Plekanec will feel at home, again, in Canadiens’ No. 14

0-plek-dogs-jersey.jpgHere is Tomas Plekanec’s No. 14 Hamilton Bulldogs jersey, worn before he settled in with the Canadiens.

From today’s Gazette, on Plekanec switching to uniform No. 14 from No. 35 for the coming season:

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

Centreman Tomas Plekanec is less than half the player he was last season.

That is, if you judge the man solely by his Canadiens jersey.

0-plekanec-webpage.jpg

The title page at www.plekanec.cz, Plekanec’s webpage maintained in the Czech Republic (not currently online). The No. 14 isn’t hidden.

This summer’s departure to Nashville of unrestricted free agent Radek Bonk did more than briefly empty a Bell Centre dressing-room cubicle. It vacated Canadiens sweater No. 14, the number forever worn by Plekanec before he arrived in Montreal.

Sporting No. 35 for all of his 156 games with the Canadiens, Plekanec has pounced on 14 like it was a juicy rebound.

“Tomas text-messaaged and emailed me very soon after Radek signed in Nashville, asking if he could switch to 14,” Canadiens equipment Pierre Gervais said. “It was OK with me in the summer, but it would have been more complicated to do in the middle of the season.”

Plekanec is one of five Canadiens with “new” numbers for 2007-08. The rest are incoming free agents: Tom Kostopoulos, his No. 6 most recently worn by Janne Niinimaa; No. 20 Bryan Smolinski (Mike Johnson); No. 44 Roman Hamrlik (Sheldon Souray); and No. 71 Patrice Brisebois (Mike Ribeiro).

Brisebois imports his number from Colorado, choosing not to take the available 43 he wore with Montreal from 1990-2004.

But the others have had to find fresh ones. Smolinski’s 21 in Vancouver belongs here to Christopher Higgins, and Kostopoulos’s 29 with Los Angeles and Hamrlik’s 4 with Calgary have been retired by the Canadiens, honouring Hall of Famers Ken Dryden and Jean Béliveau.

“Tom and Roman asked if they could have their old numbers,” Gervais said, laughing. “I told them, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ”

Every nameplate soon will be sewn onto the Canadiens’ new high-tech Reebok jerseys, training camp only a month away.

Plekanec’s shuffle won’t be without a few complications. Many pro athletes are not merely identified, but defined by the numbers they wear, some building their phone numbers and license plates around them.

0-plek-goalie.jpgGoaler George Hainsworth, winner of the first three Vézina trophies, was the third of 49 Canadiens in history (and one of two netminders) to wear Tomas Plekanec’s new No. 14.
James Rice Studios

A look around the Canadiens dressing room reveals items from baseball caps to shower sandals marked with uniform numbers. Plekanec must relabel all of his and probably his sticks, too, which usually have a player’s number atop the shaft for ease of identification.

And there are Plekanec 35 items in Canadiens boutiques and his fans’ collections that have become a coveted keepsake or a misguided investment, depending on your point of view.

Plekanec has never had a strong bond to his 35, shrugging about it in October 2005 for a Gazette feature on numbers and how the Canadiens chose (or were chosen) to wear them.

He had debuted with Montreal in that sweater on New Year’s Eve 2003, Oleg Petrov already in the 14 Plekanec had worn as a boy and a budding pro in his native Czech Republic, then with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs.

Bonk was in 14 when Plekanec returned to the Canadiens after spending the lockout season in Hamilton, and rookies with two games’ NHL service take what they’re given, getting their own choice only if it’s available.

“Give me pads, a blocker and a mask,” Plekanec said playfully for the 2005 story. “I’m wearing a goalie’s number. But Bonkie has (14) here, so it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to keep 35 for as long as I can.”

In fact, two of the seven 35s in Canadiens history were goaltenders: Andy Moog, in 1997-98, and Stéphane Fiset, in 2001-02. Forward Mike McPhee was its first owner, from 1983-92.

What Plekanec likely doesn’t know is that two goalers also wore his new No. 14, which now has been assigned to 49 players:

Three-time Vézina Trophy-winner George Hainsworth, the third Canadien to wear it, pulled it on for 48 games in 1926-27, and Paul Bibeault wore it for his four games in 1940-41.

The first No. 14 was Harry Scott of Moncton in 1913-14, on the Canadiens of the National Hockey Association. First on the NHL club was Sorel’s Wildor Larochelle, in 1925-26, a second-line winger with Pit Lépine and Georges Mantha.

The number has been on the backs of two Hall of Famers: Hainsworth, and a rookie Elmer Lach in 1940-41. Checking ace Claude Provost wore it longest, and with great distinction, from 1956-70.

It got around in the 1940s – Tony Demers, Charlie Phillips and Ernest Laforce all wore it in 1942-43, and Rolland Rossignol, Rosario Joanette, Eddie Emberg and John Mahaffey shared it in 1944-45.

Sweater No. 14 is far from the club’s most-worn. Captain Saku Koivu’s 11 has been used by a record 72 skaters, at least.

Plekanec hopes his uniform’s 50th owner is still in minor hockey. This season he’ll earn more than triple his salary of 2006-07, on the front end of a new two-year, $3.2-million contract signed last month. At 24, fresh off a superb 20-goal, 27-assist sophomore season, he is growing into his game and his jersey, No. 14 again on his back and No. 35 available to anyone who asks.

One teammate, who’s never seemed the superstitious sort, heartily approves of the switch:

“I’m happy he changed his number – 35 was a bad one.”


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