Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Posted: 7 p.m.
By Jay Greenberg
Mark Howe never held up a Stanley Cup, at an early age dropped out of any competition for scoring titles, instead became a member of the Hall of Fame Tuesday essentially by making the right play 24 out of 25 times. The most fun of all in watching him, too, was that 25th.
Everybody makes a poor decision from time to time, said Mike Keenan Wednesday. I think Mark took more risks in the neutral zone because he knew he could recover.
He would make a faux pas, give up the puck that gave the opponent a start the rest of the way, and next thing you know, two strides later, Mark was right beside the guy.
It was fluid, effortless. You could hear the difference at ice level in the sound of his blade barely digging into the ice, almost like he was wearing slippers out there.
Midnight tolled for two Flyers finalists in 1985 and 1987 in Edmonton against the greatest offensive machine ever. There are now six Oiler Hall of Famers from those two series against one for the Flyers, which tells you how good that one was, even if you take into account that for all intents and purposes Keenan essentially used Howe for two.
I laugh now when I hear about the burden on Chris Pronger, playing 27 minutes a game, said the coach. I used Mark 30 or 31 a game because I could.
There was such an economy, to him that he could move the puck out of the zone either by passing or carrying it out. He also could go back and recover the dumped puck so well, he wasnt hit very often and when Ron Hextall came along Marks joke was that it was going to add 10 years to his career.
Howe played 22, earned three first-team end-of-season All Star selections, two WHA titles in Houston, came back from a gruesome crash against a Hartford goalpost and won a 1972 Olympic silver medal. None of these things meant more to him than, as a teenager in his Houston days, playing on a line with brother Marty and father Gordie, something Mark enjoyed much more than the thought of every competing against his dad.
The Hall selection committee is to be congratulated for the rare choice of a defensive defenseman, which for all his skill, Howe was happy to become for two reasons. Primarily he thought it gave the Flyers the best chance to win. Secondly, was he also privately signing a no-compete clause against his own flesh and blood, the greatest player who ever lived until Wayne Gretzky came along?
When I became coach of the Flyers (in Howes third season with the team) there were a lot of things Mark had to sort out, said Keenan. He had to find out just how good he really was, which I could convince him of by giving him that much ice time and responsibility.
But the comparisons with his father were there, too. He was so humble and respectful he never thought he could be that good compared to his father, a hurdle he had to overcome to find his own comfort level.
He never tried to be his father, held him such high esteem that he thought being compared to him was almost an embarrassment.
Thus Howe was happy to become a full-time defenseman, then gladly gave up the pursuit of a sure 20-30 additional points a year for what teammate Brad Marsh said Wednesday were the needs of the Flyers. He scored 107 points as a 24-year-old with Hartford of the WHA and never broke 82 again, nor did he try.
Whatever we needed, a goal to tie or win it or to protect a one-goal lead, he did the smart thing and the right thing for our team, said Marsh. He was a competitor second to none and a superstar with a blue collar mentality, something you dont always see in them, particularly in that era.
It was the second-best era in Flyers history, thanks largely to Howe, thank you to the Hall Committee Tuesday for throwing out the stats and recognizing a quintessential winner who didnt care about them.
Its hard to argue with Doug Favell-for-Bernie Parent as the best trade the Flyers ever made, but considering Howes quintessential value to one of the best teams to never win a Cup, we would make the case for the three way that brought him to the Flyers for Ken Linseman over both the team-making deals that brought Rick MacLeish for Mike Walton and John LeClair and Eric Desjardins for Mark Recchi.
Until the Flyers win another Cup with Chris Pronger, Howe was the best defenseman the franchise ever had by two fast strides over anybody else, one of the more effortless judgments we have ever made, too.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.