February is a big month for the New York Rangers
alumni. Adam Graves
was honored Feb. 3 as his No. 9 was raised to the rafters at Madison Square Garden. On Feb. 22, the Rangers are bestowing a very long and overdue honor to two of the franchise's greatest players of the 1950s and 1960s when Andy Bathgate's No. 9 and Harry Howell
's No. 3 are retired.
In a few seasons during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bathgate had better offensive numbers than Gordie Howe
. In 1961-62, Bathgate and Chicago left wing Bobby Hull
led the League in points, but Hull won the Art Ross
Trophy though because he scored more goals. Bathgate was in the League's top echelon of players, but New York was a perennial doormat.
Howell won the Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman in 1966-67 and was grateful to get the award then because he felt Boston Bruins
defensemen Bobby Orr
would win the trophy until he retired.
Howell was right.
Both Bathgate and Howell labored on some pretty mediocre teams in their Rangers careers, leading to a question -- did the Rangers of the 1950s and 1960s ever pay attention to the so-called "Dutton's Curse" which allegedly came about after Red Dutton
was blocked by Madison Square Garden management after World War II from bringing back the New York Americans suspended franchise? The New York Americans hockey team lost a lot of players to World War II, and Dutton decided to keep the team off the ice until the end of the war with the intentions of putting the franchise in Brooklyn. When Dutton found out his plan was not going to be carried out, he supposedly put a curse on the Rangers saying that the team would not win a Stanley Cup ever again in his lifetime.
Dutton died in 1987, the Rangers did not win a Cup between 1940 and 1994.
"I knew who he was," said Howell. "He was the president of the National Hockey League, but it was way back. I never met the man and to tell you the truth, I never even knew about the curse. The Rangers won in 1940, and '33 and '28. They went 54 years and, of course, those 54 years were when I was playing there were in-between because people were always asking me how come you played all of those years (17 seasons and a team record 1,160 games) for the Rangers and never won the Stanley Cup. I said because they didn't win for 54 years, that's all. It was right in the middle of my career.
"We had pretty good teams in the '60s, when they traded Andy away (to Toronto in 1964), he was our legitimate superstar and actually it turned out well for the Rangers. We got a lot of good players back for the Rangers for Andy (Bathgate and Don McKenny went to Toronto for Dick Duff
, Bob Nevin
, Bill Collins
and Rod Seiling
), but we still did not win the Stanley Cup."
Bathgate would help Toronto to a Stanley Cup championship that season.
Howell's greatest season was in 1966-67. At the age of 34, he was a first-team All-Star and won the Norris Trophy. He is proudest of that accomplishment as a player because had he not won the award that season, he never would have gotten one. There was a guy named Orr in Boston who was just a lot better than any defensemen who ever played the game. and Howell knew it after the first time he saw Orr in a Bruins uniform.
"That was a good thing," he said. "I knew Bobby Orr
, the first time I saw him, I played an exhibition game against him in London (Ontario) and he played that funny game. He was 18 and he kept the puck all night. He was a great player and that is why I made that funny remark.
"(He) was a very, very fast skater with skill and fearless, that is why he ended up having an abbreviated career because he got hurt along the boards because he was fearless or he would go through a hole where most people wouldn't try to go through and his knees got banged up. That is the reason why, he would take those chances all the time."
Howell had some stiff competition annually for the Norris Trophy, which was first presented in 1954. Detroit's Red Kelly
took the first one, and then Montreal's Doug Harvey
would capture the award seven times over an eight-year period. Chicago's Pierre Pilote
won it three times in the 1960s. Howell played with Harvey over the course of three seasons between 1961 and 1964 and admitted that Harvey was a good influence in Howell's career.
Harvey won his final Norris Trophy as a member of the Rangers in 1961-62.
"Doug would pass the puck up to the forwards very quickly and on the stick, he never made a bad pass in his life, I don't think," said Howell. "He was a super player too. I was fortunate enough to play with Doug when he came down (to the Rangers) as player-coach, I learned a lot from him.
"He didn't change the game, he just made it better," said Howell in comparing Orr and Harvey. "Doug was different. I know (Montreal coach) Toe Blake
used to get on his back all of the time, like shoot the puck. But he would never shoot it because he would be looking for the Rocket (Maurice Richard
) or Boomer (Bernie Geoffrion
) on the side or (Jean) Beliveau or Dickie Moore
and he would be passing the puck and they would be tipping it into the net. Because you look at his goals record and his assists record, they would be way out of whack."
New York missed the playoffs in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966. Most of Howell's Rangers career was spent near the bottom of the NHL standings.
New York's problem in those days was simple. They didn't have enough Hall of Fame players compared to Montreal, Detroit, Toronto and Chicago. New York had a great nucleus of players and if those players were somehow placed into today's NHL, the Rangers could be a top tier team with great goaltending, a tremendous defense and enough scoring but every team except Boston was loaded with talent in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"Johnny (Bower) played for us in New York too. He had that one year, 1953-54, and he had the best record any Ranger goalie had had since Davey Kerr in 1940," said Howell. "Johnny was a great competitor but Gump was younger and Gump had 10 great years with us in New York."
Howell left the Rangers in 1969 after a trade with the Oakland Seals. Oakland sold him to Los Angeles in 1971. Howell was one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history, but was never on a Cup team. He does own a Stanley Cup ring though as he was a scout with Edmonton in 1990 when that team won its fifth Cup in a seven-year period.
Howell returned to Madison Square Garden as a New York player -- the new one on 33rd Street in Manhattan, not the old building up on 49th Street where he played the majority of his Rangers career -- with the World Hockey Association's New York Golden Blades as player-coach in 1973-74. The Golden Blades folded just weeks into the season because the Garden was charging too much rent and Golden Blades ownership couldn't pay the bills. This time though, there was no Dutton Curse. The WHA took over the Golden Blades and quickly moved them to Cherry Hill, N.J.