Flyers Heroes of the Past: Mark Howe (Part 2)
Friday, 02.02.2007 / 12:00 AM / News
For Part 1 of Flyers Heroes of the Past: Mark Howe, click here.
The McCammon Years
The Broad Street Bully era was over and the 35-game-unbeaten streak of 1979-80 was a fading memory when Mark Howe joined the Flyers for the 1982-83 season. Although still a strong regular season club, the Flyers were in the midst of a transitional phase that saw them struggle to advance beyond the early rounds of the playoffs.
"Keith Allen and Bob McCammon amassed a pretty good team," says Howe. "But there was still a piece or two missing. We just lacked a bit of structure."
McCammon paired Howe with big defenseman Glen Cochrane, a player who took the term "enforcer" to another level. Cochrane, who was well liked by his teammates, had the reputation of having a few screws loose on the ice.
"Before the season, Bob calls [Cochran] and me into his office. He says, 'Mark, your job is to move the puck and run the power play. Cocher, make sure no one touches him.' When we left, Glen put this big arm around me and said, 'Don't worry. No one's gonna lay a hand on you.' That was music to my ears. In Hartford, I used to get run 20 to 25 times a game. In Philly, I could just do my thing," Howe recalls.
Howe knew of Cochrane's tough-guy reputation before he came to Philadelphia. But early on, Cochrane's level of aggressiveness at practice surprised Howe.
"We had a scrimmage before the season, and Ilkka Sinisalo got loose and put a puck in the net. Cocher drilled Ilkka from behind so hard into the boards, he broke his wrist. I remember thinking, 'Hmmm… this is going to be interesting,' says Howe.
The unlikely pairing worked. Howe scored 20 goals and 67 points to go along with an outstanding +47 rating. He won his first Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers best defenseman and was a finalist for both the Norris Trophy (won by Washington defenseman Rod Langway) and the Masterton Trophy for his dedication to the game. Howe was also an NHL First-Team All Star at defense. Cochrane, meanwhile, posted a +42 rating to go along with his 237 penalty minutes.
"I got all the credit, but Glen was a very good partner and we had strong chemistry together. I never had to worry about where he was on the ice. The only way a defense pairing works is if both partners can work together. During the course of my career, I worked with some talented players but things sometimes just didn't click for whatever reason. I was fortunate in that regard with my partners in Philly. I didn't carry Glen. He pulled his own weight in our partnership," says Howe.
The Flyers, with rookie goaltender Pelle Lindbergh providing all-star play in net and veterans Bobby Clarke and Darryl Sittler providing leadership and scoring, won the Patrick Division with 106 points in 1982-83, but tumbled out in the first round of the playoffs in three straight games, capped off by a humiliating 9-3 loss to the Rangers.
After the season, McCammon assumed general manager duties as well as coaching responsibilities. The Flyers slipped to 98 points and third place in the Patrick in 1983-84. Lindbergh struggled in net and was briefly sent back to the AHL. Among the bright spots were the play of young Dave Poulin, Tim Kerr (54 goals) and Brian Propp (92 points).
Howe, of course, was the backbone of the defense. Despite missing part of the season with a rotator cuff injury, suffered in February of 1984, he scored 19 goals, 53 points and finished with a +30 rating.
The Flyers got swept in three straight games by the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 1984 playoffs. After the season, Bobby Clarke retired to become the GM and McCammon was replaced behind the bench by fiery young coach Mike Keenan.
Howser and the Beast
The Flyers had the youngest team in the NHL in 1984-85. They needed a group of veterans to step into the leadership void left by Clarke's retirement and the eleventh-hour trade that sent Sittler to Detroit. New captain Dave Poulin filled the role magnificently, with Howe and Brad Marsh also emerging as key leaders.
The leadership core was crucial to keeping morale high with the confrontational, intense Keenan at the helm. A brilliant tactician, Keenan pushed his players harder than they'd ever been pushed before. On the flip side, he frequently humiliated individual players in front of the whole team, with the intention of building them back up his own way.
"Mike knew how to push your buttons. But he also got you to play your best hockey. He'd say something just to tick you off. He'd yell and scream and make everyone uncomfortable around the team. Every year, we had to soothe hurt feelings to keep everyone on the club on the same page. In my case, Keenan let me make mistakes because he had confidence I'd deliver for him when it really counted," says Howe.
Keenan was perfectly happy being the players' common enemy, so long as they delivered for him on game day. As he intended, the team became a close-knit bunch, sharing the bond of "surviving" life under its ultra-demanding coach. By comparison, even the Flyers' top NHL opponents seemed manageable. The key to playing for Keenan was recognizing that the things he said and did were designed for effect. Howe realized that and helped the team thrive.
Keenan paired Howe with Brad McCrimmon during the 1984-85 season. The duo quickly emerged as one of the best pairings in Flyers history – and one of the league's best defensive pairs of the decade. McCrimmon took opposing scoring chances as a personal affront and played with a mean streak. He also had underrated skills with the puck. Like Howe, McCrimmon had superior hockey sense that put him a step ahead of most opposing players.
"My pairing with Brad was the best chemistry I ever experienced, in the way we read off one another. He was a horse and an excellent all-around hockey player. I would play 33 and a half minutes a game and Brad played 27. He never got the credit he deserved but if you look at the defensemen playing then – or now for that matter – Brad was the kind of player who is rare to find," says Howe.
Howe posted 18 goals, 57 points and a +51 rating in 1984-85. The offensive numbers would have been higher, but he missed nine games with torn cartilage near his clavicle and a rib injury. McCrimmon had 43 points and a +52 rating.
With a deep and balanced offensive attack, "Howser" and "the Beast" providing shutdown defense and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Pelle Lindbergh giving the team a chance to win every night, the young Flyers had the most points in the NHL during the regular season (114), posted an extraordinary 32-4-4 record at home and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Finally, the banged-up Flyers succumbed to the emerging Edmonton Oilers dynasty in five games.
The Flyers got off to a red hot start early in the 1985-86 season. But after Lindbergh's death in a car crash that November, the heartbroken team had to pick up the pieces and carry on.
The tandem of 30-year-old Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon shouldered an immense load on the ice and delivered one of the most spectacular seasons the NHL has ever seen from a pair of defensemen. Howe was a +85 that year; McCrimmon a +83. The Flyers repeated as Patrick Division champions with 110 points but were stunned in the first round by John Vanbiesbrouck and the New York Rangers.
As extraordinary as those plus-minus stats were in their own right, the figure was mind-boggling in light of the fact the Flyers did not have another plus-rated regular defenseman that year: Brad Marsh finished at even, Doug Crossman was a -5 , Dave Richter was -2 and Thomas Eriksson was -12. Among part-timers and callups, Daryl Stanley (33 games) was -5, Ed Hospodar (17 games) was even, Mike Stothers (6 games) was +1, Kevin McCarthy (4 games) was even and Steve Smith (2 games) was -2.
In addition to his league-best +85, Howe scored an NHL career high 24 goals and 82 points in 1985-86, while McCrimmon tallied 13 goals and 56 points.
"Sometimes, other teams would get too focused on stopping the transition game on my side of the ice. Brad had good skill, too, so when we saw teams overplay me, we'd start the rush on Brad's side of the ice. Eventually, teams realized they had to play us more honestly and that opened the ice up for me," explains Howe.
In recognition of his career season, Howe was both a Norris Trophy finalist and Hart Trophy finalist for the 1985-86 campaign. Unfortunately, no one was going to beat a fellow named Wayne Gretzky for the Hart, while Edmonton's Paul Coffey dazzled Norris voters with his 48 goals and 138 points. Howe did win both the Bobby Clarke Trophy as Flyers MVP as well as his second Barry Ashbee Trophy.
The 1986-87 season would be both the zenith and the beginning of the end for the Keenan-era Flyers. Once again, the club captured the Patrick Division with a 100-point season.
Howe's back started to act up on him again, forcing him out of the lineup for ten games from late January to mid-February. Realizing the need to think defense-first and confident in the rest of the Flyers' attack, Howe adjusted by making fewer forays deep into the offensive zone.
Although Howe's offensive numbers slipped a bit in 1986-87 (15 goals, 58 points in 69 regular season games, 12 points in 26 playoff games), he and McCrimmon remained the fulcrum of the Flyers' backline. Howe put up a +57 rating and once again won the Barry Ashbee Trophy and finished as a Norris Trophy Finalist (won this time by the Bruins' Ray Bourque). McCrimmon, in his final season as a Flyer, scored 10 goals and 39 points to go with his +45 rating.
The 1986-87 Flyers boasted an extremely potent power play, triggered by Howe at the point, Pelle Eklund behind the net, power forward Tim Kerr parked in front of the net and Brian Propp buzzing around the slot. Most of all, they benefited from phenomenal goaltending from rookie goalkeeper Ron Hextall. Hextall's Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning play enabled the injury-riddled club to stretch the deeper, more talented Oilers to a full seven games in the Stanley Cup Finals.
"Hexy's first season may have been the best year of goaltending I've ever seen," says Howe. "The way he played against Montreal and Edmonton in the playoffs was unbelievable. I don't think we would have even gotten to the Finals if not for that and certainly wouldn't have gone seven with the Oilers."
The Flyers heroics in the spring of 1986 slowly soon gave way to a period of slow, but steady decline. Immediately after the season, several players expressed a desire to be traded to get away from Keenan. Poulin, Howe, and Marsh smoothed things over yet again to prevent an off-season mutiny.
Meanwhile, McCrimmon was traded to Calgary after a contract dispute. It was a deal Bob Clarke later looked back on with regret.
"We couldn't replace Brad very easily. He meant a lot to our club and it took years to fill the void that was left after he was traded," says Howe.
Making matters worse, a lot of the veteran players who carried the offensive load during the earlier Keenan years – such as Howe and Tim Kerr – started to break down physically. Plagued by back problems, the 1987-88 season marked the final time in Howe's career that he was able dress in more than 60 games.
After a rocky start to the season, Howe and the Flyers got back on track. Howe scored 19 goals, 62 points and had a +23 rating to capture his fourth Barry Ashbee Trophy. He also played in his fourth NHL All-Star Game.
As the season progressed, Howe got used to playing with a new defensive partner, huge Swedish defenseman Kjell Samuelsson.
"I didn't have quite the same chemistry with Kjell as I did with Brad. But he was a very smart player, and he had that incredible reach. Usually, when I was defending a rush, I'd try to force my check to the outside. Well, with Kjell, I cut off the lane to the outside and forced my man to go inside, where Kjell was waiting for him. We worked out a system where he'd take away the guy's upper body and I'd go for the puck around his feet," Howe remembers.
The Flyers slipped to third place with 85 points in 1987-88 and lost a seven-game first round series to Washington in a 5-4 overtime finale. By now, there was no reconciliation possible between Keenan and many of the players he coached for the last four years. Keenan was fired and replaced by Paul Holmgren.
"Homer is a good guy and he got a bit of a tough rap as coach. He inherited a situation where we were a declining team and he did the best he could under the circumstances," says Howe.
The 1988-89 season saw a never-ending string of injuries for the 33-year-old Howe. In addition to periodic back spasms, Howe missed time after taking a puck off his foot, followed by a groin pull and a sprained left knee. With their most important defenseman limited to 52 games (he scored nine goals, 38 points and was a +7), the Flyers became a .500 hockey team. They usually won when Howe played. When he was unable to play, Philly was vulnerable.
Howe stayed in the lineup throughout the playoffs, as Holmgren's squad made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing in six games to the Montreal Canadiens. Howe played some of the best hockey of his career, posting a +14 rating in 19 games to go along with his 15 points.
But there was no stopping the slide as the 1990s rolled around. Howe missed half the 1989-90 season as the Flyers missed the playoffs with a 30-39-11 record. Midseason trades involving Poulin and longtime scoring star Brian Propp left the Flyers without the leadership core to pull things together in Howe's absence.
Ironically, Howe's play during the final three years of his Flyers career underscored his value to the team. In 1989-90, he posted a +22 rating and 28 points. The next year, his back issues limited him to 19 games, but he was a +9 and the team had a winning record when he played.
The last year of Mark Howe's magnificent Flyers career was 1991-92. In some ways, his career came full circle, as old friend Bill Dineen once again became Howe's coach.
Although limited physically and playing for a non-playoff team, Howe enjoyed playing for Dineen again. In 42 games, he posted 25 points and a +18 rating. The Flyers had a 24-23-9 record after Dineen took over as coach. With Howe in the lineup, the Flyers were 21-18-3 for the season. Without him, they were 11-19-8.
Returning to his Roots
The summer of 1992 was dominated by the hysteria surrounding the Flyers' trade with the Quebec Nordiques for the rights to Eric Lindros. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Mark Howe pondered his future.
In May of 1992, Flyers' general manager Russ Farwell offered impending free agent Howe a one-year contract with a $500,000 base salary and incentives that could boost the value of the deal to about $850,000. But Howe wanted a longer deal. The Flyers gave him permission to speak with other clubs prior to the July 1 start of free agency.
Howe contacted the New York Rangers, Keenan's Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and his father's longtime team, the Detroit Red Wings. The Rangers, like the Flyers, were only willing to offer a one-year deal. Keenan told Howe he needed permission from Chicago owner Bill Wirtz before he could come up with the money to match other offers.
But the Red Wings were very interested. They had a promising group of young defensemen, led by Nicklas Lidström and Vladimir Konstantinov, who compared to Howe and McCrimmon in their respective styles and skills. The addition of hometown boy Howe to help mentor the young players would be a great addition.
"(Detroit owner) Mike Illitch and (GM) Bryan Murray got right back to me after I called, and they offered me a two-year deal," Howe says.
The Detroit offer paid $725,000 the first season and $550,000 the second. The Flyers countered with a comparable offer. Howe and wife Ginger considered what to do next.
"My mother taught me to make a list of the pros and cons of something when you have to make a tough decision. I did that and Detroit came out ahead. But my kids were happy in Philadelphia and I had 10 great years there, so it was still a real tough decision," he says.
Ultimately, Howe decided to return to his childhood home. He spent the final three years of his career with the Red Wings, playing in 60 games (34 points, +22 rating) in 1992-93, 44 games (24 points, +16) in 1993-94 and, as his 40th birthday approached, played in 18 games during the 1994-95 lockout season that saw the Red Wings reach the Stanley Cup Finals before getting swept by the New Jersey Devils.
"I played with some partners on their way up, like Lidström and Konstantinov. I got to play a little with Slava Fetisov. I even got to play some with Brad McCrimmon again my first year in Detroit. So it was a pretty satisfying way to close out my career, even though I stepped out a couple years before the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup," he says.
Howe was the youngest player in professional hockey when he made his pro debut for Houston in 1973. He was the oldest player in the NHL when he retired in 1995. After his retirement, he took on a scouting role for the Red Wings and, for several years, worked as a part-time minor league instructor for defensemen. Today, he still frequently attends games in Philadelphia on behalf of the Red Wings.
Mark and Ginger separated a few years ago. "She now resides in Texas, but we stay in touch and we still try to work together and help out with the kids. Although at 20, 24 and 28 it is hard to call them kids, but to us, they always will be and we're glad for it," he says.
Eldest child Travis is now one of the fastest rising scouts and young coaches in the United States. His East Coast/ West Coast Selects training program has produced numerous top junior prospects, including Sam Gagner, a likely Top-10 pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Travis recently moved from the Philadelphia suburbs to Michigan.
Daughter Azia, who works in finance, recently took a job with a firm in Houston. Younger son, Nolan, now lives in South Jersey and in his dad's words, "has been out experiencing life, and seems to have his life heading in the right direction."
Next year, Mark Howe's father, Gordie, will turn 80 years of age. "Mr. Hockey" is still a fixture at charity events and one of the sport's great ambassadors. Several years ago, Mark's mother, Colleen, was diagnosed with Pick's Disease, a form of dementia that attacks a different part of the brain than Alzheimer's Disease but has similarly devastating effects. As yet, there is no known way to prevent or delay the progression of Pick's.
Mark recently helped Gordie rearrange his business arrangements in the wake of Colleen's illness.
In 2001, the greatest defenseman in Philadelphia Flyers history took his rightful place in the Flyers Hall of Fame. The following year, he was elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. While induction in Toronto still remains elusive, it's likely that at some point his credentials will no longer be overlooked.
"If you look at the players who are in the Hall of Fame and compare Mark Howe to them, I don't see any reason why he doesn't rank right up with the best players from his era," concludes Bob Clarke.