Without knowing the pulse of longtime Capitals' fandom, retiring Make Gartner's #11 seems fitting (if tardy?) enough. Gartner entered the Hall of Fame in 2001. He was the franchise's all-time leading scorer when he left (Peter Bondra broke his career Capitals marks, though Gartner still ranks sixth all-time in the NHL in goals). Funny that six players have worn #11 since, including Bob Carpenter, Esa Tikkanen and Jeff Halpern.
When I'm reminded that Dale Hunter's number was retired first, I cringe. Can't help it: I'm an Islanders fan and also generally opposed to dirty play, so Hunter's legacy to me is, at minimum, "mixed." But while they retired as players just a year apart, Hunter's decade as a Cap came mostly after Gartner's, so Hunter's number retirement probably had more resonance with current fans. And obviously, despite Gartner's gaudy numbers, Hunter's, um, "style" of play was the kind that struck fans' deeper, more primitive emotions. (I know, I know: "You had to be there. He was a leader," etc.)
Gartner was swapped to the North Stars for Dino Ciccarelli in 1988-89. Larry Murphy and Bob Rouse also changed hands, making it one of those classic "shake-up" asset swaps that just don't happen anymore. Pretty incredible to think that in one trade, the North Stars acquired two Hall of Famers in the prime of their careers, and within two seasons they'd shipped both of them out.
When I think of Gartner, I think of his classic hockey Schnurrbart. I think of him streaking down the wing in that red Cooper helmet. I think of the 15 consecutive seasons of 30+ goals ruined by the lockout. I think of his curious 1985-86 trading card, where he was stretching his leg on the boards in warmup, with the bottom of his skate blade in the immediate foreground. I think of him continuing to rack up goals with Minnesota and then the Rangers. I think of him at the end, cleanly shaven, a white upper lip where the hockey Schnurrbart should be.
But I also think of him as one of those guys who just missed out on a Stanley Cup. The guy who goes the wrong way in a deadline deal to get the "final piece" of the puzzle. Does he ever dwell on that fate? Isn't it cruel that after enduring -- and scoring -- for three years with the up-and-down Rangers, he was shipped away during their Cup-winning year for a fellow Hall of Fame winger who already had five Cup rings?
Maybe Gartner was too good a guy. Maybe Messier wanted "his people" in the trenches. Maybe Mike Keenan wanted "proven playoff performers" (Note: the previous time the Rangers made the playoffs, Gartner had 8G, 8A in 13 games). Who knows with the bizarre dynamics of that Ranger management/locker room atmosphere. But if I'm Gartner, I'm thinking "we'd" have still won the Cup without making that trade.
On that note, the defensemen in that original Capitals-North Stars deal, Rouse and Murphy, each went on to win Cups with other clubs. Gartner and Ciccarelli, of course, just missed. Hockey careers -- and the myths we build around them -- can be funny like that.