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He's helmetless as he whirls around the Spectrum ice with his Philadelphia teammates in the 20-minute pre-game all-skate preceding the Flyers' first meeting of the season with the Boston Bruins. Head high, face unsmiling, the speed of his movement blowing his short, razor-cut blond hair back along his temples, the flushed cheeks showing the first signs of jowls, the nose sort of Bob Hopeish, the facial similarities are inescapable: Mark Howe, 27, looks not a little like his father, Gordie, the most complete and enduring hockey player of all time.
But comparisons with his father aren't on Mark's mind this night. He and his brother Marty, 28, who plays defense for the Bruins, are about to oppose each other for the first time as pros. As the television feed to Boston shows the predictable split-screen, stop-action shot of the brothers, WSBK analyst and former Bruin John Peirson offers the widely held appraisal of Mark. Peirson describes him as a player with "a ton of talent but who has never reached the pinnacle some people thought he would."
That assessment would seem to give short shrift to a player who has been voted an All-Star at two different positions in two different leagues and who, despite an injury that nearly ended his career, has averaged 66 points and 49 assists in three NHL seasons. As a measure of Howe's overall efficiency, he had, as of Sunday, the best plus-minus rating on the Flyers, a +23. He also ranked sixth among the league's defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 22 assists.
But when Mark's considerable accomplishments are stacked up alongside his father's unparalleled achievements—1,071 goals and 2,599 points in 2,421 games over a 32-year career in the NHL and the WHA—Mark's attainments pale by comparison. Consequently, as the more talented of Gordie Howe's two hockey-playing sons (the youngest Howe offspring, 22-year-old Murray, is a student at the University of Michigan Medical School), Mark has long been viewed primarily as a good man for keeping his father's name alive.
"All the boys felt the pressure," says their mother, Colleen, "but I think Mark, because his talent was obvious at such an early age, felt it most deeply. Mark always believed that if he succeeded in hockey, people would say it was because he was Gordie's son, but that if he failed, the failure would be his own."
For his part, Mark says he has come to grips with the father-son problem. "When I was growing up in Detroit, Gordie Howe's name was, like, next to God's," he says. "Anytime I was interviewed or introduced I was always 'Gordie's son.' I suppose my brothers and I got used to it. But no matter what I accomplish in hockey, people will still know me as Gordie Howe's son. I guess there are worse things to be known as."
In the second period of the Boston game, with the score 2-2 and Philadelphia on a power play, Mark retreated deep into the Flyer zone to chase a puck the Bruins had cleared. The standard move for a defenseman in that situation is to make an outlet pass to the near-side wing or to take the puck behind the net and hold it for the center. Howe did neither. Taking the puck, he accelerated up-ice and streaked by both Boston fore-checkers as he bore down on Defenseman Mike Milbury. Howe faked Milbury into leaning right, cut back the other way and then raced down the slot and slid the puck under sprawling Boston Goaltender Pete Peeters.
Such spectacular performances have always been expected of Gordie's son. After all, he was skating at age four, practicing in the Detroit Olympia after Red Wings workouts at age six, joining his father and the other Wings in preseason training camp at 13. At 16, Howe was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the silver medal at the 1972 Games. The next year he led the Toronto Marlboros to the Canadian Junior A Championship. In the spring of 1973, Houston selected the 18-year-old Howe in the first round of the WHA draft. When the Aeros also picked Marty in the seventh round, Gordie ended his two-year retirement to fulfill a dream of playing pro hockey with his sons.
Though Mark had 38 goals and 41 assists in 1973-74, was an All-Star at left wing and was named Rookie of the Year, his achievements were all but eclipsed by Gordie's 100-point season and MVP trophy. And the Gordian shadow extended beyond the ice. "We used to have to do an interview about every day in Houston," says Mark. "It was always the same—they'd ask Marty one question, ask me one and talk to Dad for a half-hour. After a while I stopped going."
Before the 1977-78 season, the Howes moved to the New England (now the Hartford) Whalers. After getting 91 points that season, Mark had 107 in 1978-79 and made the WHA All-Star team for the third time. In 1979-80 Whaler Coach Don Blackburn switched him to defense, and Mark responded with 80 points but unspectacular defense. That season was the Whalers' first in the NHL and Gordie's last (we think) as a player, so Mark seemed ready to come into his own. Indeed, he got off to a superb start in 1980-81, getting 43 points in his first 36 games and leading Prince of Wales Conference defensemen in balloting for the midseason All-Star game.