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Howell's steadiness was his greatest strength

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Legendary Ranger Harry Howell's No. 3 will be retired at a special pregame ceremony on Feb. 22 along with Andy Bathgate's No. 9. As the big night approaches, is looking back at the careers of both men.

By Stan Fischler

Harry Howell was the prototype for Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, although the latter probably doesn't even know what I'm talking about.

A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Howell -- to be honored with teammate Andy Bathgate on Feb. 22 -- was hustled up to the National Hockey League when he still was eligible for Junior hockey with the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters.

"One of the Rangers defensemen got hurt," Howell recalls, "and Frank Boucher -- then the general manager in New York -- asked me to come down and help out for a game; which I did. But one game led to another and another and, as it happened, I never went back to Juniors."

Much like current Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, Hall of Famer Harry Howell's forte was his defensive prowess, although he showed a flair for offense at times.
Staal may not have had an exact parallel in his career, but Marc -- also an Ontario native only this time it's Thunder Bay -- but his ascent to The Show is very reminiscent of Howell's.

A 20-year-old rookie, Staal was fresh out of the Junior ranks having played four seasons with the Sudbury Wolves. He did get a taste of the pro game with Hartford in the playoffs but, still, the similarities are striking. Staal was regarded as too green behind the ears to make the leap to the top and the same had been said about Howell.

"I got a lot of help from my first defense partner, Leo Reise, Jr., who had been around the NHL for a long time," Harry remembers. "Before coming to New York, Leo had starred for the Red Wings and scored a pair of sudden-death overtime goals for Detroit in the seven-game, first round series with Toronto in 1950. In fact his goal in the seventh game won the series for Detroit. Ironically, the Wings went on to beat the Rangers in the Finals that year. In seven games of which the last one went into double-overtime."

Likewise, Staal has been getting good advice from veterans such as Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden among his blue line partners.

Comparing the styles of Howell and Staal also is arresting.

When Harry began emerging as a Rangers regular, his game was conservative although he would allow himself the luxury of an offensive foray whenever it made sense to do so.

"I wasn't an offensive threat in the Bobby Orr mold," Howell attests, "but I had a decent shot and I'd score the odd goal to help the team."

What Howell possessed was defensive puck sense; he played his position almost unobstrusively and without any fuss or fanfare. And as the years peeled away on the NHL calendar it became more and more apparent that the Rangers had a gem behind the blue line and one who seemingly never got seriously enough hurt to have to leave the lineup.

"They didn't call him 'Harry The Horse' for nothing," recalls Joseph Breu, a member of the United Press International staff during the Howell years. "Nobody is indestructible but Howell went a long way in that direction."

The proof is in the statistics. Over a span of 1,200 regular season games, Howell missed a mere 40. Few other defensemen in NHL history can make that statement.

Watching young Staal, I can see yet another parallel with the Howell odyssey. As the years passed, Harry began thinking more and more offense. In 1966-67 -- the final year of The Original Six before Expansion arrived -- Harry posted his best offensive season, scoring 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points.

What's so significant about that accomplishment is that Howell did it at a point when the league was at its highest qualitative level. A year later the NHL would balloon from six to a dozen teams and a severe case of dilution set in which was not dissipated until 1974 when the Philadelphia Flyers became the first expansion team to win The Stanley Cup.

Those who watch Staal -- and who know him -- are convinced that some day in that not-too-distant future -- he will become captain of the Blueshirts; perhaps in his mid-twenties.

In Howell's case, he was the youngest Blueshirt ever to be given the captaincy. At the age of twenty-three he was given the "C" for the l955-56 campaign.

In 1967 Howell won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. Upon accepting the trophy he displayed his sense of humor, asserting, "I'm glad I won it this year because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade."

He was speaking of the legendary Bobby Orr, then a Boston Bruins rookie.

Howell was off by two years. Orr won the Norris for the next eight consecutive seasons.

Harry was voted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979. He also won the Rangers Fan Club's Frank Boucher Trophy for being the most popular player on and off the ice three straight times from 1965 to 1967. This feat has been accomplished by only three other Rangers: Andy Bathgate, Rod Gilbert and Mark Messier.

Those are big skates for Marc Staal to follow, but at a similar point in Howell's career not many believed that he would reach the Class A level that he eventually did.
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