January 30, 2013

What's in a Number? NLL Stars Tell Their Stories

Family ties, idol worship and simple circumstance all play a role

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Why does Cody Jamieson wear 88? His favorite player growing up wore it. Idol worship is one of common themes among how NLL players choose their jersey numbers.
© Kevin Colton

Why does Toronto Rock captain Colin Doyle wear 7 on his back?

''Because I've worn it my whole life,'' Doyle explains. ''None of my favorite athletes wore 7 so I don't know how I ended up with 7 but I've had it all along. It looked good on the jersey so I kept it.''

He's kept it since he was randomly handed it when he first registered to play minor lacrosse when he was a boy, and a lot of National Lacrosse League players source their numbers to a similar circumstance.

Some players wear numbers on their NLL jerseys in honor of fathers who passed away, which is why Rochester goalie Matt Vinc pulls on 48 with pride.

''It's a tribute to my dad,'' he said. ''He died when he was 48 and he was born in 1948. I switched in junior the year [in St. Catharines, Ontario] we went to the Ontario final. It just seemed fitting to kind of have him with me at every game since my family has been so supportive. It's just a way for me to have him in the building.''

Toronto goalie Nick Rose lost his father in an auto mishap when he was two years old. His dad, Tony, wore 6 as a prominent player in Orangeville, Ontario. Nick took his father's 6 and added a 6 for himself to come up with 66 — him and his father together on his sweater during games.

Adopting numbers from older brothers is common, as in the case of Rock forward Garrett Billings.

''It's kind of a family thing,'' Billings said of his 13. ''My oldest brother wore number 13 growing up playing lacrosse so I copied him. I also liked how people used to say it was kind of unlucky so I kind of liked to prove them wrong. I've always just liked the number 13.''

Scott Ranger of the Calgary Roughnecks mentions a brother, too, when asked to explain his number. He wore 17 through minor lacrosse because a brother wore it. When he joined the Roughnecks, Tracey Kelusky was the captain and he wore 17. What to do? Ranger reversed 17 and came up with 71.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Ross wound up with 71 in a roundabout way, too. He wore 17 all through minor lacrosse.

''When I got to junior it was already taken so I just switched it around to get 71,'' Ross said. ''When I got to the NLL in Chicago, Kevin Fines already had 17. The same thing when I got to Minnesota, this time with Sean Pollock. At that point, I just decided 71 was my number for my career.''

Teammate Daryl Veltman altered his number selection in Calgary for a slightly different reason when he arrived. He wore 6 as a boy and 16 in junior but when he joined the Coquitlam, B.C., senior team both numbers were taken. He was driving with a college teammate one day. That teammate wore 36. Veltman thought about that and ended up choosing it for his Coquitlam sweater. When he entered the NLL with the Boston Blazers, he reverted to 16. When he was traded to Calgary, Scott Carnegie had 16 so Veltman went back to 36.

Numbers already taken — it's a common theme that explains many NLL numbers.

''I was a rookie in Jr. A, 15 or 16 years old, and I'd always worn 12 because it was my dad's number but it was taken — by a guy named Paul Wannamaker,'' said Colorado Mammoth star John Grant Jr. ''There were a few numbers left and 24 was available, it was twice 12 and my goal was to be as good or better than my dad so I took it. That number is retired now in Jr. A so it means a lot to me and I still wear it.''

Another famous player had to switch, too. Buffalo Bandits captain John Tavares didn't get to choose his NLL number — it was just handed to him — but he has gone on to become the all-time leading scorer in pro lacrosse.

''I always wore number 6 in summer lacrosse so when I came to Buffalo I asked for it but it was already taken,'' Tavares said. ''They gave me number 11 because the lower numbers were for the smaller guys.''

Bandits teammate Shawn Williams started out a long time ago with 5 on his back and added to it along the way.

''The number 5 is a family number,'' Williams said. ''My dad wore it his whole career and I wore it when I was young. I switched to number 15 when an older player had 5 and I wore 15 all through junior. When I got to the Brooklin Redmen of Major Series Lacrosse, Hall of Famer John Fusco wore 15 so I wore 5 my first year in honor of my dad, who played for the Redmen in the 1970s. I switched to 51 my second year and I've been number 51 ever since.''

Some players wear numbers identical to those of older players they idolized.

''I started by wearing number 22 growing up because Gary Gait wore 22,'' Washington Stealth forward Lewis Ratcliff said. ''When I reached junior lacrosse [in Victoria, British Columbia, where Gait also played], it was retired so I switched to number 42 for Tom Marechek, who I also grew up watching.''

Cody Jamieson's 88 requires mention of a player he admired while growing up in his Six Nations community and who was released by Toronto just before the start of the 2013 season.

''It started way back when I was six or seven,'' Jamieson said. ''I looked up to Cody Jacobs. He was eight or nine. That's when I started wearing it.''

Some players keep numbers from their NCAA days.

Rochester Knighthawks transition player Joe Walters is the only player on an active NLL roster wearing No. 1. It is a tradition at the University of Maryland to hand a top recruit the 1. Walters went to high school in Irondequoit, N.Y., and it was the same school attended by U of M star Andrew Whipple. Whipple wore 1 at Maryland so Walters wore it as well, and he's kept it on in the NLL.

Likewise, teammate Casey Powell wears 22 because at Syracuse it was usually handed to an incoming top prospect following in the footsteps of previous 22s such as Gary Gait.

When Minnesota rookie Kiel Matisz enrolled at Robert Morris University, freshmen were given their choice of numbers between 40 and 50 and he selected 46.

''I chose it because I wore 46 when I was younger because it was the only jersey that fit,'' he said. ''When I joined the Swarm, all the other numbers I'd worn were taken. So, ultimately, it's a number that continues to somehow find a way into my life.''

Drew Westervelt of the Philadelphia Wings wears 26 in the NLL, but 14 in the MLL with the Chesapeake Bayhawks (above).
© Bryce Vickmark

Drew Westervelt of the Wings wears the same number, 26, he wore at UMBC and tries to keep it on his back regardless of which league he's playing in. Because 26 was taken when he was drafted into the MLL by Denver, he wore 14 with the Outlaws and still wears it with the Chesapeake Bayhawks.

''I tried something new,'' Westervelt said. ''I never bothered to change to the same number for both leagues. However, if I did change, I would go with 26 in both. Therefore, college, MLL, NLL and Team USA would be the same number.''

The Stealth's Athan Iannucci sought numerolical guidance. Read this slowly:

''Since I can remember, I was always number 23 on account of Michael Jordan. When I started playing [summer box lacrosse] for Langley [British Columbia], Mike Grimes was 23. He was also 23 in Washington. I needed an alternate number and 32 wasn't going to do it.

''I wrote down every number that wasn't in use. After whittling it down to four numbers, I tried to draw connections between 23 and the four potential numbers. I discovered that number 23 was a prime number only divisible by 1 and itself. I saw 'divisible' as the ability to be broken down or defeated. I saw 1 as a supreme being or God or Myself. I liked that.

''I then discovered that one of my four remaining number choices was also a prime number and not only that but the 23rd prime number, 83! On a side note, months later I found my first ever lacrosse jersey in an old box. When I pulled it out, I was surprised to see what number it was: 83. Full circle. Seems the number found me, almost.''

The number 77 is a good omen for Edmonton Rush goalie Aaron Bold.

''When I first started to play lacrosse, I wore number 30 for my first season,'' he said. ''I then got traded to another team [in Saanich, British Columbia] and they had the number 77 so I wore it throughout the season. We ended up winning a gold medal [at the 15- and 16-year age level]. From then on, I kept it as my number.''

Rookies have been arriving with a birth year displayed. Johnny Powless of the Knighthawks wears 93 because he was born in 1993. Rookie Dhane Smith of the Bandits wears 92 because he was born in 1992.

The most popular numbers last weekend were 9, 10 and 44 as each was worn by eight players.

Jordan Hall of the Wings wears 44.

''I started playing hockey and was a defenseman,'' Hall said. ''I had to choose a number one year when I was pretty young and my dad told me I should be number 4 like Bobby Orr. I agreed and liked the number. When lacrosse rolled around in the summer, we had to choose numbers and I played more offense. Somehow, I figured two 4s were more offensive. Ever since then, if I could choose my lacrosse number, it has always been 44.''

Every number tells a story — unless there isn't one. Nobody wore 29 last weekend. It was the only number under 43 that was not being used.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.

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