Why goalies are increasingly ditching traditional No. 1

The No. 1 is still favored by a few goalies, such as Keith Kinkaid. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It's a tradition practically as old as the sport itself: a hockey team led onto the ice by a goaltender wearing No. 1. From Jacques Plante to Glenn Hall to Johnny Bower, goalies wearing the simple number were the starting point of rosters for decades.

If you were a goalie, you wore No. 1. That's just how it was.

Operative word here being "was."

Today's goalies have gone in a different direction when it comes to the digits on their back. And the result has almost eliminated the No. 1 altogether.

"As a kid, I always had '1,'" said former goaltender and current broadcaster Brian Hayward, who wore the number for almost his entire 11-year NHL career. "Every time the goalie was '1,' so I just stuck with it. It almost became like an expectation for me.

"The No. 1 goalie wore '1.' Another reason why you wanted that number. You wanted to say, 'I'm the No. 1.' That's the way I looked at it."

It's believed that goalies were given the No. 1 because they were the first player on a rink when looking from the net outward. When a goalie was injured, for instance, the replacement goalie would also wear No. 1.

The numbering system changed when roster expansion required teams to field two goaltenders. The most notable change occurred in 1964, when legendary goaltender Terry Sawchuk joined the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Bower already wearing No. 1, Sawchuk went with No. 24 before taking on No. 30 and forever changing the numbers associated with goalies.

The Chicago Blackhawks' Tony Esposito wore No. 35, and goaltenders began gravitating increasingly toward the 30s thanks to Patrick Roy, whose usual No. 30 was worn by Chris Nilan when he joined the Montreal Canadiens as a rookie, forcing Roy to go with No. 33. Roy's legendary exploits in Montreal and with the Colorado Avalanche truly began a wave of iconic goalies wearing numbers that were uniquely theirs.

"When you saw a guy wearing 33 you'd go, 'Wow, he's wearing 33,'" Hayward said. "I'm sure a lot of kids wear 33 because of Pat. Ken Dryden was 29. A lot of guys, if they had a favorite [goalie], would go in that direction."

Today, the No. 1 has mostly gone the way of the two-pad stack. At the beginning of December, only seven goalies were wearing the number. It's a dramatic shift from just 25 years ago, when more goalies wore the number during the 1991-92 season, despite the NHL's fielding only 22 teams. Six teams have retired the No. 1 (not including the Minnesota Wild, who retired the number in honor of their fans), which also pushed goalies to be creative when it came to picking a number.

After being forced to abandon the number last season with the Canadiens, who retired the number in honor of Plante, Mike Condon was thrilled to get it back this season. He took back the number with the Pittsburgh Penguins and retained it after being traded to the Ottawa Senators.

"It's just the number I wore in high school and the number I wore in college," he said. "Any chance I get to wear it, I'm going to grab it. I think it's old-school. I just like it."

The number is certainly a throwback, especially with the Florida Panthers' Roberto Luongo, who at 37 is the league's oldest goaltender, wearing it. In fact, there are almost as many goalies in the league wearing No. 40 and No. 41 (four each) as there are wearing the number that historically defines the position. Others wearing the No. 1: Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings, Brian Elliott of the Calgary Flames, Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche, Keith Kinkaid of the New Jersey Devils and Thomas Greiss of the New York Islanders.

But some goalies forced to take on the single digit have come to love the loneliest number.

"I've loved No. 1 since I've gotten it," said Kinkaid. "I like the single digit. It's grown on me quite a bit. It's simple. My last name is only seven [letters], so I think if I had two numbers, it would go outside the seven."

Kinkaid wore No. 1 when he starred at Sachem High School East in Farmingville, New York. The school even retired the number in his honor. But he switched to No. 30 when he enrolled at Union College, a number he couldn't wear with the Devils thanks to a certain goalie named Martin Brodeur. Kinkaid switched to No. 35, which was eventually taken by current starter Cory Schneider after he was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks. With the Devils still among the few teams restricting which numbers players can wear, Kinkaid was given his old high school number.

But not every goalie forced by the Devils to wear the number took so kindly to the change.

"I didn't like it. I think it's a boring number," said former NHL goaltender and current broadcaster Kevin Weekes. "It's just a boring-looking number, but I respect the history of the guys who have worn it, of course."

Weekes was first assigned No. 1 by the Panthers when he came to the NHL in 1997-98, but he had worn double zero in junior hockey and the minors. The NHL doesn't allow the single or double doughnut because they cannot be registered in the league's database. So, when he came to the New York Islanders in 1999, Weekes switched to No. 80, which he figured was as close to double zero as he could get.

When it comes to traditional numbers, the Devils and Kinkaid have proved to be the exception. Whereas goalies typically expressed themselves through the art on their mask, some of the NHL's best have taken to doing that through their number.

"Maybe it's not cool anymore to wear No. 1. For me, I always look for it," Hayward said.

Many star goalies have gone off the conventional radar when it comes to their number, including the Blackhawks' Corey Crawford (No. 50), the Columbus Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky (No. 72), the Tampa Bay Lightning's Andrei Vasilevskiy (No. 88) and the Washington Capitals' Braden Holtby (No. 70). Their influence could ultimately make the traditional No. 1 even less popular with today's up-and-coming goaltenders.

"I think a lot of guys with big numbers have them for a reason," Condon said. "They have a story behind it.

"I don't really have anything like that. I just want the simplest number out there. Simple, to the point, succinct. No wasted energy there."

Of course, Condon said there is one other number he would consider.

"I'm just old-school, but I'd do double zero if I could."