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Howe's familiarity with Ranger alums helped decision

by Davis Harper
NEW YORK -- In hockey, the best rivalries are nurtured by proximity, or passionate fans, or maybe even a particularly feisty regular-season affair. But these, all of them combined, pale in comparison to the animosity that a Stanley Cup Playoff series can spawn.

Just ask Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Howe.

"Rivalries just don't usually happen until you get to the playoffs, and the wars that get built up over a seven-game series."  Howe told "It's kind of a hatred for each other."

And Gordie's son should know. In nine seasons in Philadelphia, his Flyers saw the neighboring New York Rangers in the postseason on five separate occasions. Howe remembers the good -- he scored his only career overtime playoff goal to help the Flyers oust New York in 1985-86 -- and the bad -- a slew-footing in an early-1980s series left him with a severe concussion -- of the fierce rivalry with the neighbors to the north.

Many of the skaters who faced off in those bitterly contested series will go head-to-head once more at the Winter Classic alumni game at Citizens Bank Park at 1 p.m. on New Year's Eve.


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Howe, who earlier this year got his due as one of the game's great defensemen with his enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame, said his decision to participate – despite a bad back and poor circulation in his legs – was a no-brainer.

"When I got the phone call and asked me to play, it's like an instant yes," said Howe, who noted many of his fellow veterans were also shirking forced retirement in order to participate. "I think it's going to be one of those things where the fun far outweighs the soreness."

Now the head of professional scouting for the Detroit Red Wings, Howe lent his player assessment skills to evaluate a few Rangers for the rivalry reboot. As you will see, vitriol spewed as a player quickly transforms to respect once the days of competitive hockey have ended.

Adam Graves: "I just know he was a strong guy, strong skater, strong on his skates. A good power forward. Like I said, he was one of those guys who when it came time to elevate, he would know how to elevate. He's just one of those guys who did the little things, one of those guys who you have a lot of respect for. As a matter of fact, the night the Rangers retired his jersey, I wasn't supposed to go to the game, but I put it on my schedule to go scout the game just so I could go and be a part of it."

Brian Leetch: "Actually he and I at one point both used an (Easton) aluminum stick, and once we spent four days together at Hilton Head. Brian was a great hockey player. Whenever we had a meeting about the Rangers, obviously he's at the top of the list of who you discuss. He's somebody you have to pay attention to all the time. Not a dirty hockey player, just a guy with a lot of skill and a lot of talent."

Ron Duguay: "Always had his hair flowing; I think that's the thing people remember the most. But no, he was a big body and he had some pretty good hands on him and he could skate pretty well. Ron was just an honest hockey player. If he could finish a hit he'd finish a hit. It was fair, it was clean – sometimes it was hard, but he mostly played within the rules."

Mike Gartner: "Mike and I -- going back to when he played with Washington, going back to the old WHA (World Hockey Association) before we ever got to the NHL -- played with each other a lot. A lot of times, before I became a defensemen I played left wing, a lot of times I would match up with Mike because I was one of the only guys who could stay with him. He had great speed, great shot, and a real sound individual. Real quality person. You don't score as many goals as he did unless you know how to put the puck in the net." 

On the whole, as a veteran of these old-timer testimonials, Howe guarantees a tame and respectful affair. But if it's close in the third period, he warned that both teams will skate for the win.

"Ultimately, in all these games, the competitive nature of the players comes out in the third period," Howe said. "I guarantee you, watch this game. First period, it'll be fun; second period it'll be fun; third period, guys will be trying to win."

As for a winner, Howe remained diplomatic.

"Not even thinking about it," he said. "I'll let you know when the third period rolls around."
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