Sports

Aurie holds Detroit's forgotten number

Harry MacDonald watched the Steve Yzerman number retirement ceremony, Tuesday night, from his home in Kingston, Ont. The 72-year-old listened as they announced that Yzerman's number would join the franchise's five other retired numbers.

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But MacDonald knew that was at best an oversight, at worst it was bunk.

MacDonald's uncle, his mother's brother, was a Red Wing whose No. 6 was retired in 1938. Larry Aurie's honor, however, has been victimized by revisionist history on the part of the Red Wings franchise. Aurie's number is retired, but doesn't hang alongside the other numbers atop Joe Louis Arena.

"I thought was I was watching this, 'And No. 6 should be there too,'" said MacDonald. "And it's not. And that's not right."

In retiring Yzerman's number, the Red Wings embraced history. At the same time, they also rewrote history.

Larry Aurie was one of the Red Wings' first great players. He was Detroit's representative in the NHL's first all-star game in 1934. He led the league in goals one season and was top-three in the league in points in another. In 1937, Aurie was one of the six players named to the NHL's post-season first-team all-stars. And most importantly, Aurie was a key part of the Red Wings' first two Stanley Cup champions.

So it isn't unusual that owner James Norris retired Aurie's number in 1938, making him the first Red Wing to be so honored. The fact was documented by several Detroit newspapers, the Toronto Globe And Mail and The Hockey News. No. 6 was even labeled as being "retired" in the Red Wings' own game program in the 1952 in a story about Aurie's death.

What is unusual is this: The organization has increasingly ignored Aurie's number being retired.

In its first publishing (1975), the NHL's official information publication, the Official NHL Guide And Record Book, listed three numbers being retired by Detroit ... Gordie Howe's 9, Alex Delvecchio's 10 and Aurie's 6. In fact, Aurie's number was listed as retired in that annual publication in each edition until 2000 when it was removed at the request of the Red Wings organization. Continued...

The Red Wings' owners and organization will not comment on Aurie's number. The team's Web site, however, says this: "As a tribute to Aurie's worth, manager Jack Adams deemed that no other player would don Aurie's No. 6 jersey ... the number was never officially retired."

But that's one part revisionist history and one part semantics. If it was deemed that no other players wear that number by Detroit's owner and the franchise's manager and general manager, then isn't that retired?

"They're trying to rewrite history," said Gerald Henry, 70, of Barrie, Ont. Henry is Aurie's cousin. "If the owners are against this, I'm baffled. To put it in good terms, I'm pissed off. I don't understand. A lot of the old folks who remember him are not around any more. It's like trying to resurrect the dead."

Part of the problem here is that retired numbers were not hung from the rafters at the Olympia. Not Howe's 9. Not Aurie's 6. So there appears to be a lack of validity to No. 6 being retired when we apply modern-day standards to the past.

The real question becomes why did the Ilitches choose to hang six of seven retired numbers and why did they ask the league to remove Aurie's number from the list of Detroit's retired numbers?

At the same time, why does the team not just issue No. 6 to a rookie? Why the state of limbo?

If it's out of respect to the family, then maybe someone from the Red Wings should speak with any of Aurie's family, including his closest living relative.

"If you're not going to put the number in the rafters, then give it to somebody," said MacDonald. "I'd like to see the number hanging, but let somebody else wear it rather than do this. Any player who wants No. 6, give it to them if you're not going to put it in the rafters. If you're going to retire it, you've got to put it in the rafters. If there's a reason, tell us."

It's been nearly 70 years since Aurie's number was retired. A lot of people don't know who Larry Aurie was or what he did (including myself before I started working on this story). And sports statistics often don't paint a vivid picture in the present. Seventy-year-old statistics don't often flesh out an athlete.

If you were to ask people in 50 years who saw Steve Yzerman play, why his number was retired, you'd likely hear that he was a tremendous leader who did everything necessary to win. Both Ken Holland and Scotty Bowman said that the top thing that made Yzerman special was that he was the guy who made the "big play." Continued...

All of that is oral. None translates into statistics.

Larry Aurie might not look like the best player in hockey from today's perspective, but he sure looked like that to some of his contemporaries. Heck, they named the NHL's coach of the year award after Jack Adams and he thought that Aurie's number was retired and retired for many good reasons.

But someone in the current Red Wings organization must believe that raising Aurie's retired number would be a disservice to Yzerman and Howe and Delvecchio. At the same time, how do you publicly un-retire a number? Then your ignorance might be exposed by historians.

So the Ilitches have done what they can do. They control what numbers are listed as officially retired by the team they currently own. They control what jerseys hang from the rafters at Joe Louis Arena.

But they can't control the fact that Larry Aurie's number was retired by the organization by Norris and Adams -- two of the builders of the NHL.

The joke of it all is that Aurie represents the first great era of Red Wings' history. Why turn your back on something so wonderful?

Send comments to bruce.macleod@macombdaily.com.

Comments

The following are comments from the readers. In no way do they represent the view of The Macomb Daily or macombdaily.com.

mike wrote on Jan 12, 2010 6:54 PM:

" i agree, if you arent going to retire it then use it. "

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