Where Are They Now: Mark Howe

Where Are They Now: Mark Howe
March 5, 2012, 7:23 pm
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The first Flyer to have his number retired without having won the franchise a championship feels the need to apologize for it.

When I got the phone call from Ed Snider saying he wanted to retire my jersey, I responded, Im very honored but I didnt win you a Stanley Cup, said Mark Howe. He said, Well, the Oilers got in the way.

Ed said he was very proud of our teams in the 80s. So to be singled out amongst guys on those teams obviously is pretty special.

You practically either have to die, as did Barry Ashbee or, like Bobby Clarke, kill himself day after day on the ice day trying, to earn a number in the Wells Fargo Center rafters.But never mind what Howe didnt do win a Cup or a Norris Trophy. The best defenseman the Flyers ever had joins Bernie Parent and Bill Barber at the top Tuesday night because, in the history of a franchise that places the highest value on unselfishness, never has there been a more team-oriented player.

We have had a lot of good teams since the Cup teams, said Snider. And since those teams, we never have had a player more deserving of this and who cared more than Mark.

Though Howe was a three-time Stanley Cup (once with Detroit) and three-time Norris Trophy second-place finisher, he shouldnt be looked upon as some mere runner-up. Howe was so ultimately self-sacrificing that he should be considered one of Philadelphias biggest winners ever.

What mattered to me was how our team did, said Howe. The Flyers retiring my jersey and making the Hall of Fame isnt going to change me in any way, just changes how other people look at you.

I know what I put into the game. Thats what makes you feel good about yourself, not somebody saying you were the best defenseman in the league. Some people thought I got screwed the year (1983) I lost to Rod Langway, but I thought he had more to do with the success of the Capitals than I had to do with the success of the Flyers. We had a better team.

I couldnt control how well Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque or Langway played. I only could control how well I played. So I never felt cheated. My mind doesnt work that way.

Instead, for 30 minutes per contest, he put that genetically gifted brain-for-the-game to work making the smartest play according to the clock and score.

Mark could have played like Paul Coffey had he wanted to, said Bob Clarke.He didnt want to pad his own stats or embarrass his opponent or anything, just wanted to win.

On May 31, 1987, it was six future Hall of Famers to one, but only four games to three for Edmonton as the most loaded offensive team in the games history finally drove a stake through the Flyers hearts for a second time in three seasons.

Considering the Oilers didnt put away their 3-1 win until there were less than three minutes to play; considering the Flyers, minus 58-goal scorer Tim Kerr, had rallied from 3-0, 3-1 and 2-0 deficits for their three victories, it was a loss without shame. And still just a damn shame for one of the best teams in hockey history that had multiple chances and never won.

Ive never been shot by a bullet, but it couldnt hurt any more than this, said Howe that night, after running his face under water to hide and drown his tears.

His first Flyers team, a club that he had almost singlehandedly revived after his trade from Hartford, crashed horribly after a 106-point season to an 80-point Rangers team in three straight. Nevertheless, Howe rejects that as the most devastating defeat in Flyers history.

Its true that when you are favored and lose like that in the first round you are so embarrassed you dont even feel like showing your face anywhere, he said. The one game in that (1983) series we were in (Game 2), I came across too far on a two-on-two and left the lane open for (Mark Pavelichs lead) goal.Those things you dont forget.

But no, the most devastating loss was in 87. When you are that close, it really, really hurts.

The Flyers were able to get close twice not only thanks to Howes scoring the overtime goal in 1985s Game 1 against the Rangers that broke a nine-game playoff schneid and started a redeeming sweep, but because through eight series victories in his Flyers years, No. 2 on their blue line beat the forecheck, ran the power play and made the right decision 49 times out of 50.

Howe scored 405 goals and registered 841 assists in 22 NHL and WHA seasons, averaging .90 points per contest. But one had to understand the game to fully appreciate his value. To those who did, a guilty pleasure was seeing the odd times Howe would get caught up ice, watching how fast he could get back to cancel his mistake.

His legs were bent a little and he just floated over the ice, said Clarke. The majority of us had to slug it out, his glide was perfect.

So was his sense of what needed to be done and when. A 107-point scorer in his final WHA season as a linemate of his father Gordie and a disillusioned and disrespected performer on bad Hartford NHL teams after the merger Howe waived a no-trade clause to come to the Flyers (in a trade for Ken Linseman, Greg Adams and a No. 1 pick) determined to sacrifice personal glory to make himself a winner.

He was shown how when Mike Keenan became the coach for Howes third season in Philadelphia.

After our first exhibition game, Sudsy (trainer Dave Settlemyre) goes in to report three or four guys with pulls and tweaks he thinks shouldnt practice, recalls Howe. About a minute later the door flies open and Keenan goes into Ilkka Sinisalos face and starts screaming at him. The other guys who didnt think they were practicing put on their gear and ran out there, too.

Every team I have gone to its been: If you have an injury, let us know because you dont want 3-4 days to turn into two weeks.But after the wrath that Ilkka got that day everybody said forget that idea.

There was a structure that we hadnt had under Bob McCammon, one reinforced as we succeeded in third periods as that season went along.But the demands, the intensity level, were far higher from the very first day of training camp because Mike was in your face.

In turn, Keenans face was fed by the meal ticket he knew he had in Howe. Keenan was good for Mark in a lot of ways, said Clarke. But I think physically he hurt Mark by overplaying him, even with the problems with his back.

Mark was never going to say no to the coach. But that amount of ice time eventually caught up to him.

He missed 129 games from 1989-92 as the Flyers, who had enjoyed a last hurrah to the 1989 semifinals, broke down and were broken up. But thanks to surgeon Dr. Rich Bolderston and ralfer Robert Toporek, Howe was able to finish 1991-92 strongly and, naturally, so did a Flyers team that missed the playoffs for the third straight season.

After they decided to take a step backwards by trading five players and a No 1 pick for a big step forward named Eric Lindros, the Flyers, who had included defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman in the deal, belatedly rushed to keep Howe. But he already had the firm offer of a full-circle finish to his career for the team of his father, in the city of his youth.

My Mom (Colleen) always taught me to make lists, said Howe. The list of reasons to go was heavily weighted.

Play on a team that had a chance for me to win again, wear the uniform of my Dad, a promise of a job in the organization for two years after I finished playing in about two years. I didnt feel part of the Flyers mix anymore. Everybody was gone. I asked GM Russ Farwell, Why do you still want me? He said they wanted me to play hopefully 40 games and set an example for the young players.

Not the right answer when Detroit coach Bryan Murray had said he wanted me on the second power play and penalty-killing units. So on the stay list was just two things. My son Travis was 14, ready to start high school, and he came home every day saying Dad please dont leave. That was killing me. But the most pressing part was my heart was in Philly and a part of it always will be.

The Red Wings sweetened their offer. Thus for his final three seasons Howe went where a Howe should have been all along. (Although in Sniders eyes that wasnt true, even if Mike Illitchs promise of a two-year job with Detroit has turned into a Director of Pro Scouting position 17 years later.)Howe lives near Trenton, scouts in Philly often.Its still home.

No way would I consider my career complete without the years in Philadelphia, said Howe.

This has been an incredible seven months joining his father in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the birth of his first grandchild Ella Colleen and the marriage of his son Travis, blessings balancing the withering loss of his old Flyers defense partner and post-career tight friend Brad McCrimmon in a September plane crash that killed the entire Russian team he was coaching.Reason to mourn and yet another reason to celebrate life.

Marks mother Colleen, the whirlwind who shepherded his hockey development and Hockeys First Family to Houston of the WHA, passed away three years ago from a hideous, protracted, brain-robbing thing called Picks Disease. But Gordie, of course, will be beaming on the premises Tuesday night and the Red Wings how great is this get a chance to share their love, too, for a star with the ultimate hockey birthright who nevertheless dedicated his career to sharing himself.

Howes youngest brother Murray, the radiologist, says Mark is the most unselfish person he knows. So it hasnt just been on the ice that Howe has made everyone around him better.

This year I made sure I went to the Devils game to see Scott Niedermeyers number retired, Howe said. I always look up to those whom I respect for being the players they were and the people they are.

When the Rangers did Adam Graves and Mark Messier, I put it on my scouting schedule. I played against those guys and I like to see them rewarded for what they did.

But I dont look at myself that way. I know I had some more success than some other guys, but I was one of the players on those teams that Ed Snider tells me should be honored.But being on the ice, seeing that banner go up, I know it will be awesome.

Jay Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years for the Daily News and Evening Bulletin. His history of the Flyers, Full Spectrum, was published in 1996. He can be reached at jayg616@aol.com.