Mark Howe: Son of Gordie gets Hall of Fame turn

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – What was it like growing up the son of Gordie Howe? A young Mark Howe was serving as the stick boy in the visitors' dressing room at Detroit's old Olympia Stadium. He was going around asking for autographs when he reached the training table in the middle of the room, where Eddie Shack was getting taped up. Shack, nicknamed "The Entertainer," decided to have a little good-natured fun with the kid. He started singing a tune recorded by Big Bob and The Dollars in 1963.

Gordie Howe is the greatest of them all

The greatest of them all

Yes, the greatest of them all.

You can have your choice of all the rest.

If you're a Howe fan

You've got the very best.

"I turned a thousand sheets of red, and all the guys are hooting and hollering and laughing," Mark remembered, "and I'm going running out the back door."

That might have been the only time Mark ever ran from it.

He will tell you that being the son of Gordie Howe – the man they call Mr. Hockey, the man he calls Dad – opened far more doors than it ever closed. It opened the doors to the Olympia, where he became a regular rink rat – not only serving as a stick boy for Dad's Detroit Red Wings and their opponents, but watching games, meeting players, skating all day by himself, gathering up used gear. He had an easy time rounding up neighborhood kids to play street hockey, because he had the Olympia's nets and Terry Sawchuk's goalie equipment. When he was 13 or 14, he even got to play with the Wings in training camp.

"With that name, I can walk in anywhere," Mark said. "All the liberties that I had being Gordie Howe's son were fantastic."

But there was a downside. Mark said it wasn't tough for him, but "the toughest part is that you're carrying that name on your back." That name. He knew if he got into trouble, that name would be in the papers. He knew when he was on the ice, that name would draw attention and create certain expectations.

"People would always make comparisons," Mark said. "Well, if I tried to compare my career to his, it's a lose-lose situation."

That name might actually have kept him out of the Hockey Hall of Fame for a while.

"I was surprised that he had to wait this long to get in," said coaching legend Scotty Bowman, who has been on the Hall of Fame selection committee since 2003. "But I think really, his name … Being Gordie's son, people don't … If his name had been Smith or something, he probably would have stood out more, you know what I mean? He got compared to his father, and nobody could compare to him."

Mark was prepared for such things. He was also the son of Colleen Howe, Mrs. Hockey, who blazed her own trail in the business of the game. His mother taught him how to set his own goals, how to set his own standards, how to evaluate himself independent of the opinions of others – reporters, peers, coaches, anybody else. He made his own expectations, and he measured himself against those and those alone.

Some he failed to meet, like his dreams of winning a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. But some he surpassed, like his goal to play 10 pro seasons (he played 22). He was an Olympic silver medalist, a Memorial Cup MVP and a two-time champion in the World Hockey Association. He was a three-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman, after abruptly moving back from the wing and overcoming a harrowing injury.

The Hall of Fame? He said he never considered it – not when he watched Dad's induction in 1972, not when he was done as a player in 1995.

"In my opinion, there's the elite of the elite, and it's the Howes, the Gretzkys, the Lemieuxs, the Bobby Orrs," Mark said, meaning the Gordie Howes, of course. "And then there's a few others right below that. And then there's this other crop, and if you're in that other crop, some get in, some don't. And the way I evaluated myself, I put myself in the other crop. I'm not in that elite group."

A couple of years ago, Mark got his hopes up for the first time. He heard rumors he was close to getting in. When the call didn't come, he allowed himself 24 hours of dejection and then moved on. This year, 56 years old and 16 years into retirement, he didn't answer the call when it actually came. He was busy with something else. He had to call back to hear the news before he could make a few calls of his own.

"He's always been humble and quiet about things, but I could just tell in his voice how elated he was," said Travis Howe, Mark's son. "To hear him as excited as he was, obviously it's a thrill for me."

Mark will be inducted on Monday. Asked if it was special to follow Dad into the Hall but also to validate his own career, Mark said: "I don't look at it that way. It means so much more to me because Dad's here to share it, and I have my family and my good friends around me. That's what it means to me."

What does it mean to Dad? Seated across the table from Mark the other day, wearing a Red Wings windbreaker and a proud smile, Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, 83 years old and still witty, put it simply.

"Everything," he said.

* * * * *

Mark Howe thinks he probably has more of his mother's genes. Colleen, who died in March of 2009, gave him his strong legs and strong mind. But there is no doubt he got something from Gordie.

"Love of the game," Gordie said. "His feelings towards the game was just, it's life. And lots of cases, it is."

It is in Mark's case. Even now he scouts about 150 AHL and NHL games a year for the Red Wings. He'll put a big matchup on his schedule – say, Penguins-Capitals – purely because of the entertainment value.

He played all kinds of sports as a kid – football, baseball, wrestling. He played basketball, even though he never really enjoyed it. He played golf, but never for a school team because the schedule conflicted with hockey.

Hockey was always first in his heart. He would stay at school to finish his homework so he'd be free when he got home. He would play on the front-yard rink until he was called in for dinner, then go back out for seconds.

The Howes lived in the Detroit suburb of Lathrup Village, and their house was on Sunset. Mark would play well past sunset. He would play under the lights – the Christmas lights he hung from lumber he had scrounged from homes being built nearby.

"Mom didn't like me breaking all the windows," Mark said.

"I wouldn't argue against it," Gordie said. "He could break more windows, as long as he kept going. Love of the game."

There was toughness and togetherness, too.

Gordie famously played with sons Mark and Marty Howe – first in the World Hockey Association for the Houston Aeros (1974-77) and New England Whalers (1977-79), then in the NHL for the Hartford Whalers (1979-80). Dad was protective. He would threaten opponents who hurt his sons. Mark had to tell him to cool it, because he would take a hard hit and then an even harder one when Dad hit the guy who had hit him. Dad kept looking out for his sons even after he retired and they took their own paths.

Mark had been a forward and a darn good one, scoring 208 goals in six WHA seasons. Then a few games after the Whalers joined the NHL, he skated at left wing in the morning and was surprised to see his name written in on defense that night. He had played defense only one other time in his career, when the Aeros had some injury issues.

"So I went and erased it on the board," Mark said. "I put it back at left wing. The coaches come in. They say, 'Who's screwing with the board?' I did. I thought somebody was messing around. And I said, 'Well, it would have been nice had they let me practice defense.' "

On his first shift, his partner pinched but the puck got by and Buffalo Sabres star Gilbert Perrault came down on him 1-on-1. Mark said he was "terrified," but he survived. He kept surviving, using his skating ability to make up for mistakes.

Mark was just starting to get comfortable on defense in his second NHL season when he got hurt. He charged toward his own net, got bumped from behind and slid on his back feet-first. He put up his skates to absorb the shock. That popped up the net, and that exposed the deflector plate the nets had before he sued the NHL to get rid of them.

He got stabbed.

A piece of metal five-and-a-half inches long and four-and-a-half inches wide at the base went into Mark's rear end and came out near his right hip. He lost four or five pints of blood. He panicked and thought he was dying. When Dad came down to the dressing room and saw the injury, he squeezed Mark's hand so hard he nearly broke it. The doctor kept playing with his toes to see if he was paralyzed.

"I said, 'Am I going to live?' " Mark said. "That's all I kept asking."

Dad rode with Mark in the ambulance. Mark was in surgery for five or six hours.

He missed only six weeks.

"That's a long time," Gordie said.

Very funny, Dad. As unlucky as he had been, Mark had been lucky in that the metal had missed his spinal column and not torn major muscle tissue. The next day, Mark knew he was going to live, so he started asking if he would be able to play hockey again – and kept asking until he got an answer. By the third or fourth day, Mark finally got out of bed with help from Dad. He was nauseated by Demerol. Didn't matter.

Love of the son.

"I remember Dad picked me up, held me, and he said, 'You're going to walk,' " Mark said. "I said, 'I'm going to throw up all over you.' He said, 'Do what you've got to do.' So he held me, walked me around the room. I think I threw up on him about five times. Later on that day, there were about four or five people, all the rooms around me … Just about everybody passed away that day. So it got me motivated to get the hell out of there. It was a tough time."

When Mark came back, he had withered from 193 pounds to 172, but the team was struggling and he wanted to help. He also wanted to play in his first NHL All-Star Game. He played in the 170-pound range the rest of the season – he would never play at more than 186 again – and he said he was "horrible" and "bad the next year, too." He didn't start feeling better until the end of that following season, which would be his last in Hartford. He asked for trade.

The Whalers sent Mark to the Philadelphia Flyers, and he flourished. He learned the finer points of defense from Ed Van Impe – how to position his hips, how to dictate who would shoot the puck on a 2-on-1. He also studied himself. Long before teams used video, he would go out after games, come home and watch the replay on cable late at night, especially if he made two or three mistakes.

"Hopefully I made my mistakes early," Mark said. "I wouldn't have to stay awake so long."

Love of the game.

* * * * *

In 1983, the NHL had Gordie Howe present the Norris Trophy. Only he didn't get to present it to his son. He ended up presenting it to the Washington Capitals' Rod Langway. Mark took it in stride. He congratulated Langway and said he honestly believed Langway had meant far more to the Caps' success than he had meant to the Flyers'. He had his own standards.

"I was not happy with my year that year," Mark said. "I thought I had a good year, but I didn't think I had a Norris Trophy year."

Mark was also the runner-up in 1986, behind the Edmonton Oilers' Paul Coffey. He was a ridiculous plus-85, while partner Brad McCrimmon was plus-83. But they had a running gag. The Flyers would win big, and they would be plus-4 with three points combined, only to discover that Coffey had scored four goals the same night.

Mark was the runner-up again in 1987, behind the Boston Bruins' Ray Bourque. This time he was merely plus-57.

No, no Cup as a player, either. Twice, he lost in the final with the Flyers. He finished his career with the Red Wings, and after they lost the 1995 final, he retired. They won the Cup two years later. At least he received his first of four rings as a scout.

What could he do? Nothing. Nothing but lean on the lesson his mother had taught him. He still shrugs off talk that he is one of the best defensemen ever to not win a Norris. He still shrugs off the old labels of others.

"A lot of people considered me an offensive defenseman," Mark said. "I thought I was just the opposite. I thought I was a defensive defenseman that knew how to create offense. So I thought I was an intelligent player. I knew how to play the odds and keep the puck out of my net."

Mark Howe will always be Gordie Howe's son and proud of it. But Mark Howe also will be remembered for his competitiveness. He didn't always show it, but it was so fierce it could run him off the road.

"That's why he never drove to the rink," Gordie said. "I drove to the rink so he'd show up."

Mark Howe will be remembered for his swift skating, his strong wrist shot and his deft passing. Gordie said he could include Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel, anybody, and "nobody passed the puck better."

You can have your choice of all the rest.

If you're a Howe fan

You've got the very best.

Even if he doesn't consider himself the elite of the elite – one of the Howes, the Gretzkys, the Lemieuxs or the Orrs – Mark Howe will forever be remembered as a Hall of Famer. Even if no one writes a song about him, even if he won't listen anyway, we can sing his praises. He's officially one of the greatest of them all.

That name on the plaque is his.

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