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Goalies want to be No. 1, but no longer wish to wear it

Luongo jersey retirement latest blow to once-popular digit for position

by Kevin Woodley / Independent Correspondent

Roberto Luongo always has a quick and easy response when asked why he wore No. 1.

"Because No. 1 says it all," Luongo said.

It's a statement fewer NHL goalies seem eager to make. 

With the Florida Panthers set to retire Luongo's No. 1 on Saturday, the number of goalies wearing it around the League is at its lowest point since he wore it when he debuted in the NHL with the New York Islanders on Nov. 28, 1999. 

There were 12 NHL goalies wearing No. 1 in 1999-2000, Luongo's rookie season. That number peaked at 16 two seasons later, before dropping to 10 in 2006-07, the first of Luongo's eight seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. The number hovered near there during the next 12 seasons, with a low of eight goalies in 2013-14, the year Luongo was traded back to Florida by Vancouver, but this season one goalie has appeared in an NHL game wearing No. 1. 

"Because the new kids feel it's old and not cool," Luongo, now 40, said with a laugh.

Thomas Greiss of the Islanders is that one NHL goalie wearing No. 1 this season, but he said he has no deep attachment to it. Greiss wore No. 29 for Worcester of the American Hockey League but was given No. 1 when he made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks in the 2007-08 season because forward Ryane Clowe was wearing No. 29. His playing partner, Semyon Varlamov, wore No. 1 for eight seasons with the Colorado Avalanche but didn't express any interest in having it after signing with the Islanders during the offseason. 

"No, he didn't bring it up," Greiss said of Varlamov, who wears No. 40, "but he could have it."

Others are tired of the tradition that has long seen goalies given No. 1 by default. 

Laurent Brossoit said he wasn't given a choice and had to wear No. 1 for his first four NHL seasons with the Edmonton Oilers. He has worn No. 30 for the past two seasons after signing with the Winnipeg Jets in 2018. 

"I just didn't like No. 1," Brossoit said. "Too many goalies have it."

They certainly used to.

Through much of the Original Six era, the expansion to 12 teams in 1967 and the increase to 21 teams by 1979-80, there are more goalies listed as wearing No. 1 each season than there were teams in the NHL. Back when teams only carried one goalie, that player was given No.1, and if he got hurt, the goalie brought in to replace him also got No. 1. When rosters expanded in the 1960s to include two goalies, the second goalie was most often given No. 30 or No. 31, and numbers between 30 and 35 also became staples of the position. But No. 1 remained the most common choice, at least until recently.

In some cases, it may have to do with No.1 not being available. When the Panthers retire the number for Luongo, they will be eighth team to take No. 1 out of circulation. The Toronto Maple Leafs retired it in honor of two goalies, Turk Broda and Johnny Bower, and it's also been retired by the Detroit Red Wings (Terry Sawchuk), Montreal Canadiens (Jacques Plante), Philadelphia Flyers (Bernie Parent), Chicago Blackhawks (Glenn Hall) and New York Rangers (Ed Giacomin). The Minnesota Wild retired No. 1 in 2000 to honor their fans.

"It might be nobody wants to be No. 1 because it's a pretty boring number," said Antti Raanta of the Arizona Coyotes, who was given No. 1 as a child growing up in Finland but switched to No. 32, the number he wears now, in his late teens. "It brings a little more color to the game when guys are wearing 72 or something like that. It's a bit more fun."

Sergei Bobrovsky wears No. 72 with the Panthers, and Andrei Vasilevskiy wears No. 88 for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Just as some goalies wear a number to honor their heroes growing up (Cam Talbot of the Calgary Flames wears No. 33 because of Hall of Famer Patrick Roy; Malcolm Subban of the Chicago Blackhawks likes No. 30 because of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur; and Mikko Koskinen of the Edmonton Oilers wears No. 19 because he was a fan of Hall of Fame Red Wings center Steve Yzerman), there will be other young Russia-born goalies who come into the League in the future wearing Nos. 72 and 88.

Some goalies also wear a number with personal meaning. 

Thatcher Demko of the Vancouver Canucks wears No. 35 to honor Ian Jenkins, a friend who died in 2011. Juuse Saros was given No. 1 for one game with the Nashville Predators in 2015-16 but has worn No. 74 in the four seasons since for his brother, who wears No. 7 in floorball, and his dad, who wears No. 4 to referee basketball.

Vegas Golden Knights prospect Dylan Ferguson was given No. 1 when he was called up as a 19-year-old on an emergency basis in 2017-18 and wore it in his NHL debut, which was fitting because Luongo was his favorite goalie growing up. Still, he went back to wearing No. 31 when he was sent back to junior hockey and wears it now in the minor leagues.

"My mom loved the No. 3 and my dad loved No. 1, so 31 just felt right," he said. 

As for the decline in No. 1, Ferguson can see others shying away because of the history. 

"No. 1 has history with guys like Luongo," he said. "Maybe they think there's extra pressure behind the number."

Whatever the reason, one thing seems true: Every goalie wants to be the No. 1, but fewer want to wear it.

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