It is a night Mark Howe, Ed Belfour, Doug Gilmour, and Joe Nieuwendyk will never forget — the night they will be enshrined amongst hockey legends in the Hall of Fame.
Between the four, the list of accolades reads longer than most would expect. Five Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe, a Selke, two Calders, two Vezinas, four Jennings, and an unprecedented fifteen All-Star game appearances. This class is nothing to scoff at, and you can believe when they read the list of awards shared amongst these men there will be some with widened eyes.
Through all of this, however, there seems to be something missing.
In the thirteen years Mark Howe has waited to enter the Hall of Fame, the belief has generated that it would never be his name that was called. Maybe it was the comparison of his statistics to his father’s — the legendary and incomparable Gordie Howe — or maybe it was that he never hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup. Never was he a Norris winner, nor did he win a single NHL individual award. He would only be named to the NHL’s first All-Star team three times in fifteen years.
So what is it that puts Mark Howe alongside a group of men who have each won a Stanley Cup, an individual award, and are widely regarded as some of the best to ever play at their positions?
It’s his numbers outside of the NHL.
Mark Howe, alongside brother Marty and father Gordie, played together for Houston of the WHA
Howe — like Gretzky, Messier, Langway and more — started his career in the World Hockey Association. The 1972 start-up that was attempting to compete with the NHL, the WHA was the only real alternative to major professional hockey in North America. Its quick style, appreciation for the European style of play, and the freshness of it lead to a brief surge in popularity. While the surge would eventually fizzle out and end with the leagues merger with the NHL, the WHA spent seven years and developed quite a player in Mark Howe.
Howe’s play in the WHA was outstanding. As a rookie with the Houston Aeros, and alongside his farther Gordie, he would finish his first professional season as Rookie of the Year winning the Lou Kaplan Trophy with 79 points (38-41) in 76 games. It would be the only individual trophy Howe would ever win in either league, but the Aeros would go on to capture the Avco Cup that same season. The following year, the young left winger Howe would be a part of the first ever repeat champion in WHA history, as the Aeros again won the Avco.
It was clear that Houston was on the verge of dynasty status in the WHA, but one year removed from winning the Avco for the second straight year, the team would fall in four games to the Winnipeg Jets.
Howe would continue to soldier on in the WHA until the league’s final year in 1978-79. When the final whistle came, Howe’s WHA career would end with 426 games played and an astonishing 504 points (208-296).
Upon entering the NHL, Howe’s career was about to take a completely different turn. His first season with the Whalers, coach Don Blackburn threw Howe back on the point. Now as a defenseman, Howe flourished.
Ending the season with 80 points (24-56) on the back end, it was clear that Blackburn saw something in Howe’s game that very few had seen to that point. The rest, for Howe, would be history. With his induction nearing, however, it has brought to light to everything he has done not as that NHL defenseman — a force with the Flyers during his tenure there — but what he accomplished in those seven years in the WHA.
It’s an interesting argument; what do we do with players like Howe? How do we quantify their accomplishments?
On an ESPN Hockey Today podcast, Craig Custance mentioned that some were confused by how long Howe’s induction has taken, bringing up that some may not have taken much heed to his WHA numbers.
That sentiment, while shared by many, that the WHA was purely a joke and that all of its records should be discounted is baffling. Pierre LeBrun spoke up saying that he believes it is time that we realize that this is not called the NHL Hall of Fame, but rather the Hockey Hall of Fame, an excellent point. Bringing this up, he mentioned that we often fail to recognize accomplishments in the American Hockey League and other minor-pro leagues in the Hall of Fame.
In the last several years, the inductees have more and more been the ones who have achieved greatness in the NHL and NHL alone. But what about dedication to the game; dedication enough to keep your dream alive and continue playing at the highest level possible?
What about your Darren Haydars, a guy who has played nearly his entire career in the AHL and will end this season sitting amongst the top-20 scorers of all-time? A player who set the consecutive points record with points in 39 straight contests?
And how about Bryan Helmer, the all-time career leader in points by a defenseman in the AHL with 538?
To become a legend in the AHL is no small feat, but there will be those that say they just weren’t good enough to make it in the real big leagues. They did, however, show that they could remain an integral part to a franchise in a league that has one of the greatest turnovers of any in professional sports. The AHL, especially for its players, is cruel in that one good year can be not enough to keep a job, as a high level talent might be shown the door in favour of a young player needing to develop for the NHL.
When he retires, there will be no ceremony, there will be no press conference, and there will be very little written about Darren Haydar. But he deserves a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Angela James and Cammi Granato became the first two women inducted into the Hall of Fame just last year (Image via CTV)
And what about across the pond?
Overseas, there are players who are legends in those markets. Be it Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, or any other major hockey playing nation, these leagues have players that are icons. As we had our Gretzky’s and Lemieux’s, they had theirs. Ville Peltonen in Finland, David Vyborny for the Czechs, and Maxim Sushinsky wearing Russia’s colours — these are all players who represented their nations with pride and breathtaking talent, and played at their countries highest levels with great success.
The day may come, and if it does it will be met with great scrutiny, but my Hockey Hall of Fame includes Hockey’s greatest players. Any level, any league, any nationality, men and women alike. The induction of the first females came last season, a great sign that the Hall is moving in the right direction.
Now let’s just see it give every league its same dues. After all, it is the Hockey Hall of Fame.