The New York Rangers were a team in a state of flux in 1952-53. Having last made the playoffs in 1949-50, the team was in the midst of five straight seasons missing post-season play. Rangers' GM Frank Boucher employed fourteen rookies during that season. Three, Andy Bathgate, Gump Worsley and Harry Howell, stuck, and went on to Hall of Fame careers, but names like Kelly Burnett, Gord Haworth, Aggie Kukulowicz, Mike Labadie, Ian MacIntosh, George Senick and Andy's brother Frank, are now but curiosities from hockey's distant past.
At that time, it was extremely rare for a player to make the leap from junior straight into the National Hockey League. Perhaps because of the Rangers' futility at that time, it gave a promising prospect like Harry Howell such an opportunity. Had he played for a team much deeper in talent, like the dynasty squads in Detroit, Montreal or Toronto, that big league shot may never have arrived so early.
"Making it so young was a great thing," admits Harry Howell, the Hamilton, Ontario-born rearguard. "I was just nineteen years old and getting into the NHL at that time wasn't something most teenagers ever did. Being able to stay, that was the best thing."
Howell saw the best of times and the worst of times in New York. Through his first fifteen years on Broadway, taking him to the last year of the Original Six Era, the Rangers participated in the playoffs just five times, and through his entire career with the Rangers, never won the Stanley Cup. But the bad times were spiked by very good times. An astonishing second place finish in 1957-58 offered great, but unrequited, promise. Then, in both a professional and personal triumph, the Rangers made the playoffs in 1966-67.
"We had 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion," explains Howell. "He came to us from the Montreal Canadiens as a powerplay specialist. I played on the powerplay with him. He was a great help to me. I used to set up the powerplay guy on the right point, whether it was Andy Bathgate or later, Geoffrion. With 'Boom Boom', I'd pass him the puck on the right point, he'd pass it back to me, I'd pass it to him. finally, he said, 'Will you please shoot the puck?!' So I started to shoot the puck and a few of them went in. 'Boomer' had a lot to do with that. He was a great guy."
Harry enjoyed his finest offensive season in 1966-67, scoring 12 goals and contributing 28 assists. He was voted to the First All-Star Team and was selected as the recipient of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman.
On January 25, 1967, the New York Rangers held a special night for their star defenceman, a tribute local sportswriters cheekily tagged 'A Night to Howell.' The celebration came two nights after Harry became the first Ranger to play 1,000 games with the team, and occurred in the midst of his most productive season. "It was the first and only night they had ever had for a New York Ranger hockey player at that time," Harry states proudly. "That was thrilling. They had a couple of planeloads of people come down from Hamilton to be there. All the relatives were there." Regrettably, a fifty-person delegation of friends missed the ceremony as New York's Kennedy Airport was fogged in.
Howell and his family received a tremendous number of gifts, including a special medal from New York's mayor, John Lindsay and three vacations. "It took them about an hour and half to read all the gifts that I got," laughs Howell. "Then, it was capped off by a new car they drove out onto the ice. Out jumps Louie Fontinato, Red Sullivan and Camille Henry. That was a real thrill. We had a great party when it was all over."
It took Howell and his family six trips in a station wagon to get all the booty home once the game ended in a 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins.
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Editor of Publications and On-Line Features.