Lazerus: Forgotten Blackhawks great Steve Larmer’s No. 28 belongs in the United Center rafters, too

Once you get Steve Larmer talking about Chris Chelios, it’s pretty hard to get him to stop. The way he kept himself in shape. The way he expertly blurred the line between crafty and dirty, a master swordsman with a stick. The way he treated his on-ice career and his off-ice exploits with equal levels of unbridled enthusiasm. Larmer just gushes like one of the older fans in the 300 level of the United Center, one of those grizzled types who endured the early 2000s and whose season tickets date back to the old Chicago Stadium.

“He was like a freak of nature,” Larmer said, the admiration in his voice evident. “He was not normal, physically or mentally.”

But once you ask Larmer to talk about himself, it’s like trying to skate a puck past Chelios in his prime — you just keep running into a brick wall. It’s a futile endeavor.

“It is what it is,” he said about his resume, the shrug in his voice evident.

Well, that resume speaks for itself. And it has a lot to say. Larmer is indisputably one of the best players in the Blackhawks’ long and illustrious history, a model of consistency, durability and production. In 1,006 career NHL games (891 of them with the Blackhawks), he had 441 goals and 571 assists for 1,012 points. He won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 1983 after his first of five 40-goal seasons. He scored at least 28 goals in all 11 of his Chicago seasons, topping 30 goals in nine of them. In 140 career playoff games (he never missed the playoffs in his career), he had 131 points. Only Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Patrick Kane have scored more goals in a Blackhawks sweater than Larmer. Only those three and Denis Savard have posted more points.

And while Chelios is legendary for his sturdy body and incredibly long NHL career, nobody was as durable as Larmer. He played in every one of the Blackhawks’ 884 games from the fall of 1982 through the spring of 1993, the sixth-longest iron man streak in NHL history (it was third-longest at the time).

When the Blackhawks retired Marian Hossa’s No. 81 last season — Larmer was basically the Hossa prototype, clearing a path for and bringing out the best in Denis Savard the way Hossa often did for Jonathan Toews — they opened the door, and the debate, about who else should join him in the United Center rafters. The Blackhawks had been famously stingy, almost absurdly, about jersey retirements for decades, and Hossa’s honor was a dramatic departure for the franchise. Hossa was a huge part of three Stanley Cup-winning teams and was the best free-agent signing in the history of Chicago sports, but most of his career and his best offensive years came in Ottawa and Atlanta, not Chicago. With Hossa’s jersey retirement came new guidelines for future honors, which is why Chelios’ No. 7 will be raised to the rafters before Sunday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.

Chelios played just eight-plus seasons in Chicago, appearing in 664 games and posting 487 points. Like Larmer, he never won a championship with the Blackhawks. But he won two Norris Trophies during his time in Chicago and went to seven All-Star games. He’s a legend, and a local one at that. Of course, he’s worthy of the honor, and it’s almost silly that it took this long — even if he was a hated Red Wing for nine years afterward. (You can be sure that won’t stop Patrick Kane from having his moment when his career ends.)

“What makes it special for Cheli is he’s a Chicago-born and raised kid,” Larmer said. “That’s unique. He’s a Hall of Fame player, was a great player for well over 20 years.”

Larmer is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and likely never will be, as he’s been all but forgotten by the league the way he had been all but forgotten by his old team. His iron man streak ended not because of injury but because of a contract dispute, one that eventually saw him traded to the New York Rangers, with whom he immediately won the Stanley Cup with nine goals and seven assists in 23 playoff games in the spring of 1994. Like so many other Blackhawks greats, Larmer got the cold shoulder for years from the Bill Wirtz regime. When Rocky Wirtz took over for his dad, Larmer was welcomed back into the fold and even got to suit up for “One More Shift” before a game in 2016.


Blackhawks to retire Chris Chelios’ No. 7 in February

Larmer fits nearly all of the new team guidelines for jersey retirement, revealed after Chelios’ honor was announced at a United Center Pearl Jam show in September. But he comes up just short on one key guideline — the one that says a player should either be in the Hall of Fame or have played 1,000 games with the Blackhawks. Now, these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules, as owner Danny Wirtz and team president Jaime Faulkner noted. Kane, Toews and Duncan Keith are all sure-fire Hall of Famers and always were destined for the rafters. Opening the door to Hossa and Chelios likely makes Brent Seabrook (also a No. 7) a lock, too. Good arguments could be made for Patrick Sharp and Niklas Hjalmarsson, the other two three-time champions, and Corey Crawford, who won two Cups, though they’re certainly longer shots.

Larmer comes up just short on both counts of that particular guideline, but through no fault of his own. His career is Hall of Fame-worthy. And worthy of having his No. 28 in the rafters.

“I have no idea about that,” Larmer said. “I read stuff about it every now and then, but I don’t know. There are a lot of great players that played on those teams when they won those Stanley Cups. We got to the Final once. When you get there and win multiple Cups, it adds a lot.”

Larmer doesn’t seem to need the validation. He’s content with his career, humble as he is about it. He’s just happy to be back in the Blackhawks family, and to follow the progress of his stepson, J.R. Avon, with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Blackhawks invited him to come down from Peterborough, Ontario, for Chelios’ ceremony, but his fourth grandchild is due any day, and those responsibilities come first.

So no, Larmer isn’t campaigning to have his No. 28 retired. It’s not really his style.

“It was 35 years ago,” he said with another verbal shrug. “I can’t go back and do anything different.”

Well, he shouldn’t have to. He did plenty.

(Photo of Steve Larmer suiting up for “One More Shift” in 2016: Bill Smith / NHLI via Getty Images)

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