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Overlooked Legend: Mark Howe

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Mark Howe had a stellar NHL career, but was overshadowed by both his father and a long list of future Hall of Famers during his NHL career.

2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Alumni Game
Mark Howe scores a goal during the Flyers Alumni game at Citizens Bank Park in 2011
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

On August 20th, 1982, Flyers GM Keith Allen, in one of the final trades of his Hall of Fame career as Flyers GM, sent forwards Ken Linseman and Greg Adams, along with the Flyers 1st and 3rd round picks in the 1983 NHL entry draft, to the Hartford Whalers in exchange for Mark Howe and Hartford’s 3rd round pick in the 1983 NHL entry draft.

Mark Howe led his junior team, the Detroit JR Red Wings to the US Junior championship as a 15 year old. He followed that up by winning a Silver Medal at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. He remains the youngest player to win an Olympic medal in ice hockey. He won a Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros the next season.

Howe jumped to the WHA for the 1973-74 season to play with his father, the legendary Gordie Howe and brother Marty, where he won rookie of the year honors, and 2nd Team WHA All Star honors as a left winger, with his Houston Aeros team winning the Avco Cup in 1974 and 1975 (sounds kinda familiar don’t it?). Howe has dual US-Canada citizenship and played for team Canada at the 1974 Summit Series.

Howe’s great skating and two way ability led Houston to transition him to defense, and he was a full time defenseman by the 1976-77 season. The next season, he went to the New England Whalers with his father and brother. He won 1st Team WHA All Star Honors in 1979, the final season in league history, and stayed in Hartford when the Whalers joined the NHL in 1979.

Howe had a seamless transition to the NHL, posting 80 points in 74 games in his inaugural NHL season. In his second NHL season, Howe suffered a gruesome and nearly career ending injury. He was essentially impaled on the center post of a net, suffering a 5 inch gash in his rectal area. (After a lawsuit by Howe, the NHL changed the design of the nets). Howe lost more than 20 points and had to subsist on a liquid diet, which sapped his endurance levels.

Hartford team management grew disenchanted with Howe and felt his injury was going to limit him in the future. The Flyers, who were frequent trade partners with the Whalers, had just lost defenseman Jimmy Watson and Bob Dailey to retirement, were an obvious fit for Howe. The Flyers also added Howe’s future defense partner, Brad McCrimmon, that summer in a draft day trade.

Howe responded with one of the best seasons of his career. He scored 20 goals(and 67 points), ended the season as a 1st team NHL All Star and was runner up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. Despite Howe’s great season, the Flyers were swept by the “Smurfs” New York Rangers team in a best of 5 first round.

The next season Howe again had an outstanding season. He saw his point total dip to 53, but still had 19 goals. He finished in the top ten of Norris voting and remained among the best defensemen in the NHL. Unfortunately, like the season before, the Flyers ended up being swept by the Capitals in another disappointing first round exit. Coach Bob McCammon, who had taken over as GM, was fired and replaced by retiring superstar Bob Clarke. As coach, the Flyers hired Mike Keenan out of the University of Toronto.

One of Keenan’s first moves was to pair Howe and McCrimmon to anchor the defense of a very young Flyers team. The pair clicked and began a three year run of dominance. Although no TOI stats are available, it wasn’t uncommon for Howe and McCrimmon to skate half the game. And despite it being a flawed stat, the +/- numbers put up by Howe and McCrimmon during those three years, especially when viewed against the other defensemen on the team are staggering.

In 1984-85 the young Flyers were expected to be in transition. Gone were Clarke and Darryl Sittler. In as captain was Dave Poulin and three rookie forwards (Peter Zezel, Derrick Smith and Rick Tocchet) selected in the 1983 draft. But thanks to a Vezina season from goalie Pelle Lindbergh and the rock steady Howe and McCrimmon pair, the Flyers soared to a 113 point season and Patrick Division title. They battled through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup final vs the Edmonton dynasty, and fell in 5 games.

Still the future looked bright. The team was young, talented and driven by taskmaster Keenan. As the 1985-86 season opened the Flyers were dominant. It soon ended when the popular Lindbergh perished in a drunk driving accident. They still managed to have a great regular season, again winning the Patrick Division and finishing with 110 points, but simply ran out of gas in a first round playoff loss.

Individually Howe had his best season in the turmoil of 1985-86. He scored a career high 24 goals and 82 points. He was again a 1st team NHL All Star, Norris runner up and even third in voting for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Howe’s dominance was in all areas. He was a key contributor in both even strength and special teams, scoring an unbelievable 7 short handed goals.

The 1986-87 Flyers faced changed again. Ron Hextall claimed the starting goalie job and the Flyers again won the Patrick with a 100 point season. Howe’s stats dipped, as he dealt with injuries that cost him 13 games. But he still managed 15 goals and 58 points, was again a 1st Team NHL All Star and Norris runner up and finished 7th in Hart balloting. The Flyers went through a playoff war, beating the New York Rangers and Islanders in the first two rounds, then a brutal series vs the Montreal Canadiens that featured a pre-game brawl. The beat up Flyers staggered into the 1987 Final vs the Edmonton Oilers machine and somehow managed to take the juggernaut to 7 games.

That off season, a contract negotiation with McCrimmon turned sour and Howe’s partner was dealt to the Calgary Flames. The Flyers remained a good team on paper, but the seams were starting to fray. The 1987-88 team stumbled to a 85 point season, good for third place in the Patrick Division, but lost in the first round to Washington. Keenan was fired and replaced behind the bench by former Flyer winger Paul Holmgren. Howe enjoyed yet another outstanding season, scoring 19 goals and 62 points and remained among the league’s best defensemen.

The 1988-89 season was the last gasp of the mid 1980’s Flyers teams and Howe. Injuries limited him to just 52 games, but the team valiantly battled to the Campbell Conference Final, before bowing to Patrick Roy and the Canadiens.

Howe continued to be a good player when healthy, but rarely was. In 1989-90, Howe managed to play just 40 games. In 1990-91, he was limited to 19 after a serious back injury. In 1991-92 at age 36, Howe played 42 games, and posted 7 goals and 25 points. The Flyers granted Howe free agency and he signed with his dad’s old team, the Detroit Red Wings and proved a great mentor for the team’s young players, especially Nicklas Lidstrom. Howe managed to get to one more Stanley Cup final, losing in 1995 to the New Jersey Devils.

Howe retired after that, and remained with Detroit’s front office. He’s still with the Wings, as director of pro scouting, based in New Jersey.