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Mike Harrington: By the numbers, Eichel's switch sparks memories of O.J.

When Jack Eichel Instagrammed the world on Friday he was changing his uniform number from 15 to 9 next season, that was a relatively rare move.

Players often change numbers when they switch teams but it's not normally done by big names without a change of scenery. A couple of notable exceptions that jump to mind are Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles (switched from 8 to 24 in 2006) and Ray Bourque in Boston (7 to 77 in 1987 in honor of Phil Esposito's jersey retirement).

But in Buffalo sports history, Eichel's move is pretty tough to beat. The most famous Buffalo number change until Eichel probably belongs to O.J. Simpson.

The trivia answers there? No. 36 and running back Gary McDermott.

Simpson was given No. 36 during his first training camp in 1969 at Niagara University and is famously pictured on the cover of the Aug. 23, 1969, issue of Sports Illustrated wearing it during his pro debut against the Detroit Lions in a preseason game at Tiger Stadium the previous week.

The reason was that McDermott had 32 as a rookie in 1968 and maintained it in camp when Simpson arrived in '69.

"When I was a rookie, they assigned me No. 32. I had no affinity for it, made no request for the number," McDermott, now 71, said Monday by phone from rural Virginia. "I was just glad they gave me one.

"When they drafted O.J. the next year, I was figuring they were going to want me to give him that number and I was really OK with that. But we went through training camp and nobody in the Buffalo organization mentioned the number to me. In all honesty, if anyone said to me, 'He's the Heisman Trophy winner and would you mind?' I wouldn't have minded.

"O.J. and I always got along just fine. We never had a cross word and he never said a word about the number. Nobody in the organization ever asked me."

Get your programs (and new jerseys), here: Eichel changing to No. 9

The AFL had 40-man rosters in those days and McDermott was initially told he had made the Bills' roster. Then the team said it was going to waive him and reactivate him if he went unclaimed the next week, a ruse he figured was a way to give Simpson the number.

McDermott was furious and asked for a trade.

"I was 22 years old and I had a lot of testosterone in my system there," he said, failing to contain his laughter. "I quit going to practice. I probably acted like an ass. I was young and full of vinegar. I called the league office and found out they didn't try to trade me. I should have just kept my mouth shut, taken their deal and played behind O.J. Hey, I was a better receiver at the time than he was anyway."

(McDermott made 20 receptions for 115 yards in 1968. Simpson made 30 as a rookie in '69, the most in his career. He averaged only 16 catches over the next five seasons. Of course, he was busy doing other things with the ball.)

Gary McDermott (32) brushes off Houston’s W.K. Hicks with a stiff-arm as quarterback Dan Darragh (10) looks on during the Bills' 30-7 loss to the Oilers in War Memorial Stadium on Oct. 27, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Gary McDermott)

McDermott said he enjoyed his time in Buffalo despite the team's 1-12-1 record in 1968 and said former Bills coach Lou Saban tried to get him to sign in Denver – and guaranteed he would start against the Bills during the team's meeting early in '69. But McDermott ended up signing in Atlanta and playing under Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin.

He played just four games for the '69 Falcons and called it a career after a total of 108 yards rushing and 115 yards receiving. But he did pretty good for himself after football.

McDermott worked as a sheriff's deputy in the Atlanta area – and then spent 20 years in the Secret Service, eventually getting assigned to President Ronald Reagan's security detail. He went into private security for 10 years, including time with Saudi Arabian princes, and then served as a federal air marshal following 9/11 before retiring in 2009.

He lives today with his wife, Winnie, at a mountain/ski resort in Basye, Va.

"I loved my time in Buffalo. Those were the greatest fans in the world," McDermott said. "They just live and die football up there. I remember somebody telling us in '68 at the Rockpile, 'Always wear your helmet because if you win, they'll throw beer cans at you – and if you lose, they'll throw full beer cans.' "

(Video courtesy of Gary McDermott)

No one figures to throw anything at Eichel any time soon, although there is some grumbling from fans about the Buffalo Sabres' small credit toward a new jersey if No. 15 wearers want to buy a No. 9.

An NHL spokesperson said when Eichel's new number was confirmed, the custom jersey tool at shop.nhl.com was updated to allow fans the option of ordering a No. 9 or a discounted No. 15. The Eichel 15s will remain available until the inventory is depleted.

It's fun to ponder other Buffalo number switches. Dave Andreychuk's Sabres career started with No. 29 before he moved to 25. When he returned to the club in 2001, that number was being worn by Vaclav Varada, so he reversed the digits and wore 52.

Goaltender Marty Biron wore 00 for a spell before switching to his well-known 43. The NHL no longer allows players to wear 00 because it's not accepted by its statistical computers. Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett switched from 55 to 97. Veteran Braves forward Jim McMillian initially had to wear No. 6 after he was acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in the mid-70s because Butch Komives had his No. 5.

When former Sabres captain Jim Schoenfeld was reacquired in 1985, he could not get 6 because Phil Housley had it, so he wore 13. When Jerry Korab returned in 1984, he simply doubled the digits of his old number and went from 4 to 44.

It will be interesting to see how Eichel's career develops and if he plays a decade or more wearing No. 9 in Buffalo. It could turn No. 15 into a trivia question that people might struggle with the answer to by the time he's in his mid-30s. Not to mention if you asked what number he wore during the 2015 exhibition schedule his rookie year (41).

Eichel made 9 his own in his youth days, on Team USA in world competitions and at Boston University. With Evander Kane gone to San Jose, Eichel had the opening to reclaim the number and he's taking it.

"Sure I understand why the young man would want his number," McDermott said. "I had No. 42 in college (at Tulsa) and would have liked to have had it in Buffalo, but Butch Byrd had it. I understood."

Byrd, of course, was a star defensive back for the Bills and is a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The number was his to keep.

"I was OK with that," McDermott said. "Remember, I was just happy to have made the team and got any number. Back then, that was your goal."

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