Harry Howell, star defenseman of the New York Rangers, dies at 86

NEW YORK — Harry Howell, the Hall of Fame defenseman 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 Ontario. He was 86.

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 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, still a team record.


The Rangers were often lackluster 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.

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Mr. Howell won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s leading defenseman in the 1966-67 season and he was a seven-time All-Star.

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” defenseman, 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,” Mr. 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, Ontario, where his father was a furrier. He joined the Rangers’ junior team at Guelph, Ontario, 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 43.

He had 94 goals and 324 assists in the NHL, playing in 1,411 games.

The Rangers never got beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs when Mr. Howell played for them. But he did have his name etched on the Cup, when he scouted for the Edmonton Oilers team that won the 1990 NHL championship over the Boston Bruins.

“I wish it could have been with the Rangers,” he remarked, “but a ring is still a ring.”