Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Harry Howell: Stamp of Approval

It has been 38 years since Harry Howell last played professional hockey. After 31 games with the Calgary Cowboys of the World Hockey Association in 1975-76, Howell closed the book on his playing career, which began in 1952-53 with the New York Rangers.

During the month of October, Howell. an Honoured Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, once again found himself under the hockey spotlight.

On October 2, 2014, Canada Post unveiled a new set of stamps called the Original Six Defencemen Series. The collection pays tribute to six defenders who patrolled the blue line for the Original Six franchises. Selected to have their image placed on a stamp were Bobby Orr (Boston), Doug Harvey (Montreal), Pierre Pilote (Chicago), Tim Horton (Toronto), Red Kelly (Detroit) and Harry Howell (New York).

Then, on October 18, 2014, Harry Howell was honoured by his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Civic leaders, family, friends and hockey fans, gathered at the North Wentworth Twin Pads as it undertook a name change and became the Harry Howell Arena.

Howell, now 81 years-of-age, is no stranger to participating in events that recognize his accomplishments on the ice. Back in 1967, the New York Rangers went all-out with a celebration called Harry Howell Night. A ceremony was held prior to the Rangers hosting the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden on January 25, 1967. The contest was Howell's 1002 in a Rangers uniform and it set a record for longevity. At the time, Howell was in his 15th season in the Big Apple.

The day before the on-ice festivities, Howell (pictured above) received a Bronze Medallion of New York City at a gathering held at City Hall. Arthur Daley, who covered the occasion for The New York Times, spoke to Howell about his first goal in the National Hockey League. Daley noted that Howell's first of 94 NHL goals came on his very first shift with the Rangers in 1952. On the play, Howell watched from his post on Toronto's blue line as players from both clubs battled for possession of the puck around Leaf goalie Harry Lumley. Eventually, the puck made its way to Howell at the point.

"It was a screen shot," Howell explained to Daley. "And screen shots are a matter of luck. You just try to miss the first pair of legs in front of you and hope for the best."

Writing in The  Toronto Telegram about Howell's first spin with the Rangers, sports editor Bobby Hewitson, noted that, "...Howell in particular looked very good."

New York general manager Frank Boucher summoned Andy Bathgate, Dean Prentice and Harry Howell from the junior Biltmores. An injury to defenceman Leo Reise was the reason for Howell getting the call. A couple of other rookies, forward Ron Murphy and goalie Lorne "Gump" Worsley, were also in the line-up for New York.

Bathgate and Howell skated in their first NHL games on Saturday October 18, 1952, against Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. Prentice, would make  his debut when New York played their home opener on October 22. All three were brought up to the big league club on a three game try-out.

Following the Rangers 3-3 draw against Boston to kick-off the home portion of their schedule, New York management had to make a decision to keep Bathgate and Howell or return them to junior hockey. At a lunch held by the New York Writers Association on October 23, Boucher informed the gathering at Leone's Restaurant that both Bathgate and Howell would remain on the Rangers roster.

Beyond setting a new mark for contests played by as a Ranger, Harry Howell had reached the peak of his game in 1966-67. Around the same time as he was being feted by the Rangers, news came that Howell, along with Chicago's Pierre Pilote, lead all defencemen in the midseason voting to become a First Team All-Star. In the second round of voting, conducted closer to the end of the '66-'67 campaign, both Howell and Pilote maintained their lead and were named to the First Team.

The crowning moment for Harry Howell came on April 26, 1967. Instead of starting a holiday in Florida, Howell travelled to Toronto to attend a Stanley Cup luncheon put on by the National Hockey League. And he wasn't there to enjoy a free meal. Howell picked-up a major piece of silverware and it had nothing to do with the knives and forks. Besides, this item was much larger - the James Norris Memorial Trophy. This award is given to the best NHL defenceman and at the time was determined  by sports writers and broadcasters working in the six NHL cities.

After the first round of Norris voting, it was announced in January 1967 that Howell received 79 votes. This put him in top spot amongst  all other NHL rearguards. At the end of the season, 34 more ballots were counted in Howell's favour. His total of 113 votes were the most garnered by a defenceman and gave him the advantage over Pilote (95) and Boston rookie Bobby Orr (36). In addition to receiving this prestigious award, Howell has the distinction of being the last player named its winner in the Original Six era.

Getting back to Harry Howell Night on January 25, 1967, it was the biggest party held in Manhattan that evening. The guest list included 15,925 fans that watched the bash take place at the Garden. A long table was positioned at centre ice and it served as a depot for the many many gifts bestowed upon Howell. As with any occasion of this nature, family members were beside Howell to lend their support and salute their loved one.

One gift couldn't be placed on the table and this simply was due to its size. And this one, a brand new Mercury Cougar automobile, certainly caught Howell's attention. "His eyes lit up and the crowd roared when the Cougar was driven onto the ice - and out stepped Red Sullivan and Louie Fontinato," noted The New York Times. Both Sullivan and Fontinato were former teammates of Howell's with the Rangers.

Howell and his family were given so many gifts that perhaps, the most important one dealt with hauling the goods. "Most useful gift at Harry Howell Night in New York was presented by ex-referee Bill Chadwick, now a trucking executive," Jim Proudfoot wrote in the Toronto Daily Star. "He undertook to transport Howell's loot to his home in Hamilton."

When the time came for Howell to address his well-wishers, he knew there was one gift he hoped to present to them in the not too distant future. "I hope to be out here again," Howell began. "When I am, it will be to hold the Stanley Cup."

Though he never won a Stanley Cup as a player, Howell did go on to receive a stamp of approval from hockey's number one Nation.

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