Ed. Note: In homage to “Who Wore it Best?” the NHL-produced series featured on both NHL.com and the league’s broadcast partners, JFTC begins a regular feature highlighting the top players to wear each sweater number in Kings’ franchise history.
According to Quant-Hockey, 667 players have donned the LA Kings sweater from the team’s debut in 1967 through the pandemic-shortened 2019-2020 season. However because some players have worn multiple numbers over their Kings careers, the 596 skaters and 71 goalies who have laced up for Los Angeles since that inaugural year have worn a total 823 different number combinations, ranging from 1 to 99. 11 numbers have been worn by only a single player, including two on the team’s current roster, Tim Schaller (#59) and Matt Luff (#64.)
The Kings have retired six numbers. However, Rogie Vachon and Luc Robitaille — two of the most beloved (and successful) players in franchise history — did not have their numbers retired until after they were worn by other players. After Rogie left Los Angeles prior to the 1978-79 season to sign with Detroit, his number 30 was worn by four different players before it was officially retired in 1985. Likewise, between being traded to the Penguins before the 1994-95 season and his re-acquisition from the Rangers three seasons later, Luc’s number 20, which was officially retired in 2007, was worn by both Steve LaRouche and Ray Ferraro.
For traditionalists who have never liked the high, “football-type” numbers that are now commonplace throughout hockey, one of the last holdout sweater-related traditions is that the number 1 is a “goalie number.” Thus, unsurprisingly, all 15 players to wear number 1 for the Kings have been goalies, beginning with Wayne Rutledge, who tallied a 21-15-5 record between the pipes the franchise’s first season. The last King to wear number 1 was (surprise!) Jack Campbell, who is better remembered for having worn number 36 prior to being traded to Toronto. Campbell wore number 1 during the 2017-2018 season, during which he posted a 2-0-2 record in 5 appearances. Of the 15 players to wear the number 1 for the Kings, 12 were born in Canada, one in the Czech Republic (Milan Hnilicka) one in Sweden (Jhonas Enroth) and one in the United States (the aformentioned Campbell.)
Finally, in ranking the “best” player to wear each number, I considered only his performance while playing for the Kings, and not for his NHL “body of work”. Similarly, if a player wore multiple sweater numbers over his Kings career, his performance was judged separately while wearing each particular number, and not for his overall performance with the hockey club.
Who wore #1 best?
Mario Lessard (1978-84)
Mario Lessard was drafted in the ninth round by the Kings (154th overall) in the 1974 Amateur Draft. He was the winning goalie in the infamous 1982 “Miracle on Manchester”, although he nearly blew that game in overtime by coming way out of the net attempting to beat Mark Messier to a loose puck, only to have Messier miss an open net.
Lessard spent his entire six-year career with the Kings, playing 49 or more games in each of his first four seasons. While his career record of 92-97-39, a goals against average of 3.75, and a save percentage of .874, might cause younger fans to wonder how long it has been since I was last in concussion protocol, but it must be recognized that it was a much more wide-open, up-and-down game in those days. Thus, to truly appreciate Lessard’s career, one must note that in his first full year with the Kings, he placed fifth in Calder Trophy balloting (NHL rookie of the year) after going 23-15-10, with a 3.11 goals against average, and a .892 save percentage.
His best season with the Kings was 1980-81, when he backstopped the club to the NHL’s fourth-best record, playing in 64 games and going 35-18-11. Moreover, not only were his 35 wins tops in the league, but according to Hockey-Reference, Lessard also led the NHL in goalie point shares, which is “an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player due to his play in goal.” (For comparison’s sake, Jonathan Quick’s highest single-season goalie point share ranking is fourth, which occurred during the Cup-winning 2011-12 campaign) Lastly, Lessard tied for 11th in Hart Trophy balloting that year (league MVP) just ahead of two of the brightest stars the game has ever known, Guy Lafleur and Raymond Bourque.
Do you agree or disagree with the selection of Mario Lessard as the Kings’ “number one of number 1’s?” Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or hit up Mark on Twitter at @DevoreOnSports. Stay safe, and as always, Go Kings Go!