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What's in a Number?

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

Joakim Andersson's No. 63 jersey hung in his dressing room stall at Joe Louis Arena prior to Tuesday's game against St. Louis. (Photo by Bill Roose)
What does Red Wings rookie Joakim Andersson have in common with Hank Bassen, Rogie Vachon, Tiger Williams, Brad Smith, Petr Kilma, and Sergei Fedorov?

Each player was the first Wing to wear a jersey number in his respective numerical range.

In this, the 86th season of Wings’ hockey, Andersson is the first player to choose a jersey number in the 60s, which was the final frontier in the franchise’s numerology.

The 22-year-old Andersson made his NHL debut in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues at Joe Louis Arena.

Historically in the NHL, starting goalies used to wear No. 1, while backup goalies wore No. 30, and the skaters wore everything in-between. However, that wasn’t the case for Detroit’s first team in 1926. That season goalie Hap Holmes wore No. 1 and his backup Herb Stuart donned No. 14.

It wasn’t until 39-years later that the Wings added a No. 30 to the roster when Bassen made the switch from No. 25 in 1965. Thirteen years later, the Wings signed Vachon away from the Los Angeles Kings. He played in Detroit for one season (1978-79), and wore No. 40 just that once during a 16-season NHL career.

Since Vachon, 33 different Wings have worn numbers in the 40s with the exception of No. 49, the only unclaimed number in that range. Currently, there are 12 Wings’ players assigned numbers in the 40s and above.

Now that the Wings have six retired numbers – honoring Terry Sawchuk (1); Ted Lindsay (7); Gordie Howe (9); Alex Delvecchio (10); Sid Abel (12); and Steve Yzerman (19) – higher numbers have become commonplace up through No. 96, popularized by Tomas Holmstrom, who originally wore No. 15 until he made the switch in 1997.

Still, the lower numbers seem to be more popular among Wings' players, with Andersson becoming just the 24th player to don a number higher than 50 in the last 27 years. And it was in the mid-80s, and for varying reasons, when Williams (55), Smith (72) and Klima (85) were the first Wings to wear numbers in the 50s, 70s and 80s.

Prior to 1984-85, the Wings acquired Williams from Vancouver, where he wore No. 22, just like he had previously done in Toronto. But when he got to Detroit, future hall-of-fame defenseman Brad Park was wearing 22, so Williams settled on 55.

Smith split five seasons with the Wings and their Adirondack farm club and was assigned four different numbers in Detroit, ending with No. 72 when he was recalled for the 1984-85 season finale in St. Louis. In that game, a 6-5 overtime loss, Smith scored and had a fight with Blues defenseman Dwight Schofield.

But Klima had perhaps the most meaningful reason for selecting a jersey number.  His number paid tribute to his successful defection with the help of the Wings’ organization, to the U.S. in Sept. 1985. A grateful Klima requested the number, which he wore throughout his career as a reminder of his freedom.

In 1990, Fedorov became the second player in NHL history to sport No. 91, and the first since the New York Islanders’ Butch Goring did so 10 years earlier.

And in case you were wondering, the Wings still have 34 unclaimed numbers – all between 49 and 98. There would be 35 numbers, but the NHL retired No. 99 league-wide when it honored Wayne Gretzky.

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