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Fleischman: Howe is Worthy of the Hall

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Editor's note: This column previously ran on February 2, 2008.

He’s a three-time first-team NHL all-star defenseman. In his first six seasons with the Flyers, he scored 115 goals operating from the blue line.

During his 22-year pro hockey career, he collected 405 goals and 1,246 points and has a +400 rating. He is the youngest hockey player to ever win an Olympic medal.

Yet, Mark Howe is still not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“Mark Howe was a great player,” said Bill Clement, a top TV analyst and former Flyers player. “His versatility was unbelievable. The only other player I can think of who played two positions so well was Red Kelly.” (Kelly played center and defense during a lengthy NHL career that ended in 1967).

Howe and others suspect that his six seasons in the World Hockey Association in the 1970s are held against him by the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee. Such prominent NHL players as Mark’s father Gordie, Bobby Hull and Derek Sanderson defected to the WHA.

“It’s the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Clement emphasized. “Russians are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Goaltender) Vladislav Tretiak never played in the NHL, and he’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
Mark Howe is presented with the Bobby Clarke trophy as Flyers MVP by Keith Allen in 1986. (Flyers archives)

Said Mark: “I realize that some of it is political. What hurts me the most is I spent my first six (pro) years in the WHA. I didn’t get into the NHL until I was 24. I had a couple real bad injuries that set me back, too.”

The reason Mark started his pro career in the WHA was the opportunity to play on the same line with his father. Mark’s brother Marty completed the Howe threesome in Houston and later with Hartford.

“I wouldn’t trade playing on the same team with my Dad for seven years for any Hall of Fame,” Mark, now 52, said. “If I did get in (the Hall), it would be great for me. It (also) would mean a lot to my Dad.”
Howe scored more than one point a game in the WHA. In 426 WHA games, he compiled 504 points (208 goals). In 929 NHL games, Howe’s totals are 742 points (197 goals).
The Hockey Hall of Fame committee consists of 18 members. They include former NHL coaches Scotty Bowman, Pat Quinn and Emile Francis; John Davidson, the ex- NHL goaltender who is president of the St. Louis Blues; former NHL general managers Harry Sinden (Boston) and Bill Torrey (New York Islanders); and five media members, including broadcaster Mike Emrick.

Players must receive 14 votes to be chosen for the Hall in Toronto. Committee members are not permitted to publicly discuss candidates for the Hall.

Referring to his Hall of Fame eligibility, Howe said, “I’m probably on the bubble. I’m not a Gretzky (or) a Lemieux. I hold the Hall of Fame in really high standards. Your Bobby Clarkes, Gordie Howes, Wayne Gretzkys…those are the really elite players. I’ve always considered myself in the group just below that.”

Point taken. But Howe adds, “There’s a couple players in (the Hall) that I know I’m probably as good a player as they were.”

Only three Flyers players are in the Hall of Fame: Clarke, Bernie Parent and Bill Barber.

Howe feels he judges himself fairly as a player. “I know how hard I competed,” he said. “I was always my toughest critic.”

Perhaps the fact that he never played on a Stanley Cup winner is a negative for Howe’s Hall of Fame candidacy.

“If Mark had been on a Stanley Cup winner (as a player),” Clement said, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Said Howe: “I’ve won three as a scout with Detroit, but it’s not the same (as a player).”
Howe is proud that he’s in the Flyers Hall of Fame. “That meant a lot to me,” he said. “The 10 years I was there was a great relationship.”

Howe notes that he made the transition from winger to defenseman midway in his pro career.

“I only played defense for about a year and a half before I came to the Flyers,” he said. “After two years (in Philly) I was runner-up for the Norris Trophy.

“I never looked at myself as an offensive defenseman. My game was keeping the puck out of my net. For my career, I was somewhere around plus 500. I’ve always tried to give a lot of credit to Eddie Van Impe.”

Howe said the first time he spoke with Van Impe, the former Flyers defenseman asked, “What can I teach you?” Howe replied, “You can teach me a lot, because I’ve never been told anything (about playing defense). Eddie didn’t have the mobility that I had, so it was extremely important for him to be positionally sound. He taught me to be positionally sound.”

Howe also watched replays of Flyers games in the wee hours. “My partner, Brad McCrimmon, and I would talk about what we wanted to work on (in practices)”, Howe recalled. “That’s how you got better. Very seldom did I get scored on by making the same mistake.”

Howe was just 16 when he helped the United States earn a silver medal 1972 Olympics.
“I was supposed to play junior hockey with the Toronto Marlies that year,” Howe said. “But I had knee surgery in the fall, so I stayed in Detroit.”

When the U.S. Olympic team stopped in Detroit for an exhibition game before Christmas it needed a replacement for an injured player. Howe was asked to try out for the Olympic team.

“They needed a five-to-seven minute player a game to run around and create havoc,” Howe said. “I could always skate.

“It was something for a 16-year-old kid to travel halfway around the world to Japan. It was the first time I got exposed to the Russians and the Czechs and their incredible hockey talent. We didn’t have the elite players they did, but we had guys like Henry Boucha, Timmy Sheehy and Robbie Ftorek. We won the games that we had to, to get the medal.”

Howe was traded to the Flyers by Hartford on August 20, 1982. The Flyers also received a third-round 1983 draft choice who turned out to be winger Derek Smith. Shipped to the Whalers were Ken Linseman, Greg Adams and two draft picks.
Mark Howe helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 1985 and 1987. (Flyers archives)

During the 1981-82 NHL season, Howe had asked the Whalers to trade him to either of four teams: the Flyers, Boston, New York Rangers or Islanders.

Boston had drafted Howe in the second round of the 1974 Entry Draft. “I called Harry Sinden (the Bruins GM) and gave him the magic words: I said, `I’ll take a cut in pay to play for your team, just get me out of here.’ He called me back three days later and said, `I can’t do it. They want too much for you.'"

Fortunately for the Flyers, GM Keith Allen swung the trade. Howe anchored a rear guard on teams that twice reached the Stanley Cup Finals (1985 and 1987).

Now, Howe keeps busy as the Director of Pro Scouting for the Red Wings. When the subject of his Hall of Fame possibilities are mentioned, he says, “I’m not holding my breath. I’m someone who looks forward, not backward.”

Howe is wise not to agonize over whether he’ll ever be inducted into the Hall. He can’t control the issue. But count me as one of many hockey observers who believe Howe should be a Hockey Hall of Famer.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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