'Not that sacred': Should Connor McDavid have dibs on No. 97?

A recent social media squabble over Connor McDavid’s jersey number shows that hockey is a high stakes numbers game.

'He's not Wayne Gretzky yet'

The New Jersey Devils say there could be more than one number 97 skating in the NHL this season. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A recent social media squabble over Connor McDavid's jersey number shows that hockey is a high stakes numbers game. 

The dust-up erupted last week when New Jersey Devils management announced that Nikita Gusev, newly acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights, would wear No. 97.

Some fans criticized the move on social media, suggesting McDavid's number should be his alone. 

Oilers fans were likely alone in their annoyance, said Eric Francis, a columnist and analyst with Sportsnet.

Gusev's number shouldn't be a big deal.

"Half a dozen players have worn number 97 over years, so it's not like it's that sacred," Francis said. 

"It might be a big deal in Edmonton but I don't think it's a big deal anywhere else." 

To hockey fans, certain numbers are untouchable, Francis said. Number 66 will be forever be linked to Mario Lemieux. Wayne Gretzky will always have claim over number 99.

"I don't want to say anything bad about Connor McDavid but he's not Wayne Gretzky yet,"  Francis said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Gusev had the number first and it's common for multiple active players to wear the same jersey number, Francis said. 

Wilf Paiement and Rick Dudley both wore 99 before Wayne Gretzky. Yanick Dupre and Gino Odjick wore Mario Lemiuex's number 66. 

"For Gusev, coming over from Russia, he's probably thinking, 'What's the big deal? I've worn this number my whole life and I've had good success with it.'

"Players are very, very superstitious about their number. And they don't like to give them up." 

A Rolex, a case of beer 

Hockey players will go to great lengths to maintain the same digits throughout their careers, Francis said.

For instance, when goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky signed as a free agent in Florida, Frank Vatrano was already wearing his lucky number.

So, the negotiations began. It's common practice among NHL players, who often share a strange kind of mysticism about numbers and pregame rituals, Francis said.

"There is a great long history of sporting acquisitions made like this," he said. "It used to range from a case of beer to motorcycles. But now the gold standard, your starting point in negotiations, is a Rolex watch.

"Vatrano did a little bit better than that," Francis said. "He got a Rolex and free dinner for a year for his teammates. That's a handsome payday."

Gusev may owe McDavid a gold watch some day but not any time soon. 

"Let's slow down and let McDavid be a great player first." 


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