As a Rangers fan of too many years to count (50-plus), I tend to feel sorry for any of my brethren under the age of 50, because that means you more than likely never had the pleasure of seeing Harry Howell play for the Blueshirts. And “pleasure” is indeed the right word. Harry Howell was a pleasure to watch.
|Howell`s mark of 1,160 regular-season games might never be broken, as it would require a player to perform in every single game for at least 14 seasons. |
If my math is correct, it’s been almost 40 years since Howell departed the Ranger scene in June of 1969, after a team record 1,160 games. That’s a record that in all likelihood will never be matched, and only the since-retired Brian Leetch (1,129) and Rod Gilbert (1,065) really ever had a shot at it.
For all of his attributes, and there were many, longevity was probably Harry Howell’s strongest suit. He came on the Ranger scene as a 20 year-old in the fall of 1952, fresh off a Memorial Cup-winning Guelph team that only sent eight players to the National Hockey League.
Seventeen seasons later, he was still here. Harry Howell was like the Energizer Bunny of his day. He just kept on going, and going, and going. Through thick and through thin. Not even a spinal fusion operation, at the age of 37, would spell the end for Howell.
Given a choice, in 1969, of a front office job or to continue playing, Howell chose the latter. The Rangers general manager and coach at the time, Emile Francis, respected Howell’s decision, and accommodated him by sending the big defenseman to the brand new Oakland Seals.
“It was the right thing to do,” Francis recalls. “I didn’t agree with his decision at the time, but he had certainly earned the right to make it, and he did. This was a one-of-a-kind athlete. I mean, 1,500 games kinda speaks for itself, no?”
Howell went on to play four additional NHL seasons, plus three more in the old World Hockey Association. That stretched Howell’s professional playing career to 1,581 games. No wonder they called him “Harry The Horse.”
To watch Harry Howell play hockey, was to watch an “artiste” at work. His style was a defensive one, yes, but it featured an ease, a facility that simply screamed: “Man, this guy knows what he is doing, so listen up.” If you came to see crashing body checks or bare knuckle brawling, you were watching the wrong guy.
Howell and his style were all about finesse. He was the master of the poke check and more importantly, at least to his goaltenders, was his ability to ride opposing shooters smoothly into the boards, away from the center of the ice and out of shooting range.
Recalls Francis: “Harry was one of those players who always played the same, very, very steady. You always knew what you were going to get from him, be it in a practice or in a playoff game. It didn’t make any difference. Jean Ratelle was like that too.”
Howell was slow to get his due, as far as NHL honors were concerned. The Rangers of his prime years were mostly under-achievers, with not a whole lot of appearances in the playoffs. That cut into his press clippings for sure. Plus, he was up against some dynamite competition, guys like Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost in Detroit, Doug Harvey in Montreal, Alan Stanley in Toronto, and Pierre Pilote in Chicago.
Then, in 1966, along comes a wunderkind up in Boston by the name of Bobby Orr. Fortunately, Howell managed to snag his one and only Norris Trophy in 1967, because Orr went on to win the next eight, just as Howell had predicted when he accepted his Norris Trophy from NHL President Clarence Campbell at a luncheon in Montreal.
The highlight of Howell’s career on Broadway happened six months before he got the Norris Trophy, on January 25, 1967, Harry Howell Night, and the very first special night ever afforded a Ranger player. There gifts galore, a car, the Bronze Medal from the City of New York, family and friends at the Garden, much like tonight.
Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
But leave it to Harry Howell to put an apt and fitting exclamation point on his special night. He wrote a personal note of thanks to everyone who honored him. The Rangers published in the program soon after the big night:
|Dear Friends: |
It is hard to say in just a few words how deeply appreciative I am for the honors I received on my “night” earlier this year. Without a doubt, I would call it the most memorable night of my career with the Rangers.
Let me just say thank you to everyone: the Ranger management; the committee that worked so hard on my behalf; you, the fans; and the press, radio and television men, thank you very much for a night I’ll never forget.
That alone says mountains about Harry Howell, the man. (EDITOR’S NOTE: John Halligan served the Rangers for 24 years as a public relations executive. He is the author of four books on the team, including 100 RANGER GREATS, written with Adam Raider and Russell Cohen, and due to be published in 2009.)