"The fans were always great to me. On Harry Howell Night, after all the gifts were presented, I spoke for about 8-10 minutes, and they cheered. That was a nice thing. The fans were always good to me."
-- Harry Howell
More than 42 years ago, Howell became the first New York hockey player -- and one of the few active players on any team -- to have a night held in his honor. On Jan. 25, 1967, the Rangers held "Harry Howell Night" before their game against the Boston Bruins.
Though Howell had played for the Rangers since 1952, earning a reputation as one of the NHL's most reliable defensemen, he was having a career year in 1966-67, helping the moribund Rangers back into the playoffs with the best offensive season of his career. He was the dean of the Rangers' defense, a group that included impressive young talent like Rod Seiling, Jim Neilson, and Arnie Brown.
With Howell playing the best hockey of his life, the Emile Francis-built Rangers got off to the kind of start they hadn't had in decades. Ed Giacomin's goaltending, the emergence of young forwards like Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, and solid play from veterans like Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, and newcomer Boom Boom Geoffrion sparked the Rangers into first place at Christmas.
"We hadn't been a good team for a long time, but we started to get better after Emile came," Howell said of the Rangers' improvement. "He was the one who built the team.
Howell was putting up points like he never had, and said Geoffrion, who came out of retirement to join the Rangers, was a major reason why.
"That year, I scored more goals than I ever had before," said Howell. "Part of the reason was that I was playing the point on the power play with Boomer (Geoffrion). In the past, I had played with guys like Andy Bathgate and Rod Gilbert, who had big shots. I always fed them. But when I passed to Boomer, he'd send it back to me and say, 'You shoot it.' It was funny, because Boomer was one of the first guys to use the slap shot a lot."
Howell also was approaching a milestone -- his 1,000th NHL game (a much tougher feat to achieve in the days of a six-team league and 70-game schedule). He became the first Ranger to play 1,000 games Jan. 21, 1967, during a 6-2 loss at Boston that was part of the Rangers' annual January road trip.
By then, everything was in place for the first night in Rangers history set up to honor a specific player. Harry Howell Night was scheduled for Jan. 25. It was an evening he'll never forget.
"I played in my 1,000th career game the previous Saturday in Boston -- I was the first Ranger to do that. Harry Howell Night had been set for the first home game after that -- it was January 25, with Boston coming to town. It was the first "Night" that the Rangers had ever had for any of their players, so that made it special.
"It was quite a night. We had two planeloads of people coming down from Hamilton, but some of them didn’t get there until after the game started because there was fog at the airport in Toronto.
"One of the things I remember was Toots Shor, who was a big restaurateur, spending time with my 90-year-old uncle. He spent a couple of hours with him -- that was amazing, him spending all this time with a farmer from Hamilton.
"When we came out, they had all these tables at center ice with gifts. (With some prodding, Howell remembered getting a year's supply of cheese, watches and a gas barbecue). We got some trips to resorts -- the people who owned Grossinger's gave us a holiday there. They gave Marilyn (his wife), a bouquet of roses -- I still have a picture of it in my office here.
"I also got a Mercury Cougar. That was a big deal -- the Cougar was a brand-new model in its first year, and getting a car like that was really something.
"I don’t remember much about the game itself, except that we won -- we beat Boston, 2-1. That was an important thing, because I remember we were the visiting team in Montreal when they honored Rocket Richard and Doug Harvey -- and we won those games. The fact that we won made the night extra special."
The Rangers struggled down the stretch after Howell's big night, but they finished a solid fourth and made the playoffs for the first time in five years. Not even a four-game sweep at the hands of the Canadiens could dim the accomplishments of that season. Howell finished 1966-67 with 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points -- the biggest offensive totals of his career, and enough to earn him the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.
During the luncheon at which he picked up the Norris Trophy, Howell also proved to be an expert prognosticator. "I'm glad I won it this year," he said, "because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade."
The "other guy" turned out to be Boston's star young defenseman Bobby Orr, who took home the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year that night and then won the Norris for the next eight seasons.
The Rangers continued to improve, but Howell's back began to give him trouble.
"I was always pretty healthy -- I think I only missed maybe 16 games in my first 15 years," he said. "But in my last year (1968-69), I had back problems and missed more games than I had missed in my career to that point.
"I wound up having a spinal fusion -- I was the oldest athlete to have one at the time. While I was in the hospital, Emile came in and told me I wouldn't be playing in New York any more. He offered me a job with the organization, but I told him I hadn't gone through all this (the surgery and rehab) to take a front-office job. Emile made a couple of deals and I wound up playing seven more seasons, four on the West Coast and three in the WHA."
Howell played 1 1/2 seasons with the Oakland/California Seals and 2 1/2 more with the Los Angeles Kings. He also played for three teams in the old World Hockey Association -- the New York-New Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners and the Calgary Cowboys. In all, he played 1,581 games as a pro -- 1,411 of them in the NHL, 1,160 as a Ranger. No one has played more.
After his playing career was done, Howell spent time as general manager of the Cleveland Barons, and then briefly coached the Minnesota North Stars after those two teams merged. Following that, he went into scouting -- and although he never won a Stanley Cup as a player, Howell eventually got his name etched on hockey's most cherished prize as a scout with the Edmonton Oilers in 1989-90, and later scouted for the Rangers before retiring. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979.
"When it comes to the Stanley Cup, you never give up," Howell said. "I'm sure glad I didn't. Eventually I got my ring. I wish it could have been with the Rangers, but a ring is still a ring."
And a banner with your number on it hanging from the rafters of Madison Square Garden still is an honor -- one that, in Howell's case, is well-earned.
Excerpted from "Game of My Life: New York Rangers" by John Kreiser and John Halligan.