Wayne Gretzky's No. 99 is retired throughout the NHL not only because he is considered the greatest player in League history, but because the number and his name are synonymous.
Though there is no debate over the best player to wear that number, there are 98 other numbers with more than one worthy candidate. That is where the "NHL's Who Wore It Best?" comes in.
NHL.com writers and editors have cast their votes, each selecting his or her top three for each number, with the top vote-getter receiving five points, second place getting three points and third place one point. Candidates will be debated, and the winners revealed in a weekly, five-part series first airing on Sportsnet, NHL.com and League platforms each Friday at 5 p.m. ET, and re-airing each Tuesday on NBCSN (5 p.m. ET) and NHL Network (6:30 p.m. ET). NHL.com will provide the list of winners each Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET.
Each Tuesday on NHL.com, writers will make his or her case for which player in the history of the League wore a certain number best. Each Friday, in a companion piece, the debate will center on current players.
Today, the discussion focuses on the best player to wear No. 21.
[RELATED: Who Wore It Best? | Nos. 99-81 | Nos. 80-61 | Nos. 60-46 | Nos 45-31]
Dan Rosen, senior writer
Stan Mikita is a trailblazer. He came from a foreign land (the former Czechoslovakia), arrived in Canada at 8 years old not knowing how to speak English, and discovered hockey in North America. He became Stan Mikita. He became a legend. There are some great players who have worn No. 21, but none matters more to his organization and the history of the NHL than Mikita. The forward played in 1,396 games, scored 541 goals and assisted on 926 more, all for the Chicago Black Hawks. Twice Mikita won the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP), Art Ross Trophy (scoring leader) and Lady Byng Trophy (sportsmanship) in the same season (1966-67, 1967-68). He also won the Art Ross Trophy in 1963-64 and 1964-65. You'll find arguments for Borje Salming and Peter Forsberg below. Great players, but Mikita represents history and was a legend for a legendary franchise. There's a statue of him outside of United Center for a reason. A good reason.
Video: Stan Mikita Chicago's all-time leading scorer
Tim Campbell, staff writer
Dan has tried hard to end this discussion before it even starts. I disagree with his belief that this is a no-contest matter. Salming was much like Mikita, a trailblazer. When he arrived in the NHL at the age of 22 in 1973, there were exactly six Sweden-born players in the League, long before it was an easy or desired career path. It didn't take a season for Salming to establish that his value to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the NHL for that matter, was going to be high and long-lasting. He played 17 seasons, the first 16 for the Maple Leafs and the last for the Detroit Red Wings, and over 1,148 regular-season games, the defenseman scored 787 points (150 goals, 637 goals). More importantly, Salming earned an elite reputation as a battler, a warrior and was rewarded six times during his career by being named an NHL All-Star. During the centennial season celebrations in 2017, he was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, and if statues are a measuring stick, then yes, he too qualifies. There is a Salming likeness outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
Video: Borje Salming was pioneering European star
Shawn P. Roarke, Senior Director of Editorial
Before I weigh in with my argument in favor of Forsberg, let's take a minute to recognize how awesome it is that we are arguing about three Europe-born players in a conversation about which NHL player wore No. 21 the best. That is special, and congrats to each. Forsberg does not have a statue outside Pepsi Center in Denver, but he should. The talented Sweden-born forward was the heartbeat of the best run in the history of Colorado Avalanche hockey, and an integral part of the teams that won the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001. He averaged more than one point per game in each of those seasons and led the Avalanche in Stanley Cup Playoff scoring in two other runs to the Western Conference Final (1999, 2002). I can almost see the statue now, Forsberg raising the Cup, sporting the impish smile he would flash each time he scored a highlight-reel goal, his helmet tilted ever so slightly off the top of his head. Statue or not, that is the image many hockey fans conjure when asked about No. 21.
Video: Peter Forsberg won two Stanley Cups with Avalanche
I'm with Shawn, that this is something to celebrate, three candidates wearing No. 21 who come from outside North America. I was a fan of each of them. My first take when asked to participate in this debate was that it was highly personal. Which leads me to why I'm sticking with Salming. It goes back to a game I attended in the late '70s at the Montreal Forum, when the Montreal Canadiens were the Stanley Cup champions four seasons in a row. It was "Hockey Night in Canada," and the Canadiens targeted Salming all night. There was purpose to their plan: neutralize and demoralize their opponents by attacking their best player. Nice try. Salming simply was undeterred until the final siren. It was an impression that sticks with me to this day, why my regard for Salming is simply impenetrable. Later in my life, the kid in me, one who was a died-in-the-wool Maple Leafs fan growing up, had a private fist pump when No. 21 was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
Toughness is a trait that identifies each of these men. But, let me say, in my 25 years of covering hockey, there are few players I have met who are mentally tougher or physically stronger than Forsberg, who sustained several debilitating injuries during his career, including broken ribs and a ruptured spleen. He did not play during the 2001-02 regular season after having the first of several surgeries on his left foot but returned for the playoffs and scored 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) in 20 games. He was voted winner of the Hart Trophy the next season, scoring 106 points (29 goals, 77 assists) in 75 games when he was 29 years old, but never played another full season. Despite the injuries and missed time, Forsberg averaged 1.25 points per game (885 points in 708 games), which ranks 10th in NHL history among players with at least 100 games played.
Tim has made some great points about Salming, and I love the personal touch. Shawn has made some terrific points about Forsberg, particularly the toughness. But I'm sticking with Mikita, and here's a personal story to add to my argument. I was lucky enough to sit down with Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard in a board room at United Center before a Blackhawks game 10 years ago. John McDonough, the now-former Blackhawks president, had brought the four of them back in an attempt to revive Chicago's alumni base. I was blown away by Mikita, his presence, his buttoned-up look, his demeanor, his kindness and his stories. I never had a chance to see him play live, but I asked him questions and I did my research. Salming and Forsberg were great, legends in their own right, but Mikita had No. 21 before them. He represented that number and the Blackhawks sweater as well as anyone ever has. I appreciate everything Tim and Shawn have said here, but I'm sticking with my original pick.