Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 is retired throughout the NHL not only because he is considered the greatest player in League history, but because the number and his name are synonymous.
Though there is no debate over the best player to wear that number, there are 98 other numbers with more than one worthy candidate. That is where the“NHL’s Who Wore It Best?”comes in.
NHL.com writers and editors have cast their votes, each selecting his or her top three for each number, with the top vote-getter receiving five points, second place getting three points and third place one point. Candidates will be debated, and the winners revealed, in a weekly, five-part series first airing on Sportsnet, NHL.com and League platforms each Friday at 5 p.m. ET, and re-airing each Tuesday on NBCSN (5 p.m. ET) and NHL Network (6:30 p.m. ET). NHL.com will provide the list of winners each Friday at 5:30 p.m ET following the premiere of each episode, beginning May 15.
Each Tuesday on NHL.com, selected writers will make his or her case for which player in the history of League wore a certain number best. Each Friday, in a companion piece, the debate will center on current players.
Today, the discussion is focused on the best player to wear No. 77.
Amalie Benjamin, staff writer
Well, my argument forRay Bourque, who wore No. 7 for parts of his first nine NHL seasons with the Boston Bruins but is remembered as No. 77, is easy. Not only was he one of the best defensemen to ever play the game — 19 All-Star Game selections, five Norris Trophy wins, 1,579 points in 1,612 games during 22 NHL seasons — he was so beloved in the city of Boston that when he won the Stanley Cup in 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche and brought the trophy back to the city he played in for 21 seasons, 15,000 people gathered to celebrate. That’s love. Heck, even the way he changed from No. 7 to No. 77 is iconic, pulling off his old jersey to reveal No. 77 when the Boston Bruins retired No. 7 for Phil Esposito on Dec. 3, 1987. Plus, Bourque had 938 points (231 goals, 707 assists) in 1,005 games after switching to No. 77.
Tim Campbell, staff writer
Bourque’s qualifications are undeniable but I didn’t expect this debate to be argued on love. If that’s a prerequisite, thenPaul Coffeymay rise to the top, given that there’s no greater fan love than for those that spark a Stanley Cup parade, which he helped do in 1991 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Coffey switched to No. 77 when he joined the Penguins in 1987-88 and continued to be that instrumental player who could bring people out of their seats with dazzling speed and fearless playmaking. Even after his Edmonton Oilers heydays, when he wore No. 7 and won the Stanley Cup three times, in No. 77, Coffey built a resume that included a Norris Trophy win in 1994-95 with the Detroit Red Wings, nine NHL All-Star Game appearances and was nearly a point per game player with 858 points in 859 regular-season games.
Tom Gulitti, staff writer
We’re talking about two of the best defensemen ever in Bourque and Coffey, so throwingVictor Hedman‘s name into this conversation probably isn’t fair to him at this point in his career. But after 11 seasons in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman has established himself as one of the best of his era. And he’s 29 years old, so there’s plenty of time for him to add to his resume, which includes a Norris Trophy win (2017-18) and two other times as a finalist. Hedman has yet to win the Stanley Cup, but helped Tampa Bay reach the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and we saw how much his injury impacted the Lightning when they lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round last season.
Hedman is a foundational defenseman, in my opinion, in the game today and may be judged differently at the end of his career. It seems unlikely he’ll be able to surpass Coffey in a couple of important offensive production categories, which were Coffey’s strengths. Wearing No. 77, Coffey still was almost a point-per-game player in the regular season as mentioned, and had 93 points (23 goals, 70 assists) in 100 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Some have discounted those offensive abilities, and Coffey’s style, as too much focus on offense, but it was the foundation of his consistent ability to impact games even after he left the Oilers.
Playing in a lower-scoring era it will be impossible for Hedman to come close to the offensive numbers of Coffey and Bourque. But since the start of the 2013-14 season Hedman is third among defensemen with 384 points (89 goals, 295 assists) and a plus-124 rating. The way Hedman can control the game as a defenseman, particularly when matched against an opposing forward in a playoff series, might make him as impactful as Coffey. Plus, Coffey and Bourque each wore No. 7 for significant portions of their time in the NHL while Hedman always has worn No. 77, which, by the time he retires, might make him the best true No. 77.
I like the reach, Tom. But it’s No. 77 that resides in the rafters at TD Garden for Bourque. And the fact that he was so beloved in Boston comes from his superlative talents on the ice, the way he excelled on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game. He was as complete a defenseman as you can find. His steadiness and the way his prowess never seemed to dip — he made the NHL First or Second All-Star Team 11 times in 14 seasons while wearing No. 77 — truly is remarkable. He easily could be counted among the top five or six players you’d want if you were starting an all-time team, so it’s clear he’s tops among this crew.