One of the long-standing icons of the Detroit Red Wings and the NHL is Hall of Famer Gordie Howe.
Three years after his arrival, Gordie began to show the prowess that would make him the most recognized athlete in Detroit for nearly 60 years.
Howe’s performance, along with Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuk, and several other Hall of Famers built Detroit into a league powerhouse in the six-team NHL and beyond.
So prominent was the presence of No. 9 that his influence spanned six decades, and if not for a pivotal decision by his former Production Line partner, Ted Lindsay, things in Detroit could have been entirely different today.
Lindsay, maybe the second most popular Red Wing ever, made the decision in 1977 not to pursue bringing the Howe family, including Mark Howe, back to the Motor City from the WHA Houston Aeros.
The Red Wings would have had to give up their No. 1 overall draft choice, which turned out to be Dale McCourt, to acquire the rights to Mark Howe from the Boston Bruins, and also agree to allow Gordie and Mark’s brother, Marty, spots on the team.
All three played together for the Houston Aeros and the family unit wanted to remain together even if they elected to take their talents to the NHL.
Lindsay was said to veto the deal because he did not believe Gordie could compete in the NHL at his age and did not want to deal with Colleen Howe, Gordie's wife and family business manager.
Lindsay did get a chance to see Gordie Howe score a goal against the Red Wings in a Hartford Whaler uniform a few years later. That same year, Gordie Howe tallied 15 goals, which turned out to be more than several players on the Red Wings roster.
Mark’s value to the NHL had grown thanks to standout performances in each of his seasons with the WHA.
Mark performed for the Detroit Junior Red Wings at the age of 15 leading them to the the 1970-71 SOJHL championship.
Mark earned league MVP honors while scoring 37 goals and 107 points in 44 games. After nine games for the Junior Red Wings (in which he tallied 14 points), Howe earned a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. He played in six games at the Sapporo Games, helping the Americans win the silver medal.
Drafted by the London Knights of the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League, the left winger opted to play for the U.S. national team program. He eventually joined his older brother, Marty, on the Toronto Marlboros, and won the Stafford Smythe Award as the MVP in the Memorial Cup.
Ted Lindsay was very aware of young Mark, who won the Kaplan Trophy as the WHA Rookie of the Year, was a leading scorer in their version of the Stanley Cup playoffs (Avco Trophy), played well in the 1974 Team Canada series, and was even versatile enough to play defense due to team injuries.
Other GMs, including Harry Sinden of the Boston Bruins and Keith Allen of the Philadelphia Flyers also saw what was obvious—Mark, although different than Gordie, was a chip off the old block .
There was not much doubt that at 5'11" and 190 pounds, Mark would be a star performer in the NHL at 24 years old with six years of professional hockey experience under his belt and undeniable pedigree.
It is worth mentioning that the relationship between Lindsay and Gordie became somewhat strained over the years due to differences in addressing Wings GM Jack Adams's negotiation tactics. Many, including Lindsay, felt that Howe, wearing the mantle of the game’s best player, could have been more vocal about playing conditions and pay disparities during the early days.
Lindsay was sentenced to purgatory by Adams for his efforts in starting a players’ union by being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, then cellar dwellers.
"Terrible" Ted, at 39 years old, returned to the Wings for one season in 1961 after Adams was fired and replaced by Sid Abel. With his return, the team surged to first place in the standings.
Lindsay was asked to again return to the Wings as the GM in 1977 by Bruce Norris to pump life back into the once-proud franchise.
With the slogan "Aggressive Hockey is Back in Town," Lindsay steadily improved the team through draft choices and astute trades.
In hindsight, if Lindsay did engineer a deal that landed all three of the Howes in Detroit uniforms, there is a chance that the team would have improved their position in the standings, and ultimately dimmed their hopes of landing the draft choice that produced center Steve Yzerman in 1983.
While McCourt had a very good rookie year, leading the team in scoring and consistently producing, the Wings, although vastly improved, still had trouble making the playoffs. McCourt was traded to Buffalo in a multi-player deal several years later.
After seeing the Wings criticized for drafting Fred Williams in 1976, who turned out to be one of the worst picks in history, and leaving Bernie Federko on the table, Lindsay’s selections of McCourt, Willie Huber, Mike Foligno, and Mike Blaisdell won him generally good reviews by critics. Lindsay even won NHL Executive of the Year for his efforts.
Some agree that if Lindsay had traded his first-round choice of 1977 to Boston and landed Mark Howe and family, the Red Wings would have done better in the standings over the long run.
The ever-popular Gordie would have filled seats and excited crowds even with limited playing time, while providing leadership and a sense of history. Marty would have provided the toughness and solid positional play needed on the Detroit blueline, and Mark would have provided the scoring, playmaking, and the all-around play that the Wings sorely needed.
If the Wings had improved their performance by 10 wins over the next three seasons, Yzerman might have never been available, which could have changed the team's history.
In addition, if the team’s performance with the Howes had generated more revenue by filling seats and selling concessions, while generating more excitement, Bruce Norris may have reconsidered selling the team to Mike Ilitch.
Mark Howe went on to play fro the Philadelphia Flyers. He came in second in Norris Trophy voting 3 times, was a perennial allstar and his considerable skills provided the Flyers the best defenseman in the history of the franchise. Howe score 1246 combined points in WHA and NHL.
The Red Wings history may have been entirely different over the next two decades. Mark Howe’s place in history may have included induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but maybe not as a defenseman, and many die-hard Wings fans might have missed quite a few Stanley Cup parades.
We will never know, will we? Hindsight isn't always 20/20.
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