It would seem that uniform numbers are an acceptable topic here, so let me offer this. I've always found it an interesting point, but never had anyone with whom to discuss it before. If it's been done before, I'd like to hear about it. If you don't mind, I'll present it in a few segments to minimize eyestrain. I hope that it contributes towards a definitive history.
I was a goalie long ago when we played on frozen park district fields and the occasional rented rink in Chicago. Sometimes it seems like yesterday, though it was probably not too long after the invention of ice. There was never any question as to what number I wanted my grandma to sew on the back of my sweater. Had to be a "1" – and that memory prompted this discussion.
When I first began following NHL hockey, beginning with the 1961-62 playoffs, I noted that all the goalkeepers in the league sported the numeral 1. Well, there were only six regular goalies back then, but even the occasional substitute would wear a jersey with the same number. When I'd get to see a game at the Chicago Stadium, Glenn Hall was always in the Black Hawks' net, but in the pre-game skate I'd see Terry Sawchuk and Hank Bassen both in 1-enumerated Red Wings' shirts – and indeed, the program scoresheet listed both with that digit. (When Hall finally took a break after 500-odd consecutive games, Denis DeJordy made his debut -- in the familiar #1 (a photograph in The Chicago Tribune archives proves this).
No one thought that one or the other of those ones should be 1A or 1* or 1' (one-prime). Teams generally went though an entire season with one man in the net for maybe 65 of the 70 games. The next-best goalie in their organization played regularly for their top minor league affiliate, and he was bussed in when the main man was hurt or needed a rest. Chicago, of course, was an exception. (The Chicago Stadium Official Program told us that Walter "Gunzo" Humeniuk, the Hawks' equipment manager, was the emergency goalkeeper. He'd play for either team as needed. Honest, that's the way it was.)
I noted no exceptions to the use of the #1 handle. Surely this was unique in professional sports, the duplication of a uniform number, but somehow the NHL teams had some reason for doing so and the rules makers deemed it okay. Now, a goaltender needs a jersey slightly bigger than a comparably-sized player because of the additional shoulder, arm and chest padding, so maybe this was a factor in helping to readily identify the special sweaters, though I can't see too much value in doing it this way. Perhaps some teams actually had their fill-in goalie wear the other guy's sweater in his brief tenure in the big time, just to save a few dollars on wardrobe.
My recent research indicates that this was not always so, that in the 1950s and earlier, a goalkeeper would turn up now and again with something else on his back. I've read that Paul Bibeault wore a 0 (zero) for Montreal in 1942-43. I had often wondered why more goalies wouldn't cover this "shutout" numeral: perhaps the opposing shooters would regard this as an insult. I've also seen a 1947 roster listing that shows Detroit's backup wearing #20. There are photographs of Charlie Hodge in a #25 Canadiens' uniform, and this would have been 1954 or later. Hodge, incidentally, was a short (5'6") fellow, and might have had difficulty tucking in a shirt tailored for your standard six-footer (i.e., Jacques Plante). As most of the players wore low numbers back then, the 20 and 25 represented the high end of the set. However, by about 1960, the "1" had become universal. I doubt that it was ever an explicit rule, but rather a tradition. I would not be surprised if superstition were involved.
This changed for the 1964-65 season. The league now required each team to keep two goalkeepers on the active roster and dressed for the game. No longer would games be held up for a "house goalie" (minor-leaguer, assistant coach, trainer, etc.) to suit up in the armor when the main man got injured. [That's another topic for a future discussion.] Apparently, the League didn't want both men to wear the same number any more. (More and more of them were wearing masks, so maybe they feared stealth switches.) In those days, the players' numbers generally went no higher than the low 20s, and teams then assigned the backup goalie a number at the high end of the range. Believe me, it was downright strange seeing a double digit looming just above the old crossbar.
It seemed that each team had its own designated second-goalie number. Don Simmons got #24 at Toronto, and Terry Sawchuk inherited it when he joined the Leafs. When Sawchuk had been #1 in Detroit, his backups -- most notably Roger Crozier -- wore #22. Marcel Paille and then Gilles Villemure wore #23 in New York. (I was able to confirm some of these recollections via an unlikely but reliable source: the rosters that were printed as an aid for television viewing in the newspapers!)
Boston's numbering system was skewed by the retirement of a few of the low numbers: some of their defensemen routinely wore numbers in the high 20s. Perhaps that's why Jack Norris wore the bizarre #17 as second-goalie. (I seem to remember that Dave Dryden wore #29 in Chicago some years before his younger brother made that number famous, but I could be wrong.) DeJordy now was #30 for the Hawks.
After about a year or two of this wild 'n crazy stuff, things stabilized. By the time of the Great Expansion in 1968, every team had its goalies numbered #1 and #30, and the new teams [subtle wordplay alert] followed suit. If they needed to employ a third man in their net, he'd get whichever of those two numbers was not currently in use. Bernie Parent of Philadelphia may have been the first #30 to become his team's regular, relegating #1 (Doug Favell) to the bench for long stretches. He helped to liberate the high number from second-class status.
Teams would do some shuffling to maintain the "new tradition." When Gump Worsley (who'd been traded for Plante) joined Montreal in 1963, he got the #1 jersey until he suffered an injury, sat out most of the season and then did a re-hab in the minors. By the time he returned, Charlie Hodge was playing well under the #1, so Worsley got a #30, which he wore for much of the rest of his career.
Detroit's Roger Crozier (#1) briefly quit the game during 1967-68. Roy Edwards was called up and took over the nets and the #1. (It was Edwards who'd had the unenviable task of understudying Hall, the Iron Man in Chicago, but he played very well once he got a chance.) When Crozier reconsidered and came back, the team kept Edwards and dumped backup George Gardner. Crozier got the latter's #30 for the rest of the season. By next season, Crozier must have invoked seniority, as he and Edwards swapped numbers.
For 1968-69, the St Louis Blues got the bright idea of using two veterans (Hall and Plante) in alternation, and did not require either to suit up when his counterpart was scheduled. The Blues had one of their minor-leaguers fill the required in-game substitute role, and that man must have had to maintain two jerseys, as he'd sit on the bench in the complementary number, wearing #1 when Plante started or #30 when Hall was playing. [Another interesting topic that we discussed here: //http://hfboards.com/showpost.php?p=18680767&postcount=1
Things loosened up just a bit around 1969. Now, Montreal had regularly used #29 for their "third" goalie, even should he assume the secondary or primary role: Ernie Wakely, Rogie Vachon, Tony Esposito and finally Ken Dryden. Toronto often had a merry-go-round of four or five goalies, two of them named Smith, so they employed both #29 and #31.
Scorning this timid advance of 30 ± 1, Tony Esposito saw 'em and raised 'em five. When he joined the Black Hawks, he took to the ice in an outrageous #35. Shocking. He soon bumped DeJordy (#30), Dryden and Norris (who shared #1) off the roster, and the rest, as they say, is history. Espo was rookie of the year and set a shutout record. I'd say that Tony broke the floodgate. Before long, you'd see a #28 here and a #32 there. Gilles Meloche had a good career as #27, Patrick Roy a great one as #33. Esposito's legacy lives on in numerous #35s today.
Now, of course, the goalie numbers can be almost anything 20 and above. Several teams have retired the #1 shirt for one or more of their legends, and this number will gradually be removed from circulation as time goes by.
Naturally, I'd welcome any discussion here of the enumeration rules and their exceptions.
Who's the all-time greatest for each goalie number? Some choices are of the no-brainer type, but others are quite debatable.
Who was the first man to score on a goalie wearing his own number? My best guess would be Frank Mahovlich against Gilles Meloche in the early 1970s, but some player in the #22-#24 range may have accomplished it in the 1964-66 period. It appears that a few non-goalies have skated in #35, #30 and even #1 at times, so there may be a prehistoric example of this particular stunt.