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Flyers Heroes of the Past: Mark Howe (Part 1)

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers

Players like Mark Howe don't come along very often. He made the team better every time he stepped on the ice. Howe's combination of supreme natural talent, outstanding work ethic and sharp mind for hockey made him a superior player both offensively and defensively. Howe is unanimously regarded as the best all-around defenseman in the 40-year history of the Philadelphia Flyers franchise.

A member of the Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Fame and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Howe is richly deserving of induction into the "big" hall in Toronto as well. There haven't been many players in the history of the game who have made the transition from All-Star forward to defenseman mid-career and not only held their own at the new position, but became one of the best blueliners of their generation.

Howe was a silky smooth skater, a pinpoint passer and possessed a fabulous wrist shot he could put on net from virtually any angle. At the defensive end, his uncanny anticipation and positional smarts more than made up for his lack of size and bulk.

Between his WHA and NHL careers, Howe compiled 405 regular season goals and 1,246 regular season points. Howe is also the Flyers franchise leader for goals (138), assists (342), regular season points (342), playoff points (53) and career plus-minus rating (+349) among defensemen.

All the while, the three-time Norris Trophy finalist for best NHL defenseman and four-time Barry Ashbee Award winner for the Flyers's best defenseman placed much greater emphasis on playing solid defense than on any personal accomplishments. Ask any of his former teammates to describe Howe and they invariably hone in on his unselfishness and integrity, both on and off the ice.

"Mark never cared about trying to compete for the most points by a defenseman. He didn't care if he ever won the Norris Trophy. He just cared about the Flyers winning games," says former teammate Dave Poulin. "If you look at our teams in the 1980s, we had a lot of good players, but Mark Howe is the only one who probably belongs in the Hall of Fame."

Hockey's First Family

Mark Steven Howe was born on May 28, 1955, in Detroit, Michigan. His father, hockey legend Gordie Howe, and mother Colleen had three sons (Marty, Mark and Murray) and one daughter, Cathy.

The Howes were a close-knit family unit and Gordie and Colleen instilled the same humility, honesty and tireless work ethic in their children that they were steeped in as children of the Great Depression. Gordie never behaved like a celebrity in public or private, nor did his children realize the magnitude of his accomplishments on the ice until they were older.

"While Gordie Howe was an outstanding hockey player and helper, he is an even more outstanding father. Everything that he does, he always does with his children in mind," said Murray Howe in the book And …Howe! "What about Mom? Sure, she's run for Congress (in 1981), written a couple books and chaired a foundation or two, (but) she's the one who totally sacrifices herself for others."

With Gordie away for much of the year with the Red Wings, Colleen managed the household from day-to-day and chauffeured her children to school and practice. Later, she put her sharp business mind to use representing her husband (and later Mark and Marty) in business matters. As fearsome as Gordie was on the ice, he was a gentle and patient husband and father away from the game.

"We couldn't ask for better parents. There was no favoritism and we were allowed to be ourselves," says Mark. "Sure, I heard a lot about being Gordie Howe's son, but that pressure never came from my mom and dad. Hockey was always a lot of fun for Dad, so he never made it feel like a chore for us. I think my personality is more like my mother's was. She was very analytical, a planner."

"Mom was the disciplinarian in our house, but never in a hard way," added sister Cathy in And…Howe!. "With my parents, I never thought about trying to sneak around and avoid them. They'd put rules on me that left a lot of responsibility with my own self, and I think it's because they trusted my judgment."

Gordie and Colleen were as proud of Cathy and Murray (who grew up to be a doctor) as they were of hockey-playing sons Mark and Marty. Like all siblings, the Howe kids had their share of tiffs with one another when they were growing up. The family had its ups and downs. But there was a lot of love and support in the home and the children grew up to hold their siblings in high esteem, even though time, distance, careers and family responsibilities prevented them from getting together as often as they'd like as adults.

"Mark is the most unselfish person I know," said Murray in And... Howe! "Midway through high school he gave me his customized van. Then he gave me his motocross bike. Meanwhile, he would drag me along to the golf course, on his dates and even drive out of the way to take me to school in his hot wheels. He could have easily just dumped me at the bus stop. [Even today] Mark makes being a little brother fun."

"Mark is driven," added Cathy. "In that aspect, I'm a lot like Mark. I'm probably closest with Mark. But Mark is more energetic. He doesn't like to sit down; he's got to be in perpetual motion… Basically, I think Marty and Mark are probably the tightest of the bunch, and when we were kids, Murray was my best friend."

Because they were only a year apart in age and both took an early interest in hockey and other sports – usually playing on the same teams – Marty and Mark spent a lot of time together as they grew up. In addition to hockey, Mark played Little League baseball in Detroit and was a local All-Star catcher. He also competed in high school wrestling, track and football.

By Murray's account, Marty was the better athlete in most sports, especially football. Hockey was the big exception. Mark was a good student in school, but the rink was his first love. From an early age, Mark was head and shoulders more skilled than other players his age.

If his father was home, Mark would sometimes talk Gordie into driving past school and taking him to Red Wings practice at the Olympia. Gordie would also take the kids to Red Wings games whenever they wanted to go.

"I took Mark into the dressing room with me when he was only about five," Gordie recalled in And…Howe! "Jack (Adams) came in, hollering and screaming at us, throwing orange pieces around. We'd had a few bad games, and he was really hot at us. When he stopped for a second, you could hear a pin drop in the place. Then Mark piped up, 'Hey Dad! Who's that big fat guy?' Ooh, my career flashed in before my eyes while we were all trying not to laugh. Jack didn't say anything. But a full week later, out of the blue, Jack walked in and told us from now on, there'll be no more kids in the dressing room on the day of the game."

The Red Wings players dubbed the ban the "Mark Howe Rule." As Mark got older, Gordie joined Colleen in the stands for his sons' games, but tried to remain as unobtrusive as possible, preferring that Mark, Marty and the other youngsters be the center of attention.

"They didn't yell and scream, like a lot of hockey parents I've seen over the years," says Mark. "If there were any problems being Gordie Howe's kid, I always thought the advantages far outweighed them."

Budding Star

The youth hockey programs in the Detroit area during the 1960s were not nearly the caliber of the ones in Canada, so Colleen Howe took charge of upgrading the resources available to Mark and other local youths. The Junior Red Wings got to travel to compete against Ontario's top junior teams. In 1969-70, Howe's team won the U.S. National Junior A Championships.

In 1970-71, 15-year-old Mark led Detroit to the SOJHL championship, capturing league MVP honors while compiling 37 goals and 107 points in 44 games. Drafted by the London Knights of the OMJHL, the standout left winger opted to play for the U.S. national team program.

"There was a series of events that led up to me playing for the U.S. in the '72 Olympics," says Howe. "In the playoffs with the Junior Red Wings, I hurt my knee. At first, the doctors said I'd be fine, but it was worse than I thought. I needed surgery and I was going to miss the first two or three months of the season. So, I decided to stay with the Junior Red Wings an extra season. In my first game back, we played an exhibition against the U.S. national team and one of their left wingers got hurt. So the team management asked if I'd be interested in going to Minnesota to try out for the team."

After nine games for the Junior Red Wings (in which he tallied 14 points), Howe earned a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. He suited up in six games at the Sapporo Games, helping the Americans win the silver medal.

"Everything worked out great, and I had the experience of a lifetime. There I was at age 16 and it's my first extended time away from home. It was like a two month vacation from school," says Howe. "I only played about five minutes a game. My job was to use my speed, throw a few checks and get off the ice after a short shift. Those guys on the team were great – Henry Boucha, Robbie Ftorek, Tim Sheehy, Dick McGlynn, Stu Irving. It was a really underrated bunch."

In August of 1972, London traded Howe's rights to the Toronto Marlboros in exchange for future Flyer Larry Goodenough and Dennis Maruk. Joining Marty (who was in his second season with Toronto), the left winger was a driving force in Toronto's quest for the Memorial Cup, collecting 38 goals and 104 points in 60 regular season games and then leading the tournament in goals, assists and points. Mark Howe was a unanimous selection for the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as tournament MVP.

"If you look at any successful team, there are always a lot of people who contribute to the success. We had a lot of excellent junior players on that Marlies team, in addition to Marty and myself," says Howe. "Bob Dailey was there. Mike Palmateer was the goaltender. We had Wayne Dillon, who was a good player in the WHA and played for the New York Rangers. Paulin Bordeleau was another big scorer. The MVP award was probably the biggest individual honor I won, but my teammates had a big part in it."

Family Show in Houston and New England

Gordie Howe retired after the 1970-71 season and, for the next two seasons, he worked in the Red Wings front office. While he considered himself a Red Wing for life, he felt unfulfilled in his new role. Meanwhile, during this era, NHL rules prohibited the selection of players under the age of 20.

Enter the fledgling World Hockey Association and enter Colleen Howe. The Howe matriarch contacted WHA president Gary Davidson in the spring of 1973 to ask whether the league had an agreement with the Canadian and U.S. Amateur Hockey Associations not to draft underage junior players. The answer was no.

Next, Colleen planted a seed in the mind of Gordie's longtime friend and former Detroit Red Wings teammate, Bill Dineen. By this point, Dineen was the head coach of the WHA's Houston Aeros. As soon as he learned there was nothing preventing the Aeros from drafting Mark and Marty Howe, Dineen and the Aeros jumped at the chance.

Weeks later, Gordie fulfilled a lifelong dream by signing a contract with the Aeros, along his sons. The media attention immediately shifted away from Mark and Marty's youth to Gordie's comeback.

"I got all the publicity, but I was the add-on in this deal. When we were talking about what kind of offers the boys could expect to receive from Houston, I just kiddingly said, 'I wonder what they'd offer for three Howes?' It was just such a thrill to play with two of my sons," Gordie said in And…Howe!

Mark and Marty soon discovered that Gordie expected his sons to treat him as a teammate, not as their father. He did not answer to "Dad" within the confines of the arena (responding only to Gordie) and deferred to Dineen when it came to line assignments and ice time. For the next seven years, the Howes were teammates.

"It was really special to play with my dad and with Marty. I always associate good times with winning teams, and we had some successful teams in Houston and had a good coach in Bill Dineen," says Mark Howe. "Bill is a tremendous person and it was a pleasure to play for him. He wasn't a screamer and he really cared about his players. He's very good with young players. With most coaches, if you lose, you sit with your teammates afterwards and curse about the coach. But with Bill, the players felt like they let him down if they lost. That's pretty rare."

Although he was still just 18 years of age, Mark Howe hit the ground running in the WHA. He won the Kaplan Trophy as Rookie of the Year, scoring 38 goals and 79 points in 76 games. In the playoffs, he registered nine goals and 19 points in 14 games.

After the 1973-74 season, the Boston Bruins gambled that they'd be able to lure Howe away from Houston, selecting him in the second round (25th overall) of the 1974 NHL Entry Draft. One round later, the Montreal Canadiens selected Marty.

"The Bruins offered me a five-year contract for $225,000 a year, which was a 40% raise over what I was making in Houston. But for me, it was really no consideration when I had the chance to continue to play with my father and brother," recalls Mark.

Although he was born and raised in the United States, Mark suited up for Team Canada at the 1974 Summit Series with the Soviet Union. The 19-year-old failed to make coach Billy Harris' opening night roster after a subpar training camp, but was placed on a line with Gordie Howe and Ralph Backstrom in Game Two. He assisted on Backstrom's game opening goal. Later, the younger Howe would score timely goals for Canada in the fifth and seventh games in the series.

The Howes then rejoined the Aeros. Bolstered by the three Howes and the likes of Larry Lund, goaltender Ron Grahame and future New York Islander John Tonelli, the Aeros were a dominant club. They enjoyed the best regular season record in the league in 1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76 and 1976-77.

In 1975, after a 36-goal regular season, Mark Howe led all WHA playoff scorers with 10 goals and 22 points. The Aeros swept the Quebec Nordiques in four straight games to win the Avco Cup as WHA champions. The following year, the Aeros returned to the finals but fell to Bobby Hull's Winnipeg Jets. That season, Mark Howe pushed his goal total up to 39 and posted 76 points in 72 games.

Mark, who possesses an entrepreneurial spirit similar to Colleen Howe's, got involved in several off-ice business ventures while in the WHA. One – a record store business in Texas – changed his personal life for good.

"My business partner used to date this girl, Ginger, who was a friend of Marty's wife. I met Ginger in Texas, and we got married in 1977," says Mark. The couple later had three children, Travis, Azia and Nolan.

The 1976-77 season marked two important turning points in Mark Howe's young career. Starting out the season in his accustomed left wing position, he made the All-Star team. Later, injuries on the Aeros blueline forced Dineen to move Howe, his most mobile and intelligent forward, to the backline. He ended up making the postseason all-star team at defense, making him the only player in WHA history to be named an all-star at two different positions in the same seasons.

But Mark himself couldn't escape the injury bug. He was limited to 57 games by a back injury – something that would become an ongoing problem later in his career.

"We were playing a game in Houston. I was on the blueline and jumped in the air to try to knock down a high flip into our zone. I missed the puck and landed awkwardly. I felt something pop in my back," Howe says.

After the 1976-77 season, rumors were rampant of a potential WHA merger with the NHL. The Aeros, who were not in particularly good shape financially, were not among the teams likely to be absorbed in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Howes were not pleased with the contract offers they received from Houston.

The Detroit Red Wings were interested in acquiring the NHL rights to Mark and Marty but general manager Ted Lindsay did not want Gordie as an active player. On May 23, 1977, Mark joined Gordie and Marty by signing as a free agent with the New England Whalers.

"The Aeros top offer was $175,000 and, considering the uncertainty about the future of the team, I wanted to control my own destiny in terms of where I'd end up and whether I could continue to play with my father and Marty," says Mark.

Despite missing seven games with a rib injury during the 1977-78 campaign, Howe posted another 30-goal season and a then career-best 91 points for the Whalers. In the playoffs, Howe had eight goals and 15 points in 14 games but the Whalers fell to Winnipeg in the finals.

The 1978-79 season would be the swan song for the WHA. Superstar left wing Mark Howe made it count. He scored 42 goals and 107 points for the New England Whalers. In the process, he compiled a franchise record 21-game point streak. Unfortunately, cracked ribs limited Howe to six playoff games (four goals, six points) and the Whalers lost in the semifinals. After the season, the club was absorbed into the NHL and rechristened the Hartford Whalers.

Mark Howe concluded his stellar WHA career as the youngest player in league history to score 200 goals and finished as the league's all-time leading playoff point-getter (92 points in 75 games). The NHL awaited.

Grisly Injury

On June 9, 1979, the NHL held a Reclamation Draft for WHA players whose NHL draft rights belonged to existing teams. The Bruins promptly put in a claim on Mark Howe, but Hartford immediately blocked the move. As part of the merger agreement, WHA teams could protect up to three players.

In Hartford, Mark scored 80 points in 74 games and had a solid +14 rating during his first NHL season. In need of backline stability, coach Don Blackburn moved Howe back to defense to spark the club's transition game and to quarterback the power play.

"It took a few years to really get familiar with playing defense. You're going to make mistakes back there, and you have to learn how to answer when it really counts," says Howe. "I would challenge myself to play a perfect game and not allow any scoring chances against. Maybe five or six times in my career, I had one of those games."

The 1979-80 season was bittersweet for the Howe family. The club snuck into the NHL playoffs in its first season in the league. But it would be the last season Gordie and his boys played together. Gordie closed out his spectacular career at age 52 with a 15-goal, 41-point season. Marty fell out of favor with the Whalers and was dispatched to the AHL's Springfield Indians.

"The Whalers kind of jerked Marty around, and that upset me a little bit, because he was a player that did everything that was asked of him," remembers Mark.

Mark Howe and the Whalers got off to a tremendous start in the 1980-81 season. The 25-year-old star was among the league's top-10 scorers and top-five plus-minus leaders through Christmas.

"I felt like I was really just starting to learn how to play defense. The Whalers had a good nucleus of players, led by Mike Rogers and Blaine Stoughton up front, and things were looking up for the team," he recalls.

But the events of December 27, 1980 forever changed Howe's career, and marked the beginning of the end of his tenure with the Whalers. On that night, Howe suffered a grisly injury that ultimately spurred the NHL to switch to safer nets.

"It really was an innocent play. I was back on defense on a three-on-two rush. I turned around to take away the passing lane. Tonto (John Tonelli of the Islanders), who I played with in Houston, bumped me from behind and I skidded into the net on my back," he says.

In this era, the NHL still used nets that were fastened to the ice on metal spikes. As Howe careened into the net, his skates lifted the goal post off the ice, exposing the spike below it. The spike impaled the player, narrowly missing his spinal column. A fraction of an inch difference could have left Mark Howe permanently paralyzed.

As it was, Mark knew he was in a heap of trouble. "I thought I had punctured my intestines. The trainer came out and I'm yelling, 'Cut off my pants!' I lost three and a half pints of blood that night."

Gordie rushed down to ice level from his seat in the press box to tend to his son, accompanying him to the hospital as Mark started to go numb from the pain. The two waited in the emergency room for over an hour after the attending physician was misinformed about the severity of the injury.

Exploratory surgery revealed the metal spike missed Howe's spine but had created a gaping laceration. Days later, the wound became infected. Mark, who ran fevers of 103 degrees and was too weak to get out of bed, required another procedure to clean out the abscess. Mark soon started to feel better. But he lost an unhealthy amount of weight and still felt weak.

"I always weighed myself in the locker room every day. On the night I got hurt, I weighed 192 pounds. Six weeks later, I weighed 176 pounds," he says.

By all logic, Howe shouldn't have even considered coming back to play hockey. But the Whalers, who had also lost Rogers to injury, were scuffling and Howe felt an obligation to help the team. After just six weeks out of the lineup, Howe returned.

"In hindsight, that was a mistake. If I had been playing for the Flyers at the time, I doubt they would've let me play, even if I said I wanted to try. But what happened in Hartford was that I was told I would just be used a little bit on the power play. Instead, I ended up playing 26 minutes as soon as I came back," Howe recalls.

Howe, whose weight dropped as low as 171 pounds, did not play his best hockey the rest of the season. Nevertheless, his quick start enabled him to finish with 19 goals, 65 points and a +10 rating in 63 games for a non-playoff team.

The Road to Philadelphia

After the season, Howe set out to regain his strength and work his way back into shape.

"The Whalers didn't have a training program or training facilities that remotely compared to what I later saw with the Flyers. It was like night and day. With Hartford, players had to work out on their own. Well, what happened was August rolled around and I got a call asking me to come play for Team USA at the 1981 Canada Cup. I was like, 'Thanks for the advance notice, guys!' I still wasn't back in playing shape, but I wasn't going to say no," remembers Howe.

Howe, still fighting to get back to his playing weight, struggled at the Whalers training camp. By this point, Hartford GM Larry Pleau branded Howe a complainer and wondered aloud if the player had become too comfortable financially to have the motivation to get back to the top of his game. The accusations stung Howe deeply.

"I had a meeting with Larry Pleau and told him that if he really felt that way, he should trade me. I had signed a ten-year contract with the Whalers when I left Houston and I had a no-trade clause. I gave him a list of four teams I'd accept a trade to – the Flyers, the Bruins, the Rangers or the Islanders," Howe says.

The Whalers told Howe they would accommodate him. Weeks and then months went by. Nothing happened.

"I spoke with (Bruins GM) Harry Sinden and told him, 'Get me out of here. I'll play for less money even, but just get me out of Hartford and we can work something out.' Harry told me he'd work something out with the Whalers. A few weeks later, Harry told me he'd spoken with Larry Pleau. The Whalers refused to trade me," Howe recalls.

Howe struggled on the ice, feeling for the first and only time in his career he was on a team that didn't want or appreciate him. He posted an uncharacteristic -8 rating for the season, to go along with just eight goals and 53 points.

"I was fortunate to play 22 years of pro hockey. That last year in Hartford was the only season I didn't enjoy," he says.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers were hard at work over the summer of 1982 trying to bring Mark Howe to Philadelphia. An apparent deal was reached in mid-August but Flyers general manager Keith Allen balked when the Whalers insisted Philadelphia add prospect Greg Adams into a package that already included high-scoring agitator Ken Linseman and a first-round draft pick.

"I asked Keith what Howe's value would be to us," said Ed Snider in Full Spectrum. "When Keith said he would instantly be our best defenseman, I asked if Greg Adams was really worth letting the deal pass."

All that was needed now was Mark Howe's approval – a mere formality. But Howe, unaware a trade was finally about to go down, was unavailable.

"I went away on a three-day fishing trip with Marty. Finally, I got a message on August 19 to call Larry Pleau as soon as possible. When he told me the Whalers and Flyers had worked out a trade, I was thrilled," he says.

Mark's happy mood darkened temporarily when he called Gordie, who had been working in the Hartford organization after his retirement.

"The news hurt him quite a bit, because the Whalers kept him out of the loop the whole time," the younger Howe says.

On August 20, 1982, 27-year-old Mark Howe became a Philadelphia Flyer. With the exception of the trade that brought Bernie Parent back to Philadelphia and resulted in two Stanley Cups, the trade with Hartford would quickly prove to be the best deal Keith Allen ever made.

For Part 2 of Flyers Heroes of the Past: Mark Howe, click here.
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