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Howell was 'Too Good a Man to Lose'

Coaches, fans came to love No. 3 as they appreciated his great talent

Tuesday, 02.17.2009 / 2:32 PM / 85th Anniversary
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Howell was \'Too Good a Man to Lose\'
Blueshirts Flashback: 1968

Leading into the Feb. 22, 2009, celebration of the Rangers careers of Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell, newyorkrangers.com looked back at a series of articles written about the duo during their heyday. The following article, written by Herb Goren, the longtime head of public relations for the Rangers, appeared in the team's' 1968-69 game program.

On Harry Howell Night in January 1967, the longtime Rangers defenseman felt the glow of the spotlight -- and the warmth of the fans -- at the old Garden.
I was sitting next to Marilyn Howell when her husband scored his first goal of the season. It was a beautiful shot. It went in as if it had eyes. And all the way from the blue line. The Garden crowd went wild. And Marilyn just sat there. Not a peep.

So I got off a wisecrack. "You'd think," I said, "that Harry gets 'em every night."

Marilyn smiled. "Oh, I feel it," she said. "I just don't show it."

Harry seems to be cut out of the same mold. He has had his moments, some wonderful moments on ice. But in the dressing room, after it's over, he's the same man, no matter what happened out there. Like a fellow whose name is a slight abbreviation of his own, Gordie Howe. Harry can take the bitter with the sweet without losing his cool. I've known him for 17 years, from the day he showed up at a Ranger camp in Guelph, Ontario, and I don't think I've ever heard him swear.

He was only 19 when he made the club -- a Ranger club in transition. From very old to very young. He came up from a kid team in Guelph along with Andy Bathgate, Dean Prentice, Ron Murphy, Louie Fontinato. Not all of them came up at once. But Harry did. And he never left. That would have been sheer disaster.

"The thing that makes him the great hockey player he is," Emile Francis was saying, "is that the quality of his game seldom varies. Some defensemen, they look like all-stars one night, or maybe for three games in a row, and then they tail off. But Harry, he's like the Rock of Gibraltar."

Coach Bernie Geoffrion puts it this way: He's never been better. He belongs on anybody's first All-Star team and I'll work to see that he gets it. Why does he keep going so good? Because he's always in shape. The older he gets, the harder he works to stay in shape."

Then the Boomer pulled out an old cliche, how Harry is such a great man in the dressing room, except that in Harry's case, it's so true.

Looking back, he seemed to have an old face for a young man of 19 on the way up. But that was because he was such a mature kid, solid in every way. It wasn't fun for Harry in those early years at the Garden. He took his share of gallery criticism. But after a while, the fans recognized his style and his greatness, never flashy, always sound.

Most coaches in the NHL like to close out a period, or a game, with their top scorers on the ice. And Francis, now Geoffrion, likes to have Harry out there at the same ti me. A matter of insurance. If broadcaster Mel Allen hadn't popularized the nickname, Old Reliable, on Tommy Henrich of the Yankees, it would have been a natural on Harry Howell.

"A lot of writers keep asking me if he's better or worse than the year before," Francis says. "And I always say, how can you tell?" Francis adds: "Hockey is a game of mistakes, and Harry doesn't make many of them."

The last time I looked, Harry had missed about 20 games in 17 years. Not that he doesn't get his share of muscle pulls and cuts. He just plays out his wounds and never says much about them. That's the sign of a pro.

It's a fact, though, that he's had few of his teeth knocked out, three at the last count. Phil Watson, when he was coaching the Rangers, used to say: "You're not a hockey player until you get your teeth knocked out." It was a well-repeated line, but Harry played in the NHL for 10 or more years before he lost even one, and nobody could say he wasn't a 100 percent big leaguer.

One of the little things coaches appreciate in Harry is his adaptability. The Rangers haven't had many right-handed defensemen over the years, so that early in his NHL career, Harry had to play right defense even though he shoots lefthanded. It doesn't seem to bother him. Nothing ever does, or at least not outwardly.

When Harry came up to the Rangers, or shortly thereafter, some scouts were saying, and Harry was saying it with them, "Wait'll you see the kid brother." Harry's kid brother, Ron, was a star football player with natural talent for hockey, too. He tried it. But not for long. And so the game has only one Howell.

How long he'll go is as debatable now as it was 10 years ago. There is no perceptible change in the man's ability. The record for a defenseman is 20 years in the NHL -- first Dit Clapper, then Bill Gadsby. Howell out to top 'em. He'd hate to leave the Rangers defenseless.

I asked Emile Francis if he could offer an educated guess on Howell's long-run. He couldn't.

"When he does hang 'em up," Emile said, "you can bet we'll have some other job for him in this organization. He's too much of a man to lose."