TORONTO - Nick Kypreos looked around the Philadelphia Flyers training camp room in 1984 and spotted Mark Howe.
“When you’re 18, you’re in awe of everyone,” Kypreos said. “But now you kind of felt like you were in the presence of hockey’s Royal Family. Gordie came by training camp on one or two occasions, which was an incredible experience for an 18-year-old.”
But it was at this camp that Kypreos came to appreciate that Mark was not a three-time Norris Trophy runner-up because of No. 9’s nepotism. Mark was an NHL star on his own course to the Hockey Hall of Fame this Monday.
“Some can sit here today and wonder why he’s in,” Kypreos said. “But to anybody who really watched him, he was truly among the best defencemen in the NHL in his prime. What was so abundantly clear was his talent, how fluid a skater he was.
“One thing that opened my eyes was his ability to open a pair of brand new skates from the box and wear them that night in a game. That was unheard of. You broke them in over the course of weeks. His confidence level just blew me away. Everybody knew he was his own man. At times, it wasn’t Gordie Howe’s son they were watching or talking about, it was Mark Howe’s father. That’s how good he was.”
The best life lesson Mark might have received outside the family circle was at the informal scrimmages Detroit players would have with their sons.
“I was maybe 10 or 12 and remember being schooled by Dean Prentice,” Mark said. “He scored a hat trick against me and said, ‘son, you better learn how to play defence’.”
Mark didn’t play into his 50s as Gordie did, but crammed a lot into a career that began in 1971. His Jr. Red Wings won the U.S. title, next year he was a 16-year-old on the silver-medal U.S. Olympic team and then a Memorial Cup champ with brother Marty and the powerhouse Toronto Marlboros.
“We’d played together pretty well every year of our lives. I was bound and determined to be an NHL player and the Marlies were a stepping stone.”
His coach was George Armstrong, with a laid-back style in contrast to future taskmasters Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan.
“The Chief ran things the way he wanted,” Howe laughed. “We were up in Montreal (at the Memorial Cup) just having an east-west practice, while every other team was working like crazy. (GM) Frank Bonello came down and said ‘you can’t do this with all the media (watching)’. George said, ‘This is what I’ve done all year and I’m going to continue’. He kept us loose and taught us the right things.”
The Howes stunned the hockey world a few months later, announcing they’d play for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Gordie included. Houston had drafted Mark as an underage, which Gordie credits Colleen with devising, much to the chagrin of NHL GMs.
“A lot of people criticized, but I’d never change that,” Mark said. “To be given an opportunity to play with my dad and brother meant the world.”
A psychic told Colleen there were three trophies in the family’s future in '73-74, and sure enough, Houston won the Avco Cup, Gordie was MVP and Mark rookie of the year.
After three years, Aeros coach Bill Dineen made the keen observation that left-winger Mark’s vision of the ice would be of more use on the blueline.
While many people think of the Howes as a forward line, they only started one game as such, in ’79, when the Hartford Whalers joined the NHL and played the ancestral home in Detroit. Gordie retired that year, Marty in 1985, but Mark was just getting started.
“A lot of defencemen can switch to forward, but forward to defence is a lot tougher,” said ex-NHLer Bob McGill. “When I played Mark, first and foremost he was an excellent skater, 30 minutes a night before they probably clocked that. Mark and Brad McCrimmon were partners, the dynamic duo. Every time you played the Flyers, your No. 1 guys would be shut down.
“The big thing he never got credit for was how he quarterbacked the power play. He certainly inherited some hockey sense from his father, but he had a much better shot and his passing was better than he was given credit for.”
Mark had a career high 82 points in 1985-86 and was in 26 playoff games in ’87 when the Flyers lost the Cup final in seven games to Edmonton. Having survived one of the most gruesome injuries in hockey when the sharp stake holding up an old style net impaled him in 1980, the wear and tear eventually saw him let loose by Philly as a free agent. But it was the long awaited chance to play in Detroit, where he remains as scouting director.
“The only thing I could regret is after retiring, Dad said ‘why didn’t you take my number out of the rafters and wear it for one game?’ Had he asked, I would have, because otherwise I’d have never thought of doing it.”