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Harry Howell: Forever a Part of Our Rangers Family

by Michael Obernauer

A thousand people have played for the New York Rangers over their 92-year history. Only 10 of them have received the franchise's ultimate honor, 10 men who once watched a banner go up to the Madison Square Garden rafters bearing their name, their number, never to be worn by any other player again.

Not one of them ever pulled on the Blueshirt more times than Harry Howell.

The Rangers family lost one of its all-time greats, and the game of hockey lost one of its sturdiest gentlemen, when Harry Howell passed away on Saturday. He was 86.

Howell will be remembered by generations of Ranger fans as the bulwark blueliner who came to the Blueshirts in 1952, left them in 1969, and scarcely sat out a game in between. The smart and steady defenseman played 1,160 games as a Ranger, unmatched in the franchise's history.

Emile Francis, the Rangers patriarch who was Howell's Coach and GM in the 1960s, once called him "the Rock of Gibraltar back there." His teammates and fans called him "Harry the Horse."

Howell's No. 3 was retired by the club on Feb. 22, 2009. He shared the spotlight that night with Andy Bathgate, which he was more than happy to do while the two were teammates playing junior hockey in Guelph, Ontario, and on the Rangers for more than a decade in the 1950s and '60s.

These were the lean years for the Rangers, a time when the team qualified for the playoffs only seven times during Howell's 17-year Ranger career. But amid it all, on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th, there was Howell. Always there was Howell.

"Today, the New York Rangers and the hockey world are saddened to hear of the passing of Legendary Blueshirt, Harry Howell," Rangers President Glen Sather said in a statement. "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."

"He's obviously an all-time great Ranger," said Marc Staal, whose 828 games played puts him fourth among Ranger defensemen behind Howell (1,160), Brian Leetch (1,129) and Ron Greschner (981). "I was fortunate to meet him and be a part of his night, and that was a special night at the Garden. He's held in such reverence around here for what he contributed to this organization."

Howell was named the ninth captain of the Rangers in 1955, in just his fourth season with the club, at the time making him the youngest captain in the team's history at 22 years old. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder already was building his reputation of dependability: Incredibly, over his first 16 seasons in the NHL, between 1952 and 1968, the Rangers played only 20 games in which Howell was not in their lineup.

His most celebrated season came in the 1966-67 campaign, during which the Rangers, under Francis, began to turn their fortunes with the GAG Line entering its prime and a young defense corps including the likes of Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown and Jim Neilsen and anchored by Harry the Horse. That season, Howell's 12 goals and 40 points - big totals for a defenseman of the era - buoyed him to his first career Norris Trophy, at 34 years old. He is one of three Rangers to capture the Norris, along with Doug Harvey and Brian Leetch.

Even Howell knew that the accolade had come not a moment too soon. "I'm glad I won it this year," Howell said in accepting the trophy at the NHL luncheon, "that guy in Boston is going to win it for the next decade." He was more or less spot-on: Howell was the last player to be awarded the Norris before Bobby Orr won his first of eight in a row the following season.

Twelve years later, Howell and that guy from Boston would enter the Hockey Hall of Fame together, part of the Class of 1979 that included Howell, Orr and Henri Richard. Bathgate had been inducted the year before.

Rod Gilbert, Howell's Hall of Fame teammate over eight seasons and third in games played by a Ranger with 1,065, said on Sunday that "Harry was like a big brother to me. I'm blessed to have received his love and support."

It was in January of Howell's Norris Trophy season, to celebrate his 1,000th game, that the Rangers first honored their linchpin defenseman with Harry Howell Night, on Jan. 25, 1967, the first time the franchise had honored one of its players in such a way. Howell recalled bringing in "two planeloads" of friends and family from Hamliton, and receiving gifts ranging from a brand-new Mercury Cougar, to a vacation, to a year's supply of cheese.

Some 42 years later Howell was back at Madison Square Garden, this time to watch his No. 3 raised to the rafters as he and Bathgate became the seventh and eighth men to be so honored by the Rangers.

It was a fitting pair, given their friendship and given that they had been summoned together to the Rangers from their junior club, the Guelph Biltmores, back in 1952. And while it was his friend Bathgate who went on to score 272 goals over 12 seasons in a Blueshirt - fourth-most in Rangers history - it was Howell who took to scoring immediately: He got his first goal in his first game on his first NHL shot, on Oct. 18, 1952, at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Years later, Howell recalled how following that game, Rangers GM Frank Boucher took him aside for a word.

"Boucher says to me, 'Why not come back to New York, practice with the team, then you'll go back to Guelph the next Saturday,'" Howell said in 2009. "Well, it never happened - I played in the Rangers' first home game back, and I never missed one after that."

Henry Vernon Howell was born on Dec. 28, 1932, in Hamilton, Ontario, to John and Dorothy Howell. Harry's wife, Marilyn, passed away in February. Their daughter, Cheryl, resides in Ontario.

"They will always remain in our hearts and forever be a part of our Rangers family," Sather said.

Only one season after his Norris Trophy win, a back injury requiring spinal fusion surgery effectively ended Howell's run with the Rangers. Francis offered him a front-office job, but Howell wanted to continue playing, so Francis arranged to send him out West. He finished his NHL career with four season with the Oakland/California Golden Seals and Los Angeles Kings.

But Howell, of course, was a stay-at-home defenseman in the truest sense of the term.

"No matter wherever else I played," he said on the night No. 3 was retired, "I always said that I played in New York for the New York Rangers."

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