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Howell built strong bond with Gilbert, Rangers

Hockey Hall of Famer, who died Sunday, was steadying force on, off ice

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Rod Gilbert has a bottomless reservoir of memories of his late friend Harry Howell, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman who died Sunday at age 86.

But this one remains near the top of Gilbert's list, recalled as the New York Rangers legend spoke of the man he considers one of the most important figures in his professional life.

"It was the 1964 New York World's Fair, and Harry and (Rangers teammate) Red Sullivan and I were making commercials for Miss Clairol," Gilbert said with a laugh. "All these beautiful girls from around the world modelling Miss Clairol, and there they were with Harry and Red and me."

Fast-forward 45 years to Feb. 22, 2009 and Gilbert standing on the Madison Square Garden ice to introduce Howell, the latter's No. 3 about to be retired to the arena rafters.

"The night before the ceremony, we're all together -- Lou Fontinato, Dean Prentice, Larry Popein, Red Sullivan, many others, and Harry's wife is crying," Gilbert recalled. "She pulled me aside and I said, 'Marilyn, what's the problem? I hope those are are tears of joy.' She said, 'No, Emile Francis (the former Rangers coach and GM) was supposed to introduce Harry tomorrow night but he's in North Battleford (Saskatchewan). Emile's mother is sick and he can't come.'

"I said, 'Take a look around the room. There's Red Sullivan and Larry Popein, who played with him for years in New York. They can introduce Harry, it's no big deal.' But she said, 'No I want you to do it.' 

"Red and Larry and others in the room had played with Harry before me and for more years than me, it probably would have been a lot easier for them to come up with something to introduce him. But Marilyn said, 'No, I want you.' That whole night I tossed and turned, trying to think how I'd introduce Harry. It was an emotional ceremony, but I'm so glad I did it."

As a junior, Gilbert had learned of the legend of both Howell and Andy Bathgate, who were icons with the Guelph Biltmores of the Ontario Hockey League, Howell patrolling the blue line from 1949-52, Bathgate filling opposition nets from 1949-53. Gilbert played with the Biltmores from 1957-60, regularly hearing of the exploits of the two men who had graduated to the Rangers.

"Both Harry and Andy became my heroes when I came to New York (in 1960-61)," Gilbert said. "My first game at old MSG, I'm a teenager and I'm standing between Harry and Andy. The national anthem has just ended and I hear this loud voice from up in the rafters hollering, 'Harry, hit him with your pocketbook!' "

Gilbert laughs at the memory.

"They called him Mary because he was so big and strong and he didn't want to be a fighter like Fontinato," he said. "But he was steady, a real pillar out there. You don't win the 1966-67 Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman by accident."

Again, laughing: 

"Bobby Orr had just arrived in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and won the Calder Trophy that year as the best rookie," Gilbert said. "In Harry's Norris acceptance speech, he said, 'Well, I think this streak is over. There's a new kid coming (Orr) and I think I'm lucky to win the Norris this year."

Orr would win the Norris each of the next eight seasons.

Gilbert remembers Howell's rugged ability to keep the Rangers crease clear of attacking forwards.

"He was very, very strong, that's why his nickname was 'Harry the Horse,' " he said. "He could push people from in front of the net. He wasn't a dirty player but he played aggressively enough to take the man out in front of the net or in the corners, where the puck would change hands.

"Harry wasn't flashy like (Montreal Canadiens defenseman) Doug Harvey or Bobby Orr. He didn't rush up and down the ice, he was a stay-at-home defenseman, rarely going in past the other team's blue line. But he was very, very steady."

But more important to Gilbert than the defenseman's skill on the ice was the friendship and generosity of Howell and his family to a young player arriving in New York to begin an illustrious career on a grand hockey stage.

"Harry was like a big brother to me," he said, Howell to precede Gilbert into the Hall of Fame by three years in 1979. "When I started my first full season (in 1962-63), he took me under his wing, took me to his home," he said. "Marilyn was cooking me meals. Harry was so, so generous with his advice. He'd already been in New York for 10 years and he knew his way around. I benefited from that tremendously. Harry was a very strong family man, and he and his family accepted me as one of their own.

"We hung out on the road and away from the rink. He was very important to me as a mentor and an influence, and he was a dear, dear friend. It's people like Harry who have made the NHL what it is."

Photos courtesy of Hockey Hall of Fame

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