harry howell, 1932—2019

Harry Howell’s adjectives as a Hall-of-Fame NHL defenceman included smart and steady, efficient, and unostentatious, but it’s Roger Angell’s description of his late-career blueline style in 1967 that I hold dear: “Howell,” he wrote in The New Yorker, “has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic.”

Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1932, Howell died on Saturday at the age of 86. Appreciations of his life and times that you might want to attend: Scott Radley’s for The Hamilton Spectator and, at NHL.com, this one by Dave Stubbs.

Howell was 20 when he joined the New York Rangers in 1952. Three years later, he was appointed captain of the team, though he relinquished the role after two seasons, handing the C to Red Sullivan. “Handsome Harry voluntarily gave up the post,” The New York Daily News reported at the time, “agreeing that the weight of the job had affected his play.” It couldn’t have helped that the fans in New York had started to boo him and his relentless (if not exactly electrifying) competence.

“It was quite a relief,” Howell said, years later. “I added about ten pounds to my playing weight and I turned my game around right away.”

The fans forgave, or forgot, or learned to appreciate Howell’s game. In all, he skated in 17 seasons for the Rangers, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in games played, with 1,194. He ended his NHL years on the west coast, serving with stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, and California Golden Seals. He played three years in the WHA, for the New York Golden Blades/Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, and the Calgary Cowboys.

He was 35 in 1967 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman, edging out Chicago’s Pierre Pilote and Boston’s 19-year-old rookie Bobby Orr. “I’m glad I won it this year,” Howell said when he took the trophy in hand, “because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade.” He was close: Orr would win the Norris in each of the next eight years. They would enter the Hall of Fame, as it happened, together, in 1979.

In January of 1968, the Rangers celebrated Howell’s stout service ahead of his 1,002nd NHL game. New York was playing Boston that night at Madison Square Garden, and would beat them by a score of 2-1. Ahead of the hockey, Howell, along with his wife Marilyn, and the couple’s two children (11-year-old Cheryl and seven-year-old Daniel), stood at centre ice to receive a shower of gifts. Other NHL teams had organized nights  like this, for it was a first for the Rangers. I promise you I’m not inventing any of this. As reported in the press that week, the inventory included:

A set of Ben Hogan woods and irons
A golf-club membership (“paid-up”)

A three-piece set of luggage

A cartoon of Howell (“laminated”)

Kent cigarettes (“cartons of”)
Cigars (“from 21 Club”)

Binoculars
A pool cue

A razor and a year’s supply of blades
Revlon cosmetics

A set of encyclopedias (32 volumes)

A hat
A dozen Gant shirts
Golf shirts
Two pairs of custom-made golf slacks
A ski outfit
A bespoke mohair suit
Thread (50 spools)

Roses for Mrs. Howell before every Rangers’ game played on a Wednesday night
Ten beauty-parlor appointments for Mrs. Howell

A vacation at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, near Liberty, New York
Dinner at a Hamilton, Ontario hotel
A month’s stay at Glen Oaks Village, in Queens, New York
A night at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub, New York
A two-week vacation in Palm Beach, Florida
Swimming-pool privileges at Loew’s Midtown Hotel, New York
Dinner at Toots Shor’s restaurant, New York

A pair of children’s bicycles

A gas barbecue
An electric frying pan
An electric blender
A dishwasher (also “electric”)
An portable stereo (RCA)
25 record albums
A radio
A portable TV
An 8mm movie camera and lighting equipment
An 8mm projector and screen
A colour film of the evening’s proceedings
A hairdryer (“women’s”)

A Christmas tree (“seven-foot artificial”)

A year’s supply of cheese (“from Finland”) and hams (“Polish”)

A week’s rental from Avis Rent-A-Car
Four tires
Gasoline vouchers

The final gift, driven out on the ice by two of Howell’s former teammates, Red Sullivan and Lou Fontinato, was a 1967 Mercury Cougar.

(Top image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

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