Retro Rangers: Harry Howell, 1932 – 2019

Harry Howell was a product of the Rangers Guelph Junior A team that also produced Andy Bathgate, Dean Prentice, Lou Fontinato and Ron Murphy who later became Harry’s brother-in-law. Following two seasons in Guelph, the six-foot-one, 195-pound native of Hamilton Ontario was promoted to Cincinnati of the AHL, but his stay in the minor leagues was brief. After just one game Howell made his Rangers debut on the night of October 18th 1952 in Toronto as an emergency call-up to replace an injured defenseman. The 20-year-old rookie scored on his first shift, lifting a long shot over the shoulder of Leafs netminder Harry Lumley. Although he was supposed to be with the Rangers for just that one game, Coach Bill Cook asked Harry to come back to New York and practice with the team. As it turned out Harry never returned to the minors and in the next 16 seasons missed only 40 games.

Howell was a steady defenseman who was not a fan favorite at first because of his style. He wasn’t a physical player and didn’t go out of his way to hit opponents. But fans soon came to appreciate his smart, steady efficient play.

In 1955 Harry was named Captain of the Rangers at the age of 23, becoming the youngest captain in team history. He gave up the captaincy to Red Sullivan two seasons later, claiming that he was just too young and citing two bad season while wearing the “C”.

When Emile Francis took over the Rangers in 1964, Howell and Donnie Marshal were both named assistant coaches. Marshall mentored the younger forwards, while Harry was responsible for teaching the young defensemen like Arnie Brown, Rod Seiling and Brad Park.

“When I first got there and my ice time increased, Harry was just wonderful, a terrific guy” Park recalled “He treated me like an equal. He gave me a lot of advice.  There were a lot of discussions. We would go out for a beer after the game and really talk about the game and how situations should be handled. Harry’s one of my favorite people of all time”

Two nights after he played his 1,000th game as a Ranger, Harry was honored with a night at Madison Square Garden on January 25, 1967. It was the first time the Rangers had honored an active player with a “night”. Harry’s family was flown in from Hamilton but an even larger contingent of family and friends missed the ceremony due to heavy fog at Kennedy Airport.  He was presented with numerous gifts ranging from cheeses to vacations to golf clubs to a Mercury Cougar which was driven onto the ice by former teammates “Leapin’ Louie” Fontinato and Red Sullivan. It was later said that Howell needed three trips in a station wagon to bring all the gifts home. He was also given a special medal by New York City Mayor John V. Lindsey.  And as a bonus, the Rangers beat the Bruins 2-1 that night as well.

Harry, who played for 11 coaches in his 17-year Ranger career, enjoyed his best offensive season in 1966-67 when he scored 12 goals and added 28 assists for 40 points and the rest of the league took notice. Often overshadowed by defensemen like Doug Harvey, Pierre Pilote, and Tim Horton, Harry finally was given the recognition he deserved when he became the first Ranger to receive the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Upon receiving the award Harry told reporters, “I’m glad I won it this year, because there’s a guy in Boston who is going to win it for the next decade – Bobby Orr.”

Howell underwent spinal fusion surgery in the summer of 1969 and Emile Francis offered him a choice of assistant GM or assistant coach positions if he wanted to retire. Harry was 36-years-old at the time and had undergone multiple surgeries and Emile had a number of young defensemen that he wanted to bring along, including Allan Hamilton, Ab DeMarco Jr, Larry Brown and Mike Robitaille. But Howell felt that he could still play. “I didn’t go through this operation to sit behind a desk,” he told Francis. So when Emile asked him where he’d like to be traded, Harry chose the west coast and his NHL rights were sold to Oakland in June of 1969.

Harry also played for the Kings, as well as New Jersey, San Diego and Calgary of the WHA before retiring in 1976 at the age of 44. He then moved up to the front office, becoming the assistant general manager of the Cleveland Barons in 1976. Harry became GM the following season replacing Bill McCreary and held that position until the Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978. Howell coached the North Stars for 17 games in 1978-79 and then became the team’s chief scout. He later was a scout for the Edmonton Oilers.

Harry Howell played in 1,160 games for the Rangers, a team record that considering the current state of free agency and salary caps will never be broken. In addition, he scored 82 goals, 263 assists for 345 points with 1,147 PIM.  Unfortunately, for the better part of Harry’s career, the Rangers didn’t make many playoff appearances, but he did manage to record three goals and two assists along with 30 PIM in 34 postseason games.

Overall in 1,411 regular season games over 22 NHL seasons Harry scored 94 goals, with 324 assists and 1,298 PIM. In 38 playoff games he scored three goals with three assists and 32 PIM.

Harry’s Ranger teammates gave him the Players’ Player award twice and he was presented with the Frank Boucher Award as the Most Popular Blueshirt three times. He played in six All-Star games and saw his number 3 jersey retired by the Rangers, along with Andy Bathgate’s number 9 on February 22, 2009. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979 and selected to represent the Rangers when Canada Post issued a series of stamps in October 2014 honoring a star defenseman from each team in the N.H.L.’s Original Six, predating the league expansion of 1967.

Harry Howell passed away on March 9th, 2019 at the age of 86.