TORONTO — Mark Howe didn’t have to live up to the lofty standard set by his father Gordie in order to earn a spot alongside him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The younger Howe played much of his career in the shadow of his famous father but found out Tuesday that it was worthy of hockey’s highest honour. He’ll be enshrined in the Hall alongside Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Doug Gilmour on Nov. 14.
“To get the phone call today kind of took my breath away,” said Howe.
“I never expected that call. I don’t consider myself in the class of players as the Gordie Howes and the Wayne Gretzkys and the Bobby Orrs but to be mentioned in a class (like this one) means the world to me. …
“It does mean everything to me, just a tremendous honour.”
Howe was just 18 when he began his pro career as a forward for Houston in the World Hockey Association. It was a chance for the most famous family in hockey — at the time — to all wear the same sweater.
Not everyone approved of Mark Howe’s decision to forego the NHL.
“At the time the WHA came along (in 1973), I had an opportunity to go and play with the Houston Aeros along with my dad and my brother (Marty),” he said. “We won two championships down in Houston. At the time, a lot of people kind of criticized that but I would never change that.”
Howe eventually moved on to the NHL when the Hartford Whalers were absorbed in 1979. Playing as a defenceman, he scored at least 15 goals on eight occasions and amassed 742 points over 16 NHL seasons.
The final three years were spent in Detroit, the city where his father carved out his legacy.
“The only thing I guess I could regret is after I retired my dad said to me one day, he said, ’Why didn’t you take my No. 9 out of the rafters and wear it for one game?”’ recalled Howe.
“Had he asked (earlier), I would have done it.”
The call from the Hall was a long time coming for Howe, who had been eligible since 1998. Gilmour had been passed over every year since 2006 while Nieuwendyk missed out last June.
Belfour is the lone 2011 inductee to get in on the first ballot.
“I didn’t expect it in any way,” said Belfour, the third-winningest goalie in NHL history. “I feel like it’s a real surprise. Obviously, a real honour. It’s even more of an honour to be picked right away.
“I was just flabbergasted when I heard about it.”
The 18-member selection committee decided not to elect someone in the builder’s category for the first time since 1981. That means it will be at least another year before former coach Pat Burns is officially enshrined.
Last June, there was a strong push for the three-time Jack Adams Award winner, who went on to die of cancer in November at age 58.
The Hall has taken a lot of heat for keeping Burns out, but it refuses to disclose if he was even part of the conversation behind closed doors. A candidate needs 75 per cent support from the committee and voting totals are kept secret.
“This really is our confidentiality,” said selection committee chairman Bill Hay. “We are not at liberty to discuss the process or who was or who was not involved.”
For their parts, Gilmour and Nieuwendyk said they believed Burns deserved to be recognized by the Hall. They each played for him during their career.
In fact, Nieuwendyk has a tie to the entire class, having won a Stanley Cup with Gilmour in Calgary (1989) and Belfour in Dallas (1999).
“It’s a special class for me because I’m good friends with Eddie and Dougie,” said Nieuwendyk, who also won the Stanley Cup with Burns in New Jersey in 2003. “They were great teammates and are very much deserving. I didn’t play with Mark, but Mark’s hockey card was hard to collect when we were kids.
“So it’s special to go through with him as well.”
Gordie Howe was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 — a year before he went south to play with Mark and Marty in Houston and a full eight years before he played his final NHL game at the age of 52.
The man known as “Mr. Hockey” left a legacy in the sport that has only been matched by a handful of players. It will be quite a moment when he has a chance to see his son walk on stage in November and officially take a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“The only thing that’s a little different for me is having my father being Gordie Howe,” said Mark Howe. “I just know what a tremendous day this is for my dad as well. It makes me very emotional and brings a tear to my eye.
“I’m very grateful.”