In Washington, Give Gartner His Due

This morning over at Puck Daddy, my friend Greg Wyshynski wondered out loud whether or not Hall of Fame winger Mike Gartner deserved to have his number retired by the Washington Capitals, the team he broke into the NHL with in 1979. In Greg's book, the sixth-leading goal scorer in NHL history -- sandwiched between Mark Messier and Phil Esposito -- doesn't even belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame, though he's happy to cede the decision as to whether or not to send his jersey to the rafters at Verizon Center to the locals:

Look, every fan base has its own personal connection to its own players. There are no doubt fans from other NHL cities that don't believe Ken Daneyko deserves immortality in the rafters of Newark; ask a Devils fan, and they'll tell you he meant as much to the franchise as Martin Brodeur, and perhaps even more.

So as a non-Capitals fan, I'm in no position to say this is the wrong decision. I can say, in my 13 years in the D.C. area, the topic of Mike Gartner's number retirement has never come up in conversation; outside of, perhaps, some brief discussion when he entered the stat-happy (unless you're Dino Ciccarelli) Hall of Fame. The undeniable fact is that he doesn't stir emotions like the names Peter Bondra or Olaf Kolzig or even Jeff Halpern, the guy who more modern Caps fans likely associate with No. 11 to begin with.

On a certain level, I can understand Greg's hesitation. After all, it's been 19 years since Gartner was traded to the Minnesota North Stars, and the greatest moments of his career came in an arena that's no longer standing during an era pockmarked with playoff disappointment. With that in mind, it's probably a good idea to review the record.

If you get a moment, stop by Gartner's career numbers and do some counting. Over 19 seasons in the NHL, Gartner scored 30 or more goals 17 times, including the first 15 straight seasons of his career. Of the latter number, even Wayne Gretzky can only boast 13 straight seasons with 30 goals or more. The two times he did miss were thanks to the strike-shortened 1995 season and one other time due to injury. Live puck era or not, that's the sort of consistency the Hockey Hall of Fame ought to be honoring. If Gartner were a player who gutted out a few extra seasons to pass the magic 500 goal number, I could understand wanting to exclude him. But Gartner passed 500 goals without looking back and added another 208 before hanging up his skates.

When it comes to the locals, it's impossible to disconnect Gartner from the group of players that gave Caps fans a real reason to come out to the arena after years of horrible hockey, and eventually got the team to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in the Spring of 1982. And considering that Washington has taken more than a few raps from folks around the league for not being a hockey town, it only seems right and proper for the team to acknowledge that a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame -- the first Cap ever inducted -- once patrolled the right wing for the franchise.

There's one legitimate knock against Gartner's case for the Hall, and it's the lack of even a single Stanley Cup on his resume -- something which has to be mentioned in the same breath as less than stellar performances come playoff time. Looking back, one has to wonder out loud if that record was one of the reasons he was traded from New York to Toronto in the Spring of 1994, only a few months before the Rangers won that historic Cup.

So for me, yes, Gartner gets raised to the rafters. Then again, his elevation does raise another question: If Gartner gets to join Rod Langway, Yvon Labre and Dale Hunter in the Verizon Center rafters, don't fellow Hall of Famers like Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy deserve consideration too?

My response would be yes and no, but those are arguments for another time.

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