What's behind the jersey number of hockey players?

Rangers' Brad Richards looks on before a face-off

Rangers' Brad Richards looks on before a face-off against the New Jersey Devils in the second period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden. (Nov. 12, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Beyond mere statistics, every hockey player has a numerical value.

"I've been 19 for a long time," Rangers forward Brad Richards said.

He was referring to his uniform number.

"I had 19 when I first started in the NHL, at different levels before that," Richards said. "When I was in juniors, I couldn't get 19 because an older player had it, so I wore 39. I had to wear 91 in Dallas, because 19 was retired."

Bill Masterton, the only NHL player to die as a direct result of injuries during a game, had worn 19 when the franchise was in Minnesota.

"When I got to New York," Richards said, "it felt good to get 19 back again. It kind of fits."

Hockey, it turns out, has the least formalized numbering rules in American professional sports. The NFL uses a strict formula based on player positions. The NBA tends to have fewer digits ending in 6 through 9 to aid referees, who use their fingers to communicate fouls, etc. Baseball traditionally assigned lower numbers to established veterans (though that is changing). Soccer only recently has gotten away from having its 11 starters wear 1 through 11; players often changed numbers from game-to-game based on the lineup.

Islanders captain John Tavares wears 91 in part because of an affinity for the number 9 -- he was born in the ninth month in 1990, and his uncle John, a lacrosse superstar, temporarily wore 9.

"I used to wear 19 growing up," Tavares said, "and when I went to the Toronto Marlboros [in junior hockey in 2004-05], another kid -- from my hometown, actually -- had 19, so I just figured I'd switch the numbers. The only guy I remember wearing it in the NHL back then was Sergei Federov [an 18-year veteran with four teams], and I had a good season that year and just stuck with it."

Tavares failed to mention that his goal total with the Marlboros that season was 91.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist wore 35 for the Swedish national team, but the Rangers had retired it for Mike Richter, so Lundqvist was given 30. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan grew up wearing 22.

"I just like the number 2," Callahan said, but he couldn't get 22 in junior hockey, "so I just doubled the last number and that turned it to 24."

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault remembered being given 32 during his brief career with the St. Louis Blues. "I think it was the only number they had left," he kidded.

Islanders coach Jack Capuano, in short stints with Toronto, Vancouver and Boston, was assigned 26, 24 and 23. Asked what his preferred playing number was, he cites the No. 18 he wore in youth hockey and at the University of Maine.

In hockey, then, there often are individual numerical decisions, though Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh wears 27 for "no reason at all," he said. "It was given to me."

He said he would have taken 17 when he joined the team because that was his number in college and high school, but Brandon Dubinsky was 17 at the time.

"Most of the time," McDonagh said, "the reason someone's wearing a number is because of a player they watched when they were little and tried to emulate. Or the significance of your date of birth or year of birth."

In his case, McDonagh said, he couldn't single out a No. 17 he admired. "John Moore," suggested John Moore, McDonagh's current teammate, who was sitting next to McDonagh during the conversation. But if McDonagh were offered 17 now, "I wouldn't switch. I like 27 now."

Numbers often become as personal as a fingerprint or signature. And it is the uniform number, of course, that is hung from the rafters of the retired greats.

Islanders forward Kyle Okposo wore No. 8 as a kid. "I don't know why," he said, and then remembered, "Yes, I do. Sandis Ozolinsh was my favorite player, and I was a defenseman growing up."

Ozolinsh, a defenseman who played for six teams, including the Rangers, wore 6, 44 and 24 as well, but he caught the young Okposo's eye when he was an 8. When Okposo joined the Islanders as a rookie, "Bruno Gervais had 8," he said, "and of the other numbers I'd worn, 9's retired [Clark Gillies], 19's retired [Bryan Trottier] . . . ''

So Okposo got 21. And now, he said, "It would be weird to have a different number than 21. Now I like 21."

Callahan understood.

"You get used to seeing that jersey in your locker with your number,'' he said, "kind of a strange little superstition that I think all hockey players have."

It's not just another number.