Commentary

Mark Howe's journey all his own

Updated: November 11, 2011, 1:55 PM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN.com

Mark HoweSteve Babineau/NHLI via Getty ImagesMark Howe had 197 goals and 545 assists in 929 career NHL games.

Growing up as the son of one of the best hockey players who ever lived comes with privileges.

It meant Mark Howe and his brothers were the only kids in the neighborhood to play street hockey games with Terry Sawchuk's goalie pads. It meant being the stick boy for opposing teams and getting Bobby Hull's used sticks -- not to collect, but to play hockey with in the driveway until nothing was left but kindling. It meant getting chased around by Red Wings trainer Lefty Wilson for stealing hockey tape or being serenaded by Eddie Shack, who liked to belt out the chorus to the song "Gordie Howe Is the Greatest of Them All" when Mark entered the enemy dressing room.

And then there was the occasional hockey advice from their father, Mr. Hockey, during drives to Red Wings games at Olympia Stadium.

"If we were playing Chicago, he'd say 'Watch Bobby Hull. Instead of watching the game, watch Bobby Hull. Watch what he does,'" Mark said.

During other games, he was instructed to watch Nick Libett, a two-way forward who was good for 20 goals a season but impressed Gordie because the opposing winger he defended rarely touched the puck.

"I learned how to do that," Mark said. "Once you get that in your head, you try to implement it into the way you play."

But maybe the best thing about being a Howe was the access. When the Red Wings left town, Mark had Olympia Stadium to himself. He'd find someone to give him a ride to the Old Red Barn and skate for hours. It was where he practiced the moves he picked up by watching Hull or Libett. Or his dad. It was where Mark honed the game that would ultimately lead him into the Hockey Hall of Fame, where he'll join his father during Monday's induction.

He'd skate for hours, stopping only for a meal provided by the same arena worker, who always made sure Mark was fed with hot dogs warmed up in the concession room. Sometimes a side of popcorn.

"It wasn't the best food for me, but when you're 13 or 10, it is," Howe said. "You're just playing hockey, out there having fun. That's all it is. You're working on your shot."

When it was time to go home, the practice didn't end. If it was dark, Mark strung up Christmas lights outside to give the Howes' outdoor hockey game some light.

"People stopped to watch them," said Gordie Howe, who gladly tolerated the broken shingles and windows created by Mark's passion for the game. Having Gordie's hockey genes certainly helped, but Mark believes he got most of his athletic ability from his mother, Colleen. While watching Mark grow up, Gordie knew without a doubt one thing came from him.

"Love of the game," Gordie said. "It's life."

[+] EnlargeMark Howe, Gordie Howe
Denis Brodeur/Getty ImagesMark Howe played with father, Gordie, but he later made his own stamp in the NHL.

Best days of his life

In 1973, Mark Howe won a Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros. He was the MVP and he celebrated like it. He was in rough shape when he received the news that a team he had never heard of in a league he had never heard of had drafted him and his brother.

Houston Aeros coach Billy Dineen was in Detroit to meet with Mark and brother Marty about playing in the World Hockey Association when their mother made a suggestion.

"What do you think of Gordie coming back and playing with the two boys?" she asked Dineen.

It wasn't too long before Mark had a four-year offer worth $500,000. He had just turned 18 and was looking at a signing bonus worth $125,000.

"I was hesitant," Howe said. "Dad just pulled me aside one day and said 'That's $25,000 more than I ever made in a year. If I have to, I'll break your arm and sign it for you.'"

The deal was struck and the family was off to Houston.

The first day the Howes took the ice there it was 101 degrees. For a teenager who spent the summer in hockey school skating eight hours a day, it was nothing. Even at that young age, Mark was one of the best skaters in the world and he showed it. Full of energy, he flew up and down the ice with a speed that led some veterans on the team to ask his dad to suggest Mark slow things down. He was making them look bad.

Gordie was a different story. He hadn't played since retiring from the Red Wings after the 1970-71 season, and it showed.

"He's 45 and he was turning some different kinds of purple for the first week or so," Marty Howe said. "People shouldn't turn that kind of purple, you're just overdoing it. But Gordie has always been -- if he wants to do something, he'll do it."

Two weeks in, the passes from Gordie started getting crisper and right on the tape. The bodies started flying. He was in shape. Mark and the family went on to lead Houston to a pair of WHA championships in 1974 and 1975. Howe spent six years of his professional hockey career playing on the wing in the WHA, scoring 208 goals in 426 games. Those were some of the best days of his life.

"We went to the rink in Houston as a family and we came back as a family," Gordie said.

Then came Hartford.

[+] EnlargeHowe family
AP Photo/ Ed KolenovskyIt was Colleen Howe's suggestion to have Gordie play with sons Mark and Marty on the Houston Aeros of the WHA.

Life-changing moments

When Mark was 14 years old, he was leading his youth league in scoring and had every intention of continuing his father's legacy as an NHL forward. But one of his coaches pulled him aside and told him he was going to be a great NHL defenseman. The Junior A coach's name was Carl Lindstrom, and he was spot on.

"I thought he was loony bin," Howe said.

It wasn't until Howe started his NHL career that he began his hockey life as a defenseman. It was the fourth game of the 1979-80 season after the WHA/NHL merger. Howe participated in the Hartford Whalers' morning skate, playing left wing. Right before the game against the Buffalo Sabres, he saw the lineup on a chalkboard in the dressing room and it had his name on defense. He thought it was a mistake, erased it and made the fix. It wasn't a mistake.

"I'm like, 'It would have been nice if you would have let me practice once on defense,'" Howe said. But he soon adjusted and things started to click. Howe liked playing 30 minutes a night and quickly became one of the league's best puck movers on defense. If there was a loose puck on Hartford's side of the ice, nine times out of 10, Howe won the race.

Things were going well when Howe and his wife, Ginger, decided to go out for dinner at a little restaurant just off Route 44 in Avon, Conn. It was around Christmas in 1980 and Ginger started a conversation that never left Mark.

"I worry about you getting hurt sometimes," she said. Her intuition was justified, but Howe did his best to ease her concern.

"If you ever see me being carried off on a stretcher, then you can start to worry because you'll know I'm hurt," he remembers telling her.

It was teammate Nick Fotiu who carried the stretcher.

Howe has seen the replay of the injury that shook his life only once. It was enough. He threw out the tape. Just a few days after the prophetic conversation with his wife, Howe weighed in for a game in Hartford against the Islanders. He was 192 pounds, a playing weight he would never reach again.

During the game, the Islanders were coming in on a 3-on-2; Howe pivoted toward the net when he was accidentally bumped by John Tonelli, driving the lane. Howe's momentum took him into the net, flying into the piece of sheet metal that used to deflect pucks in the middle of the net. It all happened in a split second, but Howe knew enough to try to protect his bad back. So, while sliding on his back, he lifted his legs up so he could absorb the blow with his knees. Instead, the metal jammed five inches into his backside, just inches from his spinal column.

He was terrified, and the look on Fotiu's face justified it. Howe was quickly losing blood.

"I ran and got the stretcher. I ran. I did a sprint. I just flew, man. 'Get out of the way!'" Fotiu said. He then described the metal rod that ended up in Mark's body. "It looked like a sword."

It slid right through Howe, nearly coming out of his hip. Gordie, who retired from the NHL the season before, was at the game and rushed down from the stands to the trainer's room where a doctor was grabbing Mark's feet to check for paralysis. Mark repeatedly screamed the same thing.

"Am I going to live? Am I going to live?" he shouted.

Gordie grabbed his hand, then demanded that the doctor remove the towel so he could see how bad the injury was. The doctor was hesitant, but finally relented.

"Dad almost broke my hand, he squeezed so hard," Howe said.

The recovery wasn't easy. There was an infection, fevers and medication that made it impossible for Mark to leave his hospital bed. His appetite was completely gone. After he had spent days in bed, doctors warned Mark that he needed to get up and walk. Every time he tried, he got sick. Finally, Gordie lifted him off the hospital bed and decided it was time for him to walk. Mark warned his dad -- any movement made him nauseous.

"He says 'Do what you gotta do. You're going to walk,'" Mark remembered Gordie saying. "I threw up all over him as he walked me around the room."

Howe spent a month in and out of hospitals and returned to play 20 pounds lighter. He missed just six weeks, but his game took much longer to return. He ended up suing the NHL when it wouldn't change the nets to make them safer. The league finally did. He ended up demanding Hartford trade him when things weren't the same after the injury.

The Whalers finally did.

[+] EnlargeMark Howe
Steve Babineau/Getty ImagesAfter making the switch from forward to defense upon his NHL arrival, Mark Howe was a three-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy.

One of the best D-men of his era

Former Flyers captain Dave Poulin broke into the NHL the same season Howe was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in August 1982 and remembers his confidence was shaken when he had trouble handling Howe's laser-crisp passes.

"I just remember that I thought I couldn't play in the league because I couldn't catch Mark Howe's passes, they were harder than my shots," Poulin said. "It literally took three months to figure out how to do it."

Poulin would learn that Howe's passing wasn't typical of NHL defensemen, he was in a class of his own. Gordie Howe said the three best passers he ever played with were Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel and his son. "Nobody passed the puck better," Gordie Howe said.

And that wrist shot. It was as good as most players' slap shot. Early in Poulin's career, a Howe wrister whipped past his face and shattered the glass behind him.

"I always remember thinking, what happens if that hits my jaw?" Poulin said.

It was during Howe's 10 seasons in Philadelphia that his gifted skill set was combined with the coaching necessary to transform him into one of the best defensemen of his era. He would play in a game and then stay up until 3 in the morning critiquing his performance while watching replays on Prism, a local 24-hour cable channel that once aired Flyers games.

It was in Philadelphia where he met the coach he credits with molding him into an elite NHL defenseman. Ed Van Impe was a consultant with the team and met with the Philadelphia defensemen a couple of times a week to review film and talk technique. It was during those sessions that Van Impe observed something about Howe.

Howe was as receptive to coaching as anyone Van Impe had ever come across. He noticed the further he went down the depth chart of Flyers defensemen, the more resistant players were to his ideas, and the excuses piled up. Howe, however, never looked for excuses, just ways to get better.

"Regarding positional play, he was just very interested. Very interested in it," Van Impe said. "Here it is, your best player willing to listen, whether he felt like you were right or not."

Van Impe provided knowledge about defense that Howe had never received until that point. He learned exactly what angle his hips needed to be. He learned to use the opposing net as a compass when backing in toward his own end. He learned to dictate who exactly on the opposite team had the puck by the way he defended opposing players.

In Philadelphia, he also found the perfect blue-line partner in Brad McCrimmon. Howe said the best chemistry he ever had with another player came down to two people, his father and McCrimmon.

Neither Mark Howe nor McCrimmon was particularly big, but both could skate and move the puck. McCrimmon also provided the mean streak for the duo. Off the ice, the two clicked. Their hotel room, with a bathtub full of ice and beer, often became the meeting spot on the road for the team. As good as they were together on the ice, they were equally entertaining off it. No one told better stories than McCrimmon and Howe, and when it came time to tell legendary stories about Gordie Howe, everyone stopped to listen.

"It was simply 'Dad,'" Poulin said. "You knew who 'Dad' was."

McCrimmon and Howe were at their peak during the 1985-86 season, when Howe finished a remarkable plus-85, McCrimmon a plus-83. Howe will go down as one of the best defensemen never to win the Norris Trophy, as even those ridiculous numbers couldn't edge Edmonton's Paul Coffey. Howe would finish a game plus-3 or plus-4, then wake up the next morning and open the newspaper to see the score from Edmonton. Coffey seemed to always have two or three goals and Howe would just laugh. It wasn't an easy time to win a Norris. Or a Stanley Cup.

The Flyers came close in 1987, losing in seven games to Wayne Gretzky's Oilers in the finals. Howe wanted a Cup so desperately, he promised Pat Croce the keys to his Mercedes if he ever won it in Philadelphia. It never came to that. When Howe left Philadelphia in 1992, he gave his agent four teams he wanted to try to win a championship with in his final seasons: the Penguins, Rangers, Devils and Red Wings. The Rangers won it all in 1994, the Devils in 1995. Howe signed with the Red Wings, but Detroit didn't break its Stanley Cup drought until after he retired. He left the NHL without the ring.

"Anybody who dreams of being a hockey player, you dream of winning a Stanley Cup," Howe said. "I'd do anything to win the Stanley Cup. Are you disappointed? Yeah, but I felt like I gave it everything I had. Some things are out of your control."

The call from the Hall

There is probably a good reason why it took Howe so long to get the call from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Maybe his years in the WHA meant his NHL statistical totals weren't impressive enough for some voters. Maybe the lack of a Norris Trophy or Stanley Cup somehow devalued 1,355 games of professional hockey. Or maybe his career never quite measured up to Dad's.

Whatever the reason, Howe stopped paying attention to the debate. In retirement, he has become one of Detroit GM Ken Holland's most trusted advisers. He is grinding out a life on the road as the Red Wings' director of pro scouting, where he sees an estimated 150 games a year.

"He was a superstar as a player and he's a top-notch scout," Holland said.

Of course, when the call from the Hall came this summer, Howe missed it. He received three calls from the 416 area code in Toronto and ignored them all. He was busy checking on his boat and making sure everything was in order back home in New Jersey before leaving for Detroit to get ready for free agency on July 1.

Finally, a text came from the Red Wings' offices, convincing him to answer if another call came from Toronto.

"They called and I knew instantly as I heard the voices," Howe said.

Like Gordie, Mark was a Hall of Famer. He had just one question: When could he tell his dad?

Mark, now 56, has already written his acceptance speech and knows it will be emotional, mostly because of who isn't there. McCrimmon, his close friend and best playing partner, died tragically in the Russian plane crash this past summer. Howe's mother, whom he credits for so much of his success, died in 2009 after fighting Pick's disease, a rare and permanent form of dementia similar to Alzheimer's.

"God, I wish she was here," he said.

Like he has been at so many important moments in Mark's life, Gordie, now 83, will be there. A father of three (Travis, 33; Nolan, 25; and Azia, 29), Mark knows your children's accomplishments far outweigh anything you do in life. It's another character trait he inherited from his parents. When he heard the news of Mark's induction, Gordie expressed how proud he was. It wasn't necessary.

"He doesn't have to say that," Mark said. "I know exactly how he feels."

Father and son were recently sitting across from one another and were asked whom Monday's Hall induction will impact more. Gordie immediately raised his hand. Then he shared exactly what it will mean to have his son follow him into hockey immortality.

"Everything," he said.

Craig Custance is an NHL reporter for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and ESPN.com.