Were it not for Gordie Howe, the franchise that would one day become the Carolina Hurricanes might not have survived to make it that far. For that, and not merely for being Mr. Hockey, his No. 9 is unofficially retired in red and white.
Howe, who died Friday at 88, earned the sobriquet Mr. Hockey not only with his goals and assists and fists, but as a cheerful and willing ambassador for the sport. He remained a living legend long after he stopped playing, but his final game – other than a 1997 minor-league publicity stunt – came in a Hartford Whalers uniform.
He was best known for his time with the Detroit Red Wings, and that is where he played his greatest hockey and had his greatest success. But his tenure with the Whalers, even coming as a sort of career coda, was absolutely essential to that franchise’s long-term survival.
Howe arrived in 1977 at the sprightly age of 49, poached by the WHA’s New England Whalers from the rival Houston Aeros, his sons Mark and Marty coming with him in a massive marketing coup for one of the marquee franchises in the upstart league. When the WHA fell apart two years later, the presence of Mr. Hockey and Sons on the roster played a crucial role in making sure the Whalers were one of only four WHA teams absorbed by the NHL.
He played through the 1979-80 season, the Whalers’ first in the NHL, appearing in all 80 games that season as a 51-year-old and scoring 15 goals and 26 assists. And then, after 26 seasons, Mr. Hockey went from his job description to an honorary title, although he was still under contract doing personal appearances for the Whalers into the ’90s.
On Feb. 18. 1981, the Whalers retired Howe’s No. 9, the second of three numbers retired by the Whalers, along with Rick Ley’s No. 2 and John McKenzie’s No. 19. Those banners hung in the Hartford Civic Center until the team headed south to become the Hurricanes in 1997. That departure from Hartford was so abrupt and acrimonious that owner Peter Karmanos and general manager Jim Rutherford made it their explicit intention to begin a new history in North Carolina.
Two sets of franchise records have since been kept: including Hartford and since the move. No banners would move with the team: not the one Adams Division championship, not the 1973 WHA Avco Cup and certainly not retired numbers. Glen Wesley immediately dropped a zero from the No. 20 he wore in Hartford – the No. 2 is now re-retired in honor of Wesley – and Nelson Emerson had worn No. 16 in Whalers green but quickly took No. 19 in Hurricanes red.
But equipment manager Skip Cunningham, who has worked for the franchise since the very beginning, quietly made sure no one was given No. 9. Eventually, Rutherford gave that policy his unofficial blessing. And so it remains, at the moment at least, even if there’s not a banner to make it official.
The same is true of No. 3, worn by the late Steve Chiasson. Because of the circumstances of his death – Chiasson was legally intoxicated when he drove his truck off the road, hours after the team was eliminated from the playoffs in 1999 – the team has never been comfortable officially retiring his number. But no one has worn it since, or ever will.
Perhaps someday, if and when Karmanos no longer owns the team, an owner detached from the move and more secure in the Hurricanes’ impressive post-1997 history will find it proper to acknowledge the franchise’s heritage as the Whalers with a banner in PNC Arena, maybe with that green-and-white W and Howe’s famous No. 9, but it really doesn’t matter.
Officially or unofficially, Mr. Hockey has always been, and will always be, embedded in the DNA of this franchise. It might not exist without him.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock