classic hockey numbers- the 1, the 4, the 9, the 11 and so forth. These are the numbers that were common when numbers meant very little, beyond perhaps a quiet nod to superstition or a personal talisman, and as such they have been worn by many, many players. With a time machine and a little patience, you could probably pick most any classic number and make an entire team solely from players who’ve worn it, and chances are it’d be a decent team. These numbers have belonged to hundreds of names, but aren’t possessed by any of them- they are a shared inheritance rather than an exclusive privilege.

With these numbers, the most common form of honor has long been imitation, rather than prohibition. A particular professional team may retire a classic number (my own Canadiens have retired most of them), but the hockey community writ large- all players at all levels- tend to pay their respect to such digits by actively choosing to wear them rather than avoiding them. An ordinary player- man, woman, or child at any level of play- may choose to wear 9 because it was Gordie Howe’s number, and in doing so would be praised rather than censured. In the case of a classic number, replication is tribute.

The impulse to imitate greatness feels deeper and more instinctive than the impulse to avoid it. Certainly we know that children are avid and even compulsive imitators. They appropriate to themselves all possible signifiers of that which they love, hence the cliché of the little boy’s room full of posters and hockey cards and t-shirts and magazines, everything from sheets to night light bearing some representation of the most-favored icon. Adults are somewhat more subtle, but often not by much, and in their capacity as fans will shamelessly swath themselves in the clothing, and even the likeness, of the greatest players. At its most excessive, imitation can be comical, crudely commercial, and borderline disgusting, but it is at its heart a generous and expansive way to honor, one that signals affection and personal investment as well as respect.

Number retirement is the absolute antithesis of imitation. It renders imitation impossible for some players and distasteful for others, for it implies that imitation is an affront and an insult to the digits’ previous owners. As an ideal, the number retirement is an honor because it suggests that some wearer was so great that no other bearer before or after him could conceivably be greater. When a number is retired for a given player, it largely obscures all other historical players for that franchise who wore it, as well as ensuring that there will be no more. It reifies a trinity of name-number-time and implies that the achievements contained therein are beyond replication.

However, it is also an elitist practice, for it suggests that the ordinary- even the vast majority who know they are ordinary and have no ambitions of rivaling the beloved player- are so far below his status that they cannot even imitate him, and that if they were permitted to imitate him it would cheapen his legacy. As forms of honor, taboo and imitation cannot cohabitate peaceably, for the former necessarily condemns the latter.

99 is not a classic number, although it was apparently selected out of the deferred desire to imitate one. 99 is a signature number, worn by only three players ever and only one that anyone might have an imitative impulse towards. It is a number that was made to self-retire, for it is iconic on many levels- its symmetry, its finality, its rarity, and therefore it is not surprising that it is the most comprehensively retired at the NHL level. What is surprising is that it is universally retired, and personally retired, that in addition to the professionals, virtually every casual hockey player in North America recognizes the taboo.

The danger in a taboo is that it is easier to forget the meaning behind things not done then things done. The numbers that players do wear are matters of immediate interest, especially if they’ve been chosen with a particular meaning in mind. The numbers that are not worn are, on a general basis, not thought about. Eventually the taboo itself is the powerful thing, rather than the reason for the taboo- probably some people avoid 99 out of pure-hearted admiration for its privileged bearer, but over time more and more will avoid it simply because to wear it would be to come off as a hotshot or an asshole or both. The motivation for the avoidance is fear of social censure, not veneration of past glory. A player who intentionally wears a given number will probably think from time to time about the reason he chose that number, but he will not think about the reasons he does not wear all the other numbers he is not wearing.

What franchises do with their own policies is often irrational, and really none of my concern. But I am more disturbed than moved by this general 99 taboo and the popular attitude towards signature numbers it has engendered. In the seat next to me, on the big bus on the dark road, Julian will defend the sacredness of 99 all the way to Kaohsiung, and maybe all the way to Manila and Perth and around the pole to Patagonia if there were busses that went that far and hockey games to be played on the other end. He is an Oilers fan and a Canadian and, in his deepest undersoul, attached to the customs that come with all that. He will tell me that the prohibition on that number among ordinary players in ordinary beer leagues is noble and meaningful. But even he will admit that it has been extended and extending further- not only is 99 off-limits, but so is its shadow 66 and probably 87, although at this point the achievements of the last only hint at those of the first. I fear that taboos are addictive but ultimately alienating, and that by forbidding ourselves the guilty pleasures of imitating the glorious, we grow year by year more distant from it.

I do not know Mr. Hsu, nor why he chose 99. Maybe it is in honor of the real 99, or maybe it’s the year his daughter was born, or maybe he just liked the symmetry of it the way so many NHLers seem to like 11 and 44. But you know what? My eyeballs weren’t seared by watching an average player in an average league skating around in the taboo-shattering number, and Mr. Hsu has not been struck dead by the hockey gods. It was actually pretty cool, to see it on a functioning skater and not just hanging limp on a wall or stretched across some portly back. Here, in Taiwan, is an infant hockey culture, one strongly influenced by Canadian practices and structures, but not so strongly by Canadian beliefs. The sensibilities and conventions- the etiquette, really- of the Canadian hockey world do not necessarily apply.

I never previously questioned the practice of number retirement, in either it’s official or popular forms, but now, staring out the window at grey fields and spidery palms, I can imagine an alternate reality. Think what it would be like today if all those children of the eighties had been given free reign to emulate their idols in the way that the Great One himself (apocryphally) would have liked to. Imagine: a 99 on nearly every team, from the LNAH to the NHL, on all kinds of players from stars to grinders, bulky colossi to tricksy little wingers, a skating, sweating map of the unquantifiable impact his career had on a generation of hockey-loving children. That, I think, would be the real honor, the richer tribute, the more powerful commemoration.

It is useless to argue the point, for it is what it is and it will not change, but I will say this anyway: leave the taboos to the priests with their reliquaries and the hermits in their sacred caves. Hockey is a sport for the living and the profane, and it does no one any great service to lock any piece of it in the venerable, but stagnant, past.


Wayne D said...

Like rain to parched land
E nourishes the soul.
Like fresh ice to winged skates
E makes us want to fly.

Welcome back

Delicious said...

I agree with the spirit of this; let the dead past bury its dead. Perhaps at some point we can declare a year of Jubilee, or Rectification of Numbers, and start over.

It is interesting out here in LA to watch Manny Ramirez wear 99; if the Dodgers had traded for a lesser guy I think there might have been protests (from us small legion of hockey fans), but it's OK for someone as outsize as Manny. Of course, I'm sure he wouldn't know Gretzky if he hit him with a car.

Doogie2K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doogie2K said...

Of course, I'm sure he wouldn't know Gretzky if he hit him with a car.

As a total tangent, I don't recall Gretzky hitting anyone with a car, but his teammate Glenn Anderson once hit young Ryan Smyth with a car while in Banff for training camp for the '87 Canada Cup. They made Smyth the stick boy as compensation. =)


It's a common joke that hockey is like a religion in Canada. Compared to historical examples, this is, of course, nonsense. Certainly, the mystical ball game of el Tajin would like a word with hockey outside if that is truly the case. But this article does perhaps point out the kernel of truth to the notion: that we worship numbers as symbols of the demigods we pay hundreds of dollars to see in the flesh, and for whom we perform various superstitious rituals, in order to bring good fortune. Like all religious and quasi-religious things, I don't think pointing out the inherent absurdity of the idea, from a rational perspective, really changes anything, even among the otherwise rational. Teams will still retire numbers for whatever reasons they see fit, and the "douchebag" wearing 99 in his beer league will get jumped until he uses hockey tape to change one or both of the 9's to an 8. And I don't really have a problem with it, in the broadest sense, even though I know it's silly.

However, the point you make about the meaning of number-retirement being diluted in the last 20 or 30 years is certainly a good one. No disrespect to Mike Gartner, but does he embody the number 11? Are his accomplishments inherently uneclipsable? Is he worthy of deifiction, as the Greeks deified their Olympic champions over 2,500 years ago? Probably not; in fact, the list of players worthy of such an honour can probably be counted on both hands, tops. Those players changed the nature of hockey with their skills and accomplishments, and as a general rule, already have statues in their honour, again like the Olympians of yesteryear. In a funny way, it sort of makes Toronto's policy of honouring numbers, but keeping them in circulation unless the player died or was maimed while a member of the team, look rational, and anything that makes Toronto look smart makes me uncomfortable by default.


So are you actually in HK with Julian now, or was this something you did over the summer? That's pretty cool, either way.

Mookie said...

What a great introduction to your writing. I have heard a lot about your level of insight and your approach is very inspiring.

Thanks for covering the CIHL. Those bus rides were a great way to end our Taipei weekends. Tell Julian I say "HI!"


E said...

wayne- awwww... i blush.

delicious- i love the jubilee concept. one of the interesting questions to contemplate is at what point franchises will stop retiring simply because it starts to feel ridiculous. there's got to be a kind of diminishing marginal returns phenomenon at work here- each player you retire might individually seem worthy, but give it enough time and you've got 30 numbers hanging from the rafters and it starts to look like a practical burden.

doogie- i wasn't really arguing that taboo-observance is irrational. i mean, imitation is equally so- one doesn't take on a player's powers just by wearing his number. my point was more that i think it's (taking a long view) depressing that hockey memory has taken this turn. it gives me a bit of sympathy for those franchises who take a stringent view on 'race car numbers', just because that seems like a more authentic way of preserving a connection to the past. taboos just seem like willful severance of such connections.

i'm not in hong kong, but close- kaohsiung city in southern taiwan. you'll be reading a lot about it in the season to come.

marc- i've heard so much about you, it's too bad we missed each other. i'll be discussing the doings of the mustangs from time to time on this page, so please do chime in with your own expertise whensoever you feel the need.

julian says hi too, he was quite tickled by your greeting.

Doogie2K said...

E: Hm, that is true, now that I look at the passage again. My mistake. Either I'm rusty or I've just betrayed my own conflicted beliefs. ;)

I never really thought about it from the sense of squelching imitation, so much as just being absurd, in the current practice at the pro level, like the Gartner example. Sure, there are some people whose numbers probably can't be worn with a given team again, because it's just not going to happen. Really, is there anyone else who can wear #9 for Montreal and be greater than the Rocket was while wearing it? No. Even if the player was theoretically "better" (however the hell you judge that), Richard was larger than life, not only a supreme talent in his heyday, but a reluctant icon for the Francophone people. He was one of that handful of players that transcended the sport, and anyone else wearing his sweater would fall flat. Now, maybe I'm not as attuned to the Capitals' history, but I'm not seeing Mike Gartner as an icon. Mike Vernon? Nuh uh. Even Glenn Anderson. I see what they're doing there, but it doesn't work for me. However, if people want to wear 9 or 30 or 11 or whatever on their beer-league sweater, go nuts.

The only justification I can really think of for the 99 taboo is precisely because (a) it is so distinctive, sitting as it does at the opposite end of the spectrum from all the "normal" numbers, and (b) the first player to make real noise while wearing it came about in an era of then-unprecedented press for the NHL across North America. Had Gretzky worn 99 in the 1950s, I wonder if we might have seen something more like what you describe, with everyone and his cat wearing the thing.

Julian said...

See, dougie, that's essentially what i said, the 99/Gretzky thing is largely a product of the time he played in and the medial putting him on a pedestal. Not that it was undeserved or anything.

Wearing 99 is really only taboo (and by taboo, i don't mean it in the religious sense, i mean it in the "you're a flashy, conceited dink if you wear it" sense) in certain situations, really, only if you're playing some sort of competitive game. Wearing 99 while playing pond hockey on a frozen lake? That's not taboo, that's awesome. That's a perfectly fine tribute.

Wearing it as a 22 year old in your first year of mens beer league? It's up there with wearing a reflective visor and pink skate laces and chewing buble gum on the ice. You're trying way too hard, and people are gonna notice you for the wrong reason.

Marc : Hey! Come back!

Doogie2K said...

Wearing 99 while playing pond hockey on a frozen lake? That's not taboo, that's awesome. That's a perfectly fine tribute.

Given how many blue-and-orange 99s I see, even here in Calgary, it'd be hard to find a pond-hockey game with no one wearing their 99.

But the beer-league thing shows a certain kind of pretension, and seems to be the sort of thing done disproportionately by the same sort of guys who hot-dog when they score, or hit too hard because they think they've still "got a shot," at least in my experience with my dad's league, back in the day.

E said...

doogie & julian-

hey, i get the weight of the taboo against wearing 99 for actual hockey, but to me it's still paradoxical that the behavior applies to certain numbers, while to others the attitude is completely different. A guy who insists on wearing 9 whenever he plays because that was richard's number is just fine- nobody thinks he's an asshole for doing so, they just think he really loves richard. why, exactly, can the same attitude not be had to wearing 99? other than the fact that it just isn't?

look at the case of the guy on mirtle's post who said that 99, 66, 9, and 4 should be the only numbers retired league-wide. people go with him on the first two, but even suggesting that for the latter two sounds ridiculous. i'm just saying that i think it'd be better for the sport generally if people treated 99 the way they treat 4.