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A numbers game: Why Wild players wear the digits they do

Nearly every name on roster has a story or specific reason behind selecting his number

by Dan Myers @MNWildScribe /

Tony DaCosta spent days dreading the phone call.

About a week prior, the Wild equipment manager told former Minnesota goaltender Niklas Backstrom he'd do his best to keep Backstrom's jersey number, 32, off of a Wild player for the foreseeable future. 

DaCosta's promise to Backstrom was out of respect. The team's guru of gear since the franchise's first season, DaCosta believed Backstrom, with a decade of outstanding play in a Wild uniform, was -- at the time -- the best goaltender in club history.

Backstrom was back in town during the summer of 2016 and staying with DaCosta when the promise was made.

"We'd become pretty close, so I said, 'Don't worry, I'll keep 32 for you for as long as I can,'" DaCosta said.

A week later, the Wild signed goaltender Alex Stalock, who not only wore No. 32 in his lone previous NHL stop in San Jose, but also in college at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"I tried to talk him into something else," DaCosta said. "So I called Backy back and I said, 'Well, it lasted a week, buddy.' And he was like, 'Hey, thanks a lot!'"

While some players don't have a preference in terms of their jersey number -- or at the very least are low maintenance about it -- for others, it's a very big deal.

Some players will take whatever integer they're given, while others will move Heaven and Earth to try and get their preferred digits on the back of their sweater.

For a bulk of NHLers, receiving their favorite number isn't always easy. At some point, a player enters the League as a rookie, often competing in prospect development camps and training camps before ever skating in a game.

If that's the case, the odds that a player gets his druthers are relatively slim.

Charlie Coyle, for example, was assigned No. 63 during his first development camp with the Wild and carried it with him through his first training camp to his first NHL games.

DaCosta's rule of thumb for young players changing numbers? Make the NHL team out of training camp. 

Because Coyle began his first pro season in the American Hockey League, he wore 63 when he made his NHL debut in February of 2013.

"You're just trying to make the team; you don't care [what number] you have," Coyle said. "I'd take any number to play right away, and I knew it wasn't my spot to come in and want to change my number."

The following fall, when it became clear that Coyle would make the NHL team out of camp, DaCosta asked Coyle if he wanted to change to No. 3 -- the number Coyle had worn growing up -- for the start of the season.

Coyle's love of three began when he was a kid, when he first watched his dad wear it when he would play. As he got older, he watched his cousin, former long-time NHLer Tony Amonte, skate in No. 3 at Boston University, a uniform Coyle would one day himself sport.

But it was actually an Easter family gathering with Tony's dad, Lou, that got Coyle hooked on the number three.

Grandpa Lou told Coyle that three was his lucky number. 

"I was born in March, the third month. My initials are CC, the third letter [of the alphabet]. I'm the third kid [in my family]," Coyle said. "So when you're a little kid, you're like, 'Oh my gosh, yeah, that is my lucky number.'"

Some players choose to keep their camp number.

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Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon had no previous ties to the number 46, but when the opportunity to change came up, he simply chose not to.

Spurgeon wore the number 18 in junior hockey, but when he signed with the Wild in 2010, Colton Gillies occupied those digits. Spurgeon began the 2010-11 season with the Houston Aeros, Minnesota's AHL affiliate at the time; when he was called up to make his NHL debut in November of that season, it was a complete shock.

The Wild was on the road when the call-up occurred. Normally, NHL teams travel with extra jerseys of players on their minor league teams, just in case they get recalled. 

Spurgeon's addition to the NHL roster was so surprising, his jersey (officially No. 78) wasn't with the team in Calgary. So assistant equipment manager Rick Bronwell had to make a Jared Spurgeon jersey from scratch. He grabbed the jersey with the number 46 already on it, sewed on a 'Spurgeon' name plate, and voila. 

It's stuck ever since.

"It was just good luck when I came up, so I figured why change it?" Spurgeon said.

The number has not taken over Spurgeon's life either. It's not as though all of his passwords suddenly have the number 46 in them. 

To him, 46 is what he is at work, and that's about it.

"It's just there," Spurgeon said. "It's not my favorite number; it's just what I have."

Ryan Suter's No. 20 is one of the most popular jerseys on the backs of fans at Xcel Energy Center, but the 20 on the back of a Suter is nothing new.

His father, Bob, wore the number in the 1980 Olympics when he was a part of the "Miracle on Ice." Ryan Suter's uncle, Gary, had it during a 17-year NHL career with the Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. 

Ryan's brother, Garrett, wore it as a Division III player at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. 

Ryan Suter said he wears it in honor of his dad, but wasn't sure how Bob came to claim the number. While it carries special meaning to the Suter family, Ryan said it's been even more of a thrill to wear No. 20 at the Olympics, just like his father did.

"The U.S. connection, just wearing the jersey is special," Suter said. "But both Gary and my dad wore it in the Olympics, so that's when it's really special for me."

Zach Parise rose to prominence wearing No. 9 with in New Jersey, where he was not allowed to choose his number. He actually began his Devils career as No. 51.

"Then one day, I showed up and I had '9' on my helmet and that was it," Parise said. 

When Parise signed with the Wild in the summer of 2012, nine was quite unavailable, as it had been on the back of captain Mikko Koivu for the better part of a decade. 

But even if it was open, Parise said he would have chosen 11, the number he wore at the University of North Dakota and the one his father, J.P. Parise, had as a member of the Minnesota North Stars. 

Like Suter and Parise, Marcus Foligno wears his number, 17, in honor of his dad, former NHLer Mike Foligno. 

Mike wore 17 for about 90 percent of an NHL career that spanned 1,018 games, switching the digits' order to 71 during a 129-game span with the Maple Leafs.

"He loved the number 17 and it just stuck with him," Marcus said of Mike. "My whole time growing up in mites and peewees, I was 17 just like him."

The first time 17 was taken off Marcus was when he played junior hockey in Sudbury -- and that's because the number was retired in honor of Mike, who had played there two decades earlier. So Marcus wore 71, the same number his brother, Nick, currently wears with the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

The Sabres assigned Marcus 82 during training camp, and he played so well with it, he didn't want to change it. 

But when he was traded to the Wild and the opportunity to don his old number was available, he jumped at the chance.

"It's a nice-looking number," Marcus said. "You look around the League, and a lot of really great players wear 17."

Some players have their sweaters emblazoned in honor of others.

Matt Dumba was given 24 in juniors as a tribute to Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, who wore the number with three different teams over 16 seasons in the NHL.

Devan Dubnyk dons 40 every game because his favorite goaltender growing up, Fred Brathwaite, sported it with the Calgary Flames in the late 1990s.

"I always wanted to wear 40 and never had a chance to. You're always one, or 30 or 35 [as a goalie,] and they were the only options you ever had," Dubnyk said. "So I started wearing it as soon as I started playing pro and they actually let me pick my number."

Some players get the number they want right from the start.

Jason Zucker never had a "camp" number, because he made his professional debut late in the regular season in 2012. 

Zucker wore 17 for two years at the University of Denver, because when he was a freshman, senior Anthony Maiani had Zucker's preferred 16. 

When he requested the change for his sophomore season, he was denied because the equipment manager had already ordered everything.

Growing up, Zucker often wore six, because his older brothers were five and seven. He wore 92 one season in honor of his birth year. But he was 16 during his time with developmental team Compuware and then 16 again in his second season with the U.S. National Development Team Program. 

No. 16 was actually on the back of a Wild player before Zucker during the 2011-12 season. Forward Brad Staubitz was claimed off waivers by Montreal on Feb. 27 that season.

Exactly one month later, Zucker signed his entry-level contract. Two days later, he made his NHL debut with 16 on his back.

Some players have worn multiple numbers. 

Marian Gaborik began his Wild career with the number 10, but asked mid-season to change to 82, his birth year. It's a rare request, but one that DaCosta granted his young sniper during the team's inaugural season.

Gaborik didn't wear 82 for long, however. He had little success with it and asked to go back to 10 a few games later.

Koivu played his entire first season in the NHL as No. 21, the same number he had worn the year before when he made his North American debut with the Aeros. 

Bronwell, who was in Houston at the time, couldn't get ahold of Koivu for a request, and the young Finn was still learning English, anyway. So Bronwell thought about Mikko's older brother, Saku, then No. 11 for the Montreal Canadiens, and put a spin on it.

"I figured Saku was 11, and Mikko would be the second in his family to come over, so I made him 21," Bronwell said. "And it's a really cool number."

Koivu played the entire 2004-05 season in Houston as a result of that year's NHL lockout. When he finally debuted the following year, Koivu's preferred No. 9 was taken by Alexandre Daigle, so 21 remained.

But Koivu's time in the number didn't last.

During the summer of 2006, the Wild signed Mark Parrish, who wanted 21.

Koivu had no attachment to it, and with Daigle no longer on the team, the Finnish center switched to his preferred No. 9, a number he had adopted back in his hometown of Turku. For years, Mikko followed in Saku's footsteps by wearing 11 before eventually wanting to branch off and do his own thing.

So he went with nine. 

But what if Parrish had not signed with the Wild? Would Koivu still be wearing 21? 

"I don't know," Koivu said. "After the first year, especially back then, you wanted to be careful. I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, so even though I liked it, I don't think I would have [asked to change]. Maybe some day after? I don't know. 

"But I still remember the phone call when [Parrish] called me, and then I called Tony and asked him that if that was possible. I'm happy it worked out."

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