Harry Howell, the Hall of Fame defenceman who became one of hockey’s most durable figures, playing with the New York Rangers for 17 seasons in a career that spanned 24 seasons in two leagues, died Saturday in Ancaster, Ont. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by the Rangers.
He had dementia and was living at a long-term care facility in Ancaster, outside his hometown, Hamilton.
When Mr. Howell joined the Rangers in October, 1952, he was among 14 rookies with the team that season. Most didn’t stick around too long, but Mr. Howell went on to play in 1,160 regular-season games as a Ranger, a still-standing team record.
The Rangers were often lacklustre in Mr. Howell’s playing days, but he joined with Andy Bathgate on right wing and Gump Worsley in goal, his fellow rookies and future Hall of Famers as well, to give their frustrated fans of the 1950s and early 60s some hope.
Mr. Howell won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s leading defenceman in the 1966-67 season and he was a seven-time all-star.
Soon after playing in his 1,000th game, in January, 1967, he was presented with the Medal of the City of New York by then-mayor John Lindsay and honoured at the old Madison Square Garden with the first “night” ever accorded a Rangers player.
Making his Ranger debut Oct. 18, 1952, facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto, Mr. Howell scored on his first shot. But he was known as a “stay at home” defenceman, usually sticking close to his blue line instead of looking for a chance to carry the puck up ice.
At 6 foot 1 and 195 pounds or so, “I was a big guy for the time I played,” he told John Halligan and John Kreiser in Game of My Life: New York Rangers (2008). “But I wasn’t the type of guy to go run people. I could take them out of the play, but I wasn’t going to skate 50 feet to hit someone.”
Mr. Howell finally broke the double-digit mark in goals scored in the 1966-67 season, when he had 12 goals and 28 assists.
“We had Boom-Boom Geoffrion,” he once told the Hall of Fame in recalling that season. “He came to us from the Montreal Canadiens as a power-play specialist. I’d pass him the puck on the right point. He’d pass it back to me. I’d pass to him. Finally, he said, ‘Will you please shoot the puck?’ A few of them went in.”
But for much of the city, the Rangers were often an afterthought, since they were regularly displaced from the Eighth Avenue Garden by more lucrative events.
“The first two weeks of the season, the rodeo was booked in,” Howell told the Hall, which inducted him in 1979. “The Kennel Club had dogs come in in February. And then the circus came in right at the end of the season, and if we made the playoffs, you’d be lucky to play two games at home, and the rest would be on the road.”
Henry Vernon Howell was born Dec. 28, 1932, in Hamilton, where his father was a furrier. He joined the Rangers’ junior team in Guelph at 16, and was called up after three seasons there.
Mr. Howell was the Ranger captain for two seasons in the 1950s and was voted the team’s most popular player for three consecutive seasons in the 1960s.
He developed back problems leading to spinal-fusion surgery before the 1969-70 season. The Rangers offered him a management post, but he wanted to continue playing and was sold to the Oakland Seals.
After leaving the Rangers, Mr. Howell played another four seasons in the NHL, in the Bay Area and with the Los Angeles Kings, then moved to the World Hockey Association in 1973. He was a player-coach for the New York Golden Blades/New Jersey Knights franchise for one season, held the dual role when the team became the San Diego Mariners the following season, then concluded his career playing for the Calgary Cowboys, retiring in 1976 at the age of 43.
He had 94 goals and 324 assists in the NHL, playing in 1,411 games, and seven goals and 36 assists in the WHA, appearing in 170 games.
Mr. Howell was later general manager of the NHL’s Cleveland Barons and briefly head coach of the Minnesota North Stars, and he scouted for the Rangers and the Edmonton Oilers.
Mr. Howell, who had worn No. 3 with the Rangers, and Mr. Bathgate, who donned No. 9, were honoured at the Garden in February, 2009, when their jersey numbers were retired (in Mr. Bathgate’s case for a second time, since Adam Graves’s No. 9 had already been retired). Mr. Bathgate died in 2016.
And Mr. Howell was selected to represent the Rangers when Canada Post issued a series of stamps in October, 2014, honouring a star defenceman from each team in the NHL’s Original Six, predating the league expansion of 1967.
Mr. Howell leaves his daughter, Cheryl. His wife, Marilyn, died several weeks ago. A younger brother, Ron, who played briefly for the Rangers in the mid-1950s, died in 1992.
The Rangers never got beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs when Howell played for them. But he did have his name etched on the Cup, when he scouted for the Oilers team that won the 1990 NHL championship.
“I wish it could have been with the Rangers,” he once remarked, “but a ring is still a ring.”