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WORCESTER — Pro sports has always been a numbers business, although more now than ever before.
The numbers thing started long before computers, back when owners began putting numbers on the backs of their players’ shirts and realized there was money to be made from selling lineups, scorecards and programs that matched those numbers with bodies.
The significance of numbers has evolved tremendously through the years. It has included identification, superstition and history. In New England, there is no more historic hockey number than 4, the one Bobby Orr wore throughout his Bruins career.
He was assigned it at the beginning of the 1966-67 season after wearing 27 in training camp. His predecessor was defenseman Al Langlois, who had it in ’65-’66 and never played in the NHL again.
Program sales used to bring in a little money for hockey teams back when salaries were $10,000 a year and tickets $3 a game. That was enough income so that when the NHL decreed, a few decades ago, that names as well as numbers had to go on the back of jerseys, Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard had his players’ names in letters so small that fans needed Hubble telescopes to see them.
When that move was banned by the league, Ballard had the letters colored to match the jerseys — blue on blue, white on white. That, too, was banned by the league, and is it any wonder Toronto has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967?
Count runs high
In Worcester, the number narrative has progressed through the years.
The Railers have expanded it greatly to the point that the highest number in the city’s history, 92, is worn by goalie Colten Ellis, who had it in junior hockey. Some players don’t care at all about their number. Others do, and for different reasons.
Captain Jordan Lavallee-Smotherman asked for No. 14 at the start of the season, and equipment manager Todd MacGowan was happy to oblige.
“I used to think it wasn’t that important,” Lavallee-Smotherman said, “then when I was thinking about it more, I realized that the years I’ve worn 14 are the years we’ve won something. That’s why requested 14. I wore 14 my first pro year in Chicago, and we won a Calder Cup there.
“Two times I’ve worn it since, we won cups in the U.K. and in Sweden.”
Informed of why the captain had wanted 14, MacGowan — who has heard it all — responded, “That’s a very good reason.”
Both the highest and lowest numbers in the city’s hockey history belong to goalies. Ellis is the highest. The lowest is No. 1, since nobody has yet to wear zero. Goalies always used to be No. 1, but that has changed. The Railers don’t even have a No. 1 jersey, MacGowan said.
“One, and 30,” those were always the goalie numbers, he added.
The IceCats did not have a No. 1 in 1994-95, the year hockey arrived in town. The first Worcester goalie to wear it was Brent Johnson in 1998-99. The most recent was Troy Grosenick in 2014-15, the Sharks’ last year here.
The all-time leader is Curtis Sanford. He was No. 1 for four seasons starting in 2000-01.
The most identifiable number in Worcester hockey history is the No. 3 worn by Terry Virtue. He had it for all six of his seasons here, but also wore No. 33 for part of 1997-98. Virtue was not Worcester’s first No. 3, though. That distinction belongs to another defenseman, short-timer Chris Valicevic.
Railers winger Ross Olsson is partial to the No. 23 he wears now but is not militant about it.
“I’ve had it since junior hockey and in college,” Olsson said, but he got No. 9 when he was first signed here in 2018-19.
“When you’re a rookie, beggars can’t be choosers,” he added, “but 23 is my number. It was in Fairbanks (juniors) and college (Endicott), and I’ve always liked it. But it’s not that big a deal. If an older guy came in, like Smotherman, and said he wanted it, I’d just say ‘here you go.’
“Or maybe I’d make him buy my number. Say, give me 20 bucks or maybe a Chipotle gift card.”
Actually, that happens — teammates buying and selling numbers — although not so much in the minors.
“In juniors (Quebec), there was a guy so was so attached to Number 11,” Smotherman said, “my second to last year there, he asked, ‘Can I buy you dinner?’ but I told him — No, just take it.”
No one picks up 52?
Worcester’s numbers have ranged from 1 to 92. Every possible number has been used through 51, which Brodie Reid wore for two years with the Sharks. There have been no 52s and one 53, Sharks forward Brandon Mashinter.
Until the Railers arrived, the highest Worcester number was the 57 worn by IceCats defenseman Jan Horacek. Ashton Rome, who had 10 and 17 with the Sharks, broke that barrier when he went to No. 88 in the Railers’ first season, and the floodgates have opened.
Karl Boudrias is No. 86 this year, Anthony Repaci 81.
“I normally wear 18,” Repaci said, “but when I first signed here Tyler Poulsen was wearing it, so I went with 81, but I want 18 back. I’m not at all superstitious. I just liked wearing 18, so I figured why keep changing my numbers? But I don’t think we have enough in stock, because there’s been like five guys wearing 18 this year.”
Repaci is absolutely correct. The list includes Poulsen, Dom Procopio, Reece Newkirk, Austin Block and Robert Roche, and that’s a Worcester record for one number in a season.
“The scary thing is, we’re starting to run out of numbers,” MacGowan said. “Right now we have a certain number of jerseys we can use, and we have just two numbers no one is using.”
Will hockey eventually have to go to triple figures?
“No,” MacGowan said, “unless they downsize the numbers.”
Only five numbers have been in use every in Worcester season. They are 5, 8, 11, 14 and 22. No. 8 debuted with a former NHLer, the late Walt Poddubny, and was most recently worn by a former NHLer, Bobby Butler.
No. 5 is bookended by a pair of New Englanders, Jason Weinrich of Maine and Nick Albano of Massachusetts. It’s the same with 14, except both are Bay Staters— Shaun Kane of Holyoke, Smotherman of Westborough.
Two players hold the record for most numbers. Johnson had 1, 30, 31 and 35. Sharks defenseman Derek Joslin had 6, 24, 25 and 26.
The numbers game — in one form or another it has been part of sports going on a 100 years now.
—Contact Bill Ballou at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BillBallouTG.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester Railers have ways of playing their numbers