In which we discuss the sustained brilliance of Mark Howe

Hockey card of Mark HoweI have never run into Mark Howe at a hockey game. But if I ever do, I’m going to be extremely excited. And that wouldn’t have always been the case.

I was at a Providence Bruins game with my dad and cousins when I was 13 years old, where I heard an older fan [1] excitedly mention that he’d just run into Mark Howe on the concourse. I remember thinking, “that is so cool! He’s Gordie Howe’s son.”

Not that that was so cool because Mark Howe played 22 seasons of big league hockey. And that’s a ridiculous oversight, one that could be excused of a kid who was still learning about the game, but honestly one that wasn’t corrected until years later.

Based on something I read yesterday, I’m guessing this might be a common problem. In an excellent Q&A with Pierre LeBrun, Wayne Gretzky discussed playing in the WHA-Soviet series in 1979 as a 17-year-old, and the thrill of learning that he’d center a line with Gordie and Mark Howe:

“And I remember thinking wow, how great is this I get to play between Gordie and Mark Howe. And for people who don’t remember Mark Howe a whole lot, who is a Hall of Famer, he is the only guy to ever win the scoring race in the league, professionally, and the next year they moved him to defense and he won the best defenseman in the league. That’s how good Mark Howe was.”

I can fairly confidently and embarrassedly say that, for a long time, I knew Mark Howe was Gordie Howe’s son. And that he was one of two Howe sons playing with his dad, first with the Houston Aeros and then with the New England/Hartford Whalers. It wasn’t until his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2011 that I took some time to step back and really take in his career.

The longevity is the first thing to jump out. He joined the Houston Aeros as an 18-year-old with 19-year-old Marty, bringing dad Gordie out of retirement in the process. At first it might have been just a publicity stunt, but playing with his boys rejuvenated the elder Howe, and he scored 100 points in 70 games as a 45-year-old with Marty on his left wing [2].

But with the glare of the great Gordie shining down, Mark thrived. He scored 79 points of his own in 76 games that first season, winning the Lou Kaplan trophy as the league’s rookie of the year. He continued to star in the WHA, racking up points and eventually scoring 107 in the final year before the merger, sending the Whalers and his family back to the NHL.

He almost came to the NHL two years earlier. The Bruins held his rights and were trying to convince him to sign for 1977-78, but the 22-year-old decided to follow Gordie and Marty to Hartford to keep the band together for a little longer. And when the Bruins tried to claim his rights at the merger, Hartford blocked them, keeping the group together for Gordie’s final season.

Mark scored 80 points in that 1979-80 season, but that was also the beginning of his transition to defense — where he’d dabbled on the blue line in the past, he was playing on the back line more often and was recognized with a fifth-place finish in the Norris voting. He played two more years in Hartford and, because nothing good ever seemed to last for the Whalers, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers before the 1982-83 season for the usual price tag of “Not Nearly Enough,” and he immediately became a stalwart on a group that had Stanley Cup aspirations.

He finished second in the Norris Trophy voting three times, and of those three, his near-miss in 1985-86 might be the most egregious. He was the anchor of the Flyers’ defense at that point, and he put up 82 points and a league-leading plus-85 playing in a meat-grinder Patrick Division. Paul Coffey scored 138 points that year on the high-flying Oilers, and too often the Norris just goes to the highest scoring defenseman rather than the best at his position [3].

The Flyers have an argument as the best team of the 1980s to not win the Stanley Cup, losing once at the beginning of the decade to the New York Islanders, and then twice more during Howe’s run to Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers. And Howe’s arrival marked the first of four first-place finishes in the Patrick in five years, in a period where the Broadstreet Bullies transitioned from the Bobby Clarke era to one led by Tim Kerr, Dave Poulin and Brian Propp. All the while, Howe was elite, but when injuries began to take their toll on Howe, so went the Flyers’ hopes as Cup contenders.

His final act in the NHL was to mentor Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit, putting a Howe in a Red Wings sweater for the first time since Gordie circa 1971. He played two more years there, making one final run at the Cup in 1995, only to be denied by the New Jersey Devils.

And that’s that. He settled into a role with the Red Wings after that (likely why he was wandering the concourse of an AHL arena that fateful day), and stayed in the game in the background, working in Hockeytown and remaining connected.

He finally got his due in 2011 with the Hall of Fame, and a year later, the Flyers retired his no. 2 sweater. Whether or not the Rushmore-tier guys get into the hall in their first year or not is a mildly interesting bar argument. But honoring the guys like Howe, who quietly plied their trade while bigger stars grabbed the spotlight, is much more important. It was how I first went down the rabbit hole of really learning who he was, and seeing Gretzky mention him again sent me right back down.

The moral of the story here? Keep talking about Mark Howe. Anyone who was this good should be discussed as loudly and as often as possible.

1. “Older” is a funny thing here. Looking back, he was definitely no older than I am right now and probably younger.

2. Gordie Howe’s insane second act in the WHA through his final NHL season in 1980 is worthy of an entire book, nevermind its own post.

3. Finishing behind Coffey and Howe that year were Larry Robinson, Ray Bourque and Rod Langway, and I could be convinced to take any of them over Coffey. Howe’s other second-place finishes came behind Langway and Bourque, for the record.

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