Skip to Main Content

Howell, Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman, dies at 86

Holds Rangers record for games played

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

Harry Howell, a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman who played more games than anyone in the history of the New York Rangers, died Sunday. He was 86.

Howell, born Dec. 28, 1932, in Hamilton, Ontario, joined the Rangers in 1952-53 after two seasons of junior hockey with Guelph and immediately became one of the NHL's best defensive defensemen. 

"The National Hockey League mourns the passing of legendary defenseman, consummate professional, and Hockey Hall of Famer Harry Howell," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He will be remembered not only for his consistency and leadership on the ice but the ultimate class with which he carried himself. 

"As the New York Rangers' all-time leader in games played, Harry the Horse was the definition of dependability, missing only 17 games in his first 16 seasons with the Blueshirts. Howell won the Norris Trophy in 1966-67 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979 following an NHL career that comprised 1,411 games over 21 seasons. In 2009, the Rangers retired his jersey No. 3 to the rafters of Madison Square Garden.

"The pride of Hamilton, Ontario, Howell was humble and kind. He and his beloved wife of 64 years, Marilyn, who passed away last month, were pillars of the communities in which they resided. We send our deepest condolences to the Howell family as they -- along with the entire hockey world -- grieve the loss of a universally-admired player and gentleman."

Rangers president Glen Sather said, "Today, the New York Rangers and the hockey world are saddened to hear of the passing of legendary Blueshirt, Harry Howell. One of the most iconic players in franchise history, Harry's Hall of Fame accomplishments on the ice were exceeded only by the tremendous gentleman he was off the ice. I was privileged to have worked with Harry for over a decade in both Edmonton and New York and treasure our memories together. 

"The entire Rangers organization sends our most heartfelt condolences to the Howell family who recently lost Harry's beloved wife Marilyn, just a few weeks ago. They will always remain in our hearts and forever be a part of our Rangers family."

Howell was big for his era at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, but Howell wasn't aggressively physical; rather, he used his hockey sense and positioning to become an effective player on a franchise that was struggling to recapture the glory it had enjoyed before World War II. Though his style of play sometimes earned boos from the fans at Madison Square Garden, Howell was a solid player who was content to make the safe play rather than go for the big hit.

"Hockey is a game of mistakes, and Harry doesn't make many of them," said Emile Francis, his general manager and coach with the Rangers in the 1960s.

Howell wasn't a big offensive contributor until 1966-67, his 15th season in the NHL, when he had a career year with 12 goals and 40 points for the resurgent Rangers, who made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Howell's performance earned him the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman, making him the final winner of the Original Six era and the last before Bobby Orr's eight consecutive wins.

Howell said years later that he got some help that year from a fellow future Hall of Famer, forward Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion.

"That year I scored more goals than I ever had before," he said. "Part of the reason was that I was playing the point on the power play with Boomer. When I passed to Boomer, he'd send it back to me and say, 'You shoot it.' That was funny because Boomer was one of the first guys to use the slap shot a lot."

Howell also became the first member of the Rangers to be honored by the team with his own night. The Rangers held "Harry Howell Night" at the old Madison Square Garden on Jan. 25, 1967. 

"The fans were always great to me," Howell said.

In addition to his steady play on the ice, Howell made a big impact with teammates off it.

"Harry was a first-class individual, as was his whole family," former Rangers forward Vic Hadfield, Howell's teammate for eight seasons, said on Sunday. "We were very, very close, the two families. Harry was a very humble guy, the nicest guy, someone who would give you the shirt off his back. Just a wonderful individual.

"When we first went to New York, he took us in and made sure we all had places to live and were able to get to the games. We just watched what he was doing. He wasn't boisterous, but he was a quiet leader and just a genuine good guy."

Howell's first-class treatment of teammates extended to up-and-coming defensemen like Brad Park. 

"When I signed my first NHL contract with the Rangers, my father -- and I didn't know why -- asked Emile Francis that I be paired with Harry at our 1968 training camp in Kitchener," Park said Sunday. "We started camp then we began scrimmaging and Harry was my partner on defense. He treated me like an equal, not like a rookie. He taught the me the class of being an NHL player. I learned so much from Harry and so much from Rod (Gilbert) as a young player that it just stuck with me through my whole career.

"I ended up taking Harry's job at the end of my rookie season when I started to play regularly and the Rangers moved him on to the Oakland Seals. But I can't express how much of a terrific, sincere person he was. Just the way he treated me was a step above class. Harry was so good to me at that camp, he left such an impression that I would never, ever treat a rookie as a second-class citizen."

Howell missed a total of 17 games in his first 16 seasons, but in 1968-69, he began to have back problems that eventually required surgery. Francis offered him a job with the Rangers, but the 37-year-old wanted to continue playing, so Francis traded him to the Seals on June 10, 1969. Howell played 1 1/2 seasons with the Seals and 3 1/2 with the Los Angeles Kings, then spent three seasons in the World Hockey Association before retiring in 1976. Howell finished with 94 goals and 418 points in 1,411 NHL games, 1,160 with the Rangers. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

Howell coached the Minnesota North Stars during the 1978-79 season and later became a scout with the Edmonton Oilers, earning a Stanley Cup ring in 1990.

"I wish it could have been with the Rangers, he said, "but a ring is still a ring."

Howell returned to the Rangers as a part-time scout in the 1990s before retiring. His No. 3 was raised to the rafters at Madison Square Garden by the Rangers on Feb. 22, 2009. His 1,160 games played are still a Rangers record.

"No matter wherever else I played," Howell said that night, "I always said that I played in New York for the New York Rangers."

Photos courtesy of Hockey Hall of Fame

View More