You might be wondering why NHL legend Eric Lindros is trending on Twitter in Canada today. No, don’t worry, nothing bad happened to him – much like Wayne Gretzky trending four days ago, this is the result of Toronto Maple Leafs fans being perfectly normal on the internet.
You see, today, William Nylander announced that he’d be changing his number:
Making the switch … what’s old is new again #88
I’ve got you covered Leafs Nation, go to @realsportstoronto to have your jersey recrested on me. pic.twitter.com/gQWHZVxQMo
— William Nylander (@wmnylander) July 15, 2019
Nylander, of course, has worn this number in the youth levels, at the European Pro Levels with Modo Hockey of the SHL, and with the Swedish National Team. With the Leafs organization, he has previously worn 62 with the Toronto Marlies, 39 in his 2015/16 late-season call up, and 29 over the past three seasons.
It’s suspected that the reason for 29 is two-fold: A nod to his father Michael, who wore 92 in the NHL, and a following of one of Lou Lamoriello’s various team rules, which kept jersey numbers (that weren’t grandfathered in) under 40 in New Jersey, Toronto, and now New York.
While a large portion of the fanbase is happy that one of the team’s top players will have the ability to express himself in a way that doesn’t impact the rest of the team and might give him some added confidence after a rough 2018/19 season, others who either didn’t like him to begin with or were left disappointed by this past year are more upset. That’s where Lindros comes in.
I’m going to preface this point by saying that I think the world of Eric Lindros. I might hold Eric Lindros in higher regard than most of the people using him to peddle their garbage rhetoric. I think Eric Lindros, in his pre-injury prime, was the single most dominant all-around player to ever play the sport and that if he were healthy for even another 5 or 6 years, people would have no problem putting him on Mount Rushmore. If I taught a hockey history course, I’d probably spend a week talking about Eric Lindros.
Lindros is relevant because he was the only other player to wear 88 for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was when a broken-down Lindros finally got to live his dream of playing with the Maple Leafs in 2005/06, and how heartbroken I was when his season was once again cut short, this time by a wrist injury.
All of this said, Eric Lindros played just 33 games for the Maple Leafs, and scored just 22 points. He scored fewer goals in his tenure with the Leafs than Jay McClement, Bates Battaglia, John Pohl, and Joey Crabb. David Clarkson had the worst contract in Leafs history – he scored more goals than Eric Lindros. Tyler Ennis was a league-minimum rehabilitation signing by the Leafs this year and he played mostly on the fourth line – he ends his Leafs tenure with more goals than Eric Lindros.
Lindros is one of the greatest players to ever pick up a stick, a local legend, and I thank the hockey gods constantly for the fact that he got to be a Leaf for a bit. But his tenure was neither long or noteworthy, and there is no justification for his number to be held aside from selection.
It's not about Lindros as a Leaf. It's about the Hall of Fame Lindros. The #9 was rarely given out anywhere because of Howe, Hull etc. Nylander has a long way to go to have the honour of wearing #88
— Howard Konikoff (@KoniHowie) July 15, 2019
Some, like the person above, have even gone as far to argue that despite Lindros not having a Hall of Fame career with the Leafs, that he was still a Hall of Famer and that Nylander must still earn his stripes. This remains an absurd point to me – the same people had no issue with James van Riemsdyk wearing brief Leaf and Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk’s number in 2016/17 and 2017/18, and had no issue with Ron Hainsey wearing Brian Leetch’s #2.
Looking to the rest of the league, there is no unofficial barrier on Lindros’ 88 the way that Wayne Gretzky’s #99 is league-retired, and Mario Lemieux’s #66 is strongly discouraged (which Josh Ho-Sang recently learned the hard way – something I also disagree with). Eleven out of 31 teams had 88’s on their roster, with talent ranges from superstars (Patrick Kane, Brent Burns, Andrei Vasilievskiy, David Pastrnak), to depth players. Unless you are in Philadelphia, where Lindros has rightfully had his number retired, there is nothing sacred about the number. Arguably, to a fan of a younger or newer generation, you’ll likely see more association of 88 with Kane than with him.
This pairs with the fact that the whole idea of number sanctity for reasons of legacy is a little backwards, when you think about it. I was a big fan of Toronto’s old system of honouring legends instead of retiring numbers, with the exception coming in situations of sorrow – notably, cut short careers and/or lives. Soccer, in my eyes, does it best – treating the greatest numbers in team histories to be those of reverence, a torch to be passed down from club legends to future stars. Rather than blocking future generations off, it gives them something to work towards – honouring the legends they aspire to be rather than telling them that they themselves are not worthy.
Toronto changed from this format back at the start of the 2016/17 Centennial Season. While I didn’t fully agree with the decision, I liked the pitch that they had behind it – that in retiring the numbers atop the rafters, they would turn a page on the history of the past and start a new chapter of the organization.
Which kinda brings us to now. Lindros, God love him, didn’t make it up to those rafters for his contributions as a Leaf. In fact, he wasn’t even close. He played his best hockey in another city and got the recognition he deserved, both within the team and in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But a half season of a half player, in which he produced five points fewer than Nylander did in his “nightmarish” year, aren’t enough to block him from wearing the number he’s been waiting to wear since he was drafted here. Auston Matthews got his #34 immediately. Mitch Marner’s bid for #93 was blocked by the mass-retirement of numbers, but I’d imagine that if it wasn’t, we’d be seeing him moving to that post-Lou as well.
Even further down the depth chart, Kasperi Kapanen got his sought-after 24, with some patience, Connor Brown got his much-wanted 28 (which, as much as I don’t want to give Tie Domi too much honour, was worn by a much more impactful Leaf). Hell, Nylander’s 29 was previously worn by two netminders with much bigger Leafs legacies than Lindros’ as a skater (Mike Palmateer and Felix Potvin)
So why are we upset now? It’s probably rooted in frustration with the player more than it is actually caring about it’s 33 games of use 13 years ago – but why not just admit that? It would at least be a bit more honest.
Realistically speaking, there is no reason to not be okay with it. If he wants to try to find a way to be one of the great 88’s in hockey history, I’m all for it. If it gives him any sort of intangible confidence boost, that’s great too. Ultimately, we’re arguing far too much about a sweater identifier.---
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