The Philadelphia Flyers have had many outstanding players wear the team’s crest over the franchise’s 45 years of existence. Many of the brightest stars and pivotal figures in team history are enshrined on the team’s Hall of Fame, with quite a few worthy candidates still awaiting induction. But, the most exclusive honor in Philadelphia is the official retirement of a player’s jersey.
When Mark Howe’s number 2 jersey is retired on Tuesday night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, he will become just the fifth player in team history to earn that sort of veneration. It is quite fitting that the unquestioned best defenseman in team history will join the ranks of its greatest goaltender (Bernie Parent, #1), greatest center and captain (Bobby Clarke, #16), best all-around winger (Bill Barber, #7) and the embodiment of the everyman player who makes good through sheer will and determination (Barry Ashbee, #4).
Howe’s jersey retirement in the city where he played his best hockey will virtually complete the gauntlet of every major post-career individual honor he could earn. In November, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. He has been a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame since 2003 and a member of the Flyers Hall of Fame since 2001.
Before Howe, former captain Ed van Impe and hard-shooting Bob “the Count” Dailey were the Flyers’ defenseman most associated with uniform #2. After Howe’s departure from the Flyers via free agency in the summer of 1992, nine Philadelphia defensemen wore the number, ranging from the likes of Derian Hatcher, Adam Weinrich and Dmitri Yushkevich to Vladimir Malakhov, Adam Burt, Kerry Huffman, Lukas Krajicek, Frantisek Kucera and Brad Tiley.
Howe has long maintained that he had no problem with others sporting his number over the last 20 years, but is humbled and grateful to receive the honor of jersey retirement.
“I don't know if it is a long time coming. It is not something you think about,” Howe said. “It is just a continuation of a personal year for me that has been incredible. To be singled out from the players that played in the 1980s and to be put up in the rafters with [Bernie Parent], [Bobby Clarke], and [Bill Barber]... I look up to those guys and I have a lot of respect for them. They set the standard for what it means to be a Flyer. For me to have my jersey number up there with them speaks volumes for me. It is a great honor.”
Shortly after Howe’s Hall of Fame induction speech in Toronto and several weeks before his participation in the Alumni Game at the Winter Classic, he received a congratulatory phone call.
“Ed Snider gave me a call and I kind of laughed. It was the second or third one that I had ever gotten,” Howe recounted. “He started off the conversation with what I was doing on March 6th. I said I hadn't planned my schedule out that far in advance. He said the Red Wings were going to be playing in Philadelphia and I said that I would probably be at the game then. He said, ‘Do you mind if I retire your jersey?’ So, I was pretty excited about it. The couple talks I had with Mr. Snider were much along the same lines. He delivered it nice. It was the highest honor you could receive in the Philadelphia Flyers organization.”
Even apart from his decade of outstanding service to the Flyers (1982-83 to 1991-92) to the Flyers on and off the ice, Howe enjoyed a brilliant career that saw him make the successful transition from All-Star caliber winger to Norris Trophy caliber defenseman.
At age 16, he was a member of silver-medal winning Team USA at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. He was the WHA’s all-time leading playoff scorer (92 points in 71 games) and won a couple of championships with the Houston Aeros. At age 40, as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, he played in the third Stanley Cup Final of his NHL career.
Nevertheless, it will always be Howe’s seasons in Philadelphia that are considered the greatest years of his professional career.
“My ten years with the Flyers were some of the happiest times of my life. I always associate good times with winning teams, and we did a lot of winning in Philadelphia and had a quality group of guys off the ice,” Howe recalled.
Howe is the Flyers’ all-time franchise leader for goals (138), assists (342), regular season points (480), playoff points (53) and career plus-minus rating (+349) among defensemen. A three-time Norris Trophy finalist for best NHL defenseman during his Flyers’ career, he won four Barry Ashbee Awards as the club’s best defenseman and one Bobby Clarke Trophy as team MVP.
It is no coincidence that the game the Flyers chose for Howe’s jersey retirement ceremony was the team’s lone game at the Wells Fargo Center against the Detroit Wings this season. Not only is Howe the Red Wings’ director of pro scouting and finished his active NHL career with three solid seasons as a member of the team, he spent the formative years of his childhood in and around Detroit.
Mark, of course, is the son of the legendary Gordie Howe, who starred for the Red Wings throughout Mark’s childhood and adolescence. Always a tight-knit family, Mark is grateful that many members of the clan will be in attendance for the jersey retirement ceremony, including Gordie, his brother Marty, and his own children. In early January, 56-year-old Mark became a first-time grandfather when his daughter, Azia, gave birth to her first child.
“Anything I do in my lifetime is not going to compare to what my children do, so everything they do means so much more. It makes me so proud to be a part of their lives,” Mark said. “So if I just put that into perspective I know what it meant at the Hall of Fame for my dad. This is on the same level as that. This is the town, this is the city where I put the pieces together for me to get in the Hall of Fame. I have my dad here and my brother and my children. That's what it's all about. If I don't have them there with me to share it with, it doesn't mean near as much.”
For their part, the other members of the Howe family contingent are thrilled to be able to share the occasion with Mark. Speaking on behalf of the clan, eldest son Travis recounted his own years of growing up in Philadelphia and knowing how much the team and the city meant to his dad.
“I am so excited to see my father’s jersey retired by the Flyers. The Flyers organization has always been great to my dad and our entire family,” said Travis, who is the co-founder of the highly regarded Hockey Selects development program. “I know it means a great deal to my father as he has always spoken so highly of the organization and his time playing there. I have so many fond memories of growing up as a Flyers fan which I will never forget. As a youth hockey player, I used to dream of playing for the Philadelphia Flyers and wearing that same number. Number 2 is and will always remain my favorite number for that very reason."
“He and our family had so many wonderful years in Philly. I was fortunate to be able to see him play many times wearing that #2 jersey. Through a lot of his positive experiences as a Flyer both on and off the ice, he taught me many of the same values and lessons that I’ve been able to use in my work in hockey today. It will be a very proud moment for me to watch his jersey being lifted. Thank you to Mr. Snider and the entire Philadelphia Flyers organization for bestowing such an honor.”