The same season Spokane Chiefs retired Ray Whitney’s number, the team also held a bobblehead promotion in his likeness.
Among some of Whitney’s friends, he failed to recover.
“It’s also a pretty good size,” the former Chiefs forward said. “My friends say it’s life-size.”
Whitney played at a listed height of 5-foot-10, but he also played perhaps the richest career of anyone who has ever worn the Chiefs jersey. During the Chiefs’ 1990-91 season that culminated in their first Memorial Cup title, Whitney scored a franchise-high single-season 185 points, including 67 goals. He was the Western Hockey League Player of the Year that season.
What followed was a 1,330 game NHL career in which Whitney scored 385 goals and assisted 679 others for 1,064 regular season career points. He won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Ten years later, the Chiefs paid tribute to him by retiring his number, 14, and hanging it from the rafters. It’s the only number there – but that changes on Friday.
Before the Chiefs face the Kelowna Rockets on Friday night, they will raise another number, 9, to honor Tyler Johnson, the Spokane native who also won a Memorial Cup – in 2008 – and then won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Tampa. Bay Lightning in 2020 and 2021.
The ceremony is to take place before the puck drop. Although Whitney couldn’t be there, he said he was thrilled it happened.
“I think it’s great,” Whitney said. “It was pretty lonely up there.”
While there’s no official requirement for a number to be retired, Whitney said he liked what appeared to be Chiefs managing partner Bobby Brett’s: win a Memorial Cup, win a Cup Stanley – and, he joked, not being so tall.
“If you look at Chiefs history, there’s been big players, big players,” Whitney said, “and the two up there are 5-foot-10 or less. So maybe there’s has a height requirement.
Johnson — who is listed by his current team, the Chicago Blackhawks, at 5-foot-8 — is set to join an elite fraternity among athletes in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Johnson is originally from the Spokane area and lives off-season in Coeur d’Alene, which has made him a local favorite.
Other local athletes who have experienced having their number retired have highlighted what an honor it is to first have their name and number displayed in an arena and also highlighted what a privilege it continues to be.
It’s not a one-time experience, they said. It’s something they think about frequently. It is a recognition of their personal achievement but also that of the teammates who played with them, and it deepens the connection they already felt so strong with the organization or the university for which they played.
“I try to approach it with a level of respect and gratitude,” said Jack Thompson, the WSU quarterback whose No. 14 remains one of two retired from the school. “I fully understand that this kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time. And so, I have to treat it accordingly.
A reminder and a validation
Washington State didn’t wait long to retire Jack Thompson’s number, a process Thompson says was pushed by Keith Lincoln. Lincoln played as a running back for Washington State from 1958 to 1960, then, after a professional football career, returned to Pullman and worked in the alumni association.
Thompson – who set a number of career and conference records during his four-year career at Washington State, from 1975 to 1978 – said some people at the time wanted time out. of five, but Lincoln lobbied against it, and Thompson’s number was retired right after his final season at Pullman.
“If anyone knew Keith Lincoln, you’d know he was a pretty compelling character to deal with,” said Thompson, the 1979 third-round NFL draft pick who now lives in Seattle. “He just felt like the circumstances were so unusual.”
Also in this context, Thompson said he also represents the football teams that “weathered the storm together” with four coaches in four years.
At that time, Mel Hein’s No. 7 was the only number retired by the WSU football program, and no one else has been retired since Thompson’s.
A few miles away in Moscow, Idaho, John Yarno was playing football for the Vandals at the same time Thompson was playing for the Cougars. The Vandals retired five football numbers; Yarno is among them.
Ed Troxel was the Vandals’ head coach at the time, and Yarno recalls Troxel asking him after his freshman year what kind of legacy the young lineman wanted to leave.
“I said I wanted to be in the same class as Jerry Kramer,” Yarno said, referring to the Pro Football Hall of Famer whose No. 64 is retired in Idaho.
Yarno was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 1976 as a center, the only lineman to earn the accolade since his first award in 1974. Yarno was taken by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth round of the draft of 1977, and the University of Idaho retired No. 56 from Yarno the same year.
Today, Yarno, a season ticket holder, sees his number go up next to Kramer’s at every football game he attends.
“(Following Kramer) was a big deal,” Yarno said. “I was just a guy from Spokane who was ignored by both schools in Washington and didn’t get recruited very much. I went to Idaho and worked hard and ended up being successful. … It was validating. This validates your efforts.
Eleven years after graduating from Yarno, John Friesz became the third Idaho player to win the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year award. He did it three times, in 1987, 1988 and 1989.
His jersey, number 17, is also retired: Idaho did so in 2006. Wayne Walker (53) and Ken Hobart (9) are the other two Vandals footballers whose numbers are no longer worn.
Friesz, who now lives in Hayden, Idaho, said it was a fun experience for his family, but for him it wasn’t so much the ceremony that stood out.
“I think about what that means, more than anything,” Friesz said. “It’s funny to see my name and jersey in the chevrons, but that has nothing to do with what I did. It reminds me of those teams and those guys and those systems and the wins.
Idaho went 9-3, 11-2, and 9-3 with Friesz as the starting quarterback. He won the Walter Payton Award as the best offensive player in I-AA football his senior season.
Friesz said his friends always tease him about his number being retired and “not that bad.”
“I was completely a pocket passer, completely dependent on guys blocking for me,” he said. “It was a collective effort (with) coaches and teammates.”
Whitney, the hockey player, didn’t have blockers the way Friesz did. But he had enforcers like Kerry Toporowski who gave him more space on the ice, and he had other future pros like winger Pat Falloon to share the other team’s attention.
“When my jersey came up,” he said, “I was very aware of how it got up there.”
“A special feeling”
However, an entire team does not withdraw its number, only individuals.
In some cases, they name entire facilities after someone, as is the case with Michael Roos east of Washington. The Eagles retired his No. 71 football jersey in 2009 and a year later renamed their football ground in his honor. Roos and Katherine, his wife, pledged $500,000 to help Eastern install its red turf in 2010. The land was renamed in tribute.
“It’s a weird thing that someone is offering (to retire your number) because it means no one else can wear that number,” Roos said. “But it’s also a special feeling to know that you were the last person to wear that number, and you are the one who will be remembered.”
Roos played 10 years in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans and still lives in Nashville. Every year now when he returns – as he already did before the jersey was retired – he sees his name and number. No. 71 Roos and No. 84 Bob Picard are the only two abandoned so far by Eastern.
“It’s on the stadium wall,” Roos said of his number. “Having him sit there is special.”
“You absolutely have to take a short break and relive it for a split second and figure out what it means,” he said. “It’s there, it happened.”
Earlier in 2009, Eastern Washington retired Rodney Stuckey’s No. 3 basketball jersey, two years after ending a two-year career at Eastern in which he averaged 24.4 points per game. This remains the program’s career record.
Stuckey is the only player on the program to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, and until his, Eastern has not retired any men’s basketball jersey numbers. So when Stuckey was playing, there were no shirts to be seen on the walls of Reese Court.
He said he hopes the presence of his current players will inspire that “anything is possible”.
“It’s just cool,” Stuckey said. “It’s something for these guys to push themselves and want to be able to put their name in the rafters. If I was one of those kids, that’s what I would think.
For Thompson in particular, however, this honor is also a call to represent well not just the program, but the whole of Washington State University.
It was on his mind, he said, when he chose to stay for his senior season rather than turn pro early, and at the time people close to him reminded Thompson that long after the end of his career, people would remember him to stay.
“For me, (seeing the number) is a point of pride. It really is, when you think of the hundreds, if not thousands, of players who played there, great players,” Thompson said. And I think for me, not only is it a point of pride, but it’s also a responsibility behind it.”
“For the general public, I think I’m representing the program,” Thompson said. “It’s always been something front and center (for me).”
From now on, the honor will be awarded to hockey player Johnson, whose number no Chiefs player will wear anymore. And his will become a jersey that will serve as a reminder of what a Spokane kid can accomplish.
“I think he’s going to have a great day,” Whitney said. “It’s a great moment for him.