Greg Eno

Mr. Hockey’s Genes As Penetrating As His Elbows When it Came to Mark Howe

In Hockey on July 3, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Mark Howe and Jesus Christ have a lot in common; they’re both sons of gods who did pretty well in carrying on the family tradition.

On April 14, 1955, Gordie Howe skated off the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium as a Stanley Cup champion for the fourth time with the Red Wings. One month and 14 days later, Gordie and Colleen Howe welcomed their second son, Mark, into the world.

Forty years and some change later, Mark Howe and his Red Wings teammates engaged in a futile Stanley Cup Finals series against the New Jersey Devils, won by New Jersey in four games. Unlike his dad, Mark Howe skated off the ice for the final time as a player, Cup-less for his career.

1955, the year in which the Howes added to their family, remained the last time the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Mark Howe retired shortly after the Cup Finals in 1995.

How can Mark Howe be a Hall of Fame hockey player, when he wasn’t even the best player in his own family?

Easy—when your dad is Mr. Hockey. Easy to be forgiven for coming up short when you’re part of such a lineage.

Murray Howe, the way I figure it, was the only Howe boy who had any sense. Murray became a doctor. Mark and oldest son Marty put on skates against all odds. There’s a reason Rembrandt’s kid never picked up a paint brush.

You’ve seen this played out before. Sports legend’s son gives the game a go and finds that greatness isn’t hereditary. Pete Rose, Jr., anyone?

There would have been no shame at all if Mark Howe would have dedicated his young life to 5:30 a.m. practices and blisters on his feet and blackened eyes and teeth extracted by those mad dentists on the other team with hockey sticks, and then found that he couldn’t continue the family business, after all.

No shame whatsoever.

But a funny thing happened as Gordie’s kids persevered in the game of ice hockey: They turned out to be pretty damn good at it. The blood they spilled on the ice had enough of Gordie in it to make Mark and Marty standout players in their own right.

Mark, especially, with apologies to Marty, who was no slouch.

As dad finished his Red Wings career during the 1970-71 season, Mark was playing—at age 15—for the Detroit Jr. Red Wings and leading them to the US Junior Championship as a sometimes forward, sometimes defenseman. This was no case of preferential treatment due to legacy; Mark Howe was by far the Jr. Red Wings’ best player.

A year later, Mark was playing for Team USA in the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, and, at the tender age of 16, he and his teammates won a silver medal, making Mark the youngest hockey player to ever win an Olympic medal.

Gordie was retired at this point, stuck in a dead-end job with the Red Wings as a pretend vice president, getting what he famously called the “mushroom treatment.”

“Every once in awhile they opened my office door and dumped manure on me,” Gordie said in a version that is decidedly censored for this column.

Mark Howe kept playing hockey, and kept getting better. His was a shining star that was bright even in the enormous shadow cast by his dad.

In fact, Mark Howe was so good that Gordie came out of retirement to play with both Mark and Marty when the two boys were young pros with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association.

It was in the summer of 1973 when Gordie asked a stunned Bill Dineen, his old teammate and coach of the Aeros, if he’d like to have a third Howe on the roster.

The WHA wasn’t the NHL, though it had many former NHL players scattered throughout the league. The WHA was NHL Lite, a saccharin version. But Mark Howe was so brilliant as a WHA player, even among competition inferior to the NHL, that NHL teams stumbled over themselves to acquire his rights.

It never mattered, because the dying WHA merged four of its remaining teams with the NHL in 1979—and one of those teams was the Hartford Whalers, where the Howes were now playing, still a trio of father and two sons.

In 1979-80, Mark Howe proved what grizzled hockey observers long suspected: He could, indeed, play in the NHL—and play at a high level. Mark scored 24 goals and registered 80 points in the established league, while Gordie had one more go around in the NHL as a 52-year-old. The Whalers even made the playoffs.

Gordie retired for good in 1980 and Mark was the new hockey playing man in the family. Marty was still around, but his career paled when compared to what his kid brother was doing.

Marty’s last game in the NHL was in 1985 with the Whalers. Mark was just getting started, really.

Having been traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1982, Mark Howe became a three-time Norris Trophy finalist as the league’s best defenseman (1983, 1986, 1987), while helping to lead the Flyers to the Cup Finals in 1985 and 1987—losing to the Edmonton Oilers on both occasions.

Injuries to his back and knees derailed Mark’s career after 1987, and by 1992, he was a 37-year-old hanging on in the chase for the hockey player’s white whale—the Stanley Cup.

It was in the summer of 1992 when the Flyers bought out Mark’s contract so he could be a free agent and sign with a team with a chance at the Cup. That team just happened to be the Detroit Red Wings.

This was a script with Hollywood’s fingerprints all over it. Local kid, son of a legend, returns home to join his father as Stanley Cup champion.

But the New Jersey Devils were cast in the role of villain in 1995, and Mark never did win his Stanley Cup—as a player.

Today, Mark Howe has four Cup rings—all achieved while working in the Red Wings scouting department, where he is now Director of Pro Scouting for the team.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Mark is part of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011, a final testament to his outstanding 22-year career as a professional hockey player.

Mr. Hockey, Jr., and Howe!

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