In typical Mark Howe fashion, his recent retirement announcement was almost an afterthought and done as quietly and under the radar as the way the 66-year-old former defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings conducted himself during a 48-year career in professional hockey.
This past summer, Howe walked into Steve Yzerman’s office and told the Red Wings’ general manager that he was stepping down as the team’s director of pro scouting after 16 seasons.
“I think Stevie was set back a little bit when I told him,” Howe said. “Then I brought up the same thing to him that I used to ask my dad about retirement. I said, ‘Steve, you were a player. Why did you retire?’ And, in his words to me, he said, ‘I get it.'”
Howe’s last day on the job was June 30, 2021. And with that, the son of Red Wings legend Gordie Howe ended his own Hockey Hall of Fame career without much fanfare or even a press release. Just a handshake and recognition of a job well done.
“I can remember asking dad, ‘How do you know when it’s time to retire?'” Howe said. “His answer would always be, ‘Well, you’ll know.’ I would say, ‘Dad, that’s a stupid answer and you’re not helping me one iota.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll know.’
“In 1995, I was headed home from a game that we won convincingly. I did my job as a fifth or sixth defenseman. I played my 16 minutes but then I said, ‘Wow.’ It just hit me. I said I know it’s time to give this game up. I just didn’t have the same feeling anymore. So I called dad and said, ‘Well, thanks. I get it. Thanks for the advice.'”
Howe said the same thing happened to him during the pandemic with a stretch of scouting 28 games in April this year.
“As a scout, I put every bit as much effort into that as I did to playing,” Howe said. “In the summer months, I would work on my conditioning just so I could be strong to scout 150 to 155 games every single year. I just felt I couldn’t make that commitment anymore.
“I also want to be by the side of my longtime girlfriend, Sharon. She’s been struggling with dementia and has needed some help but that’s not the reason I retired. The reason I retired was, just as I was when I was a player, it was just too much for me.
“I’m not going to cheat myself and I’m certainly not going to cheat Steve Yzerman or the Ilitch family or the Red Wings family after what they’ve done for me. I made a move to Detroit in 1992 and without a doubt it was the best decision I ever fell into in my life.”
In 1992, Howe was an unrestricted free agent after 10 seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, including three seasons as a Norris Trophy runner-up and twice losing in the finals to Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers.
The Detroit native was thinking about joining Mario Lemieux and the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins but GM Craig Patrick didn’t think they could afford Howe. That’s when GM Jimmy Devellano came calling with an offer to return home with the emerging Red Wings.
“I said to Mike (Ilitch), ‘We should really make a pitch for Mark (Howe),'” said Devellano, now the team’s senior vice-president. “We didn’t have to give up a player or a draft pick to make our team better. I knew he was aging but I felt he certainly had some gas left in the tank.
“We also felt kind of bad about how the Howes left Detroit before us being there. Mark could finish his career here and promise him some kind of job in the front office when he was done. It was a feel-good story and we knew Gordie and Colleen would be really pleased too.”
After three seasons with the Red Wings, including a sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 Stanley Cup final, Howe retired at age 40 after recording 1,246 points in 1,355 games in Philadelphia, Detroit and Houston/New England/Hartford in the World Hockey Association.
Just as Red Wings prospects have traditionally developed with extra time in the minors, Howe joined the team’s pro scouting department and “learned the ropes” under former assistant coach Dan Belisle, who held the top position until his retirement in 2005.
Affectionately called an “old-school character” by Devellano, Belisle played four games with the New York Rangers in 1961 and spent 15 years in the minors, coached the Washington Capitals for two years and scouted for 17 years with the Red Wings.
“What I appreciated the most about Danny was his great instincts on a player,” Howe said. “As far as knowing the ins and outs of a player, knowing the person, the intangibles, he was excellent. He had a great read and feel for so many players we acquired.
“I knew some X’s and O’s and I worked my way up. It was hard work with only two guys handling 60 teams in the NHL and the AHL. I strongly believe that if you have passion and take pride in your work, that’s the driving force behind being a good scout.”
Howe, who won a Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros in 1973 and a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, never won a Stanley Cup as a player but his name is on the Cup four times as a scout (1997, 1998, 2002, 2008), the same number of times as his father during Detroit’s earlier dynasty (1950, 1952, 1954, 1955).
Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011, Howe ended his induction speech by donning his dad’s No. 9 jersey.
“My dad never asked me for much in his lifetime, if ever,” Howe said. “For him to say the words to me, ‘I wish you had worn my jersey once,’ is monumental to come out of his mouth so it was the best way I could show my father how much I loved him.”
As the son of one of the most famous hockey players to ever play the game, he says he’s still reminded by fans and former players about his dad’s “complete Jekyll-and -Hyde personality” on and off the ice.
“When I was a young kid growing up in Lathrup Village, we would be heading down to the old Olympia and a couple of times dad would say keep an eye on this player on the other team tonight,” Howe said.
“Normally he would say watch Nick Libett or watch Bobby Hull because I was a left winger. Watch how these guys play, try to learn from them. But he would tell me to keep an eye on a couple of guys.
“Inevitably, those guys would wind up in a corner and they would be in a pool of blood and I would say, ‘Wow.’ But that’s how he was on the ice. Off the ice, I’ve never met a more caring human being in my lifetime.”
Howe said he’s enjoying retirement and taking advantage of “quality time” with his three siblings (Marty, Murray, Cathy), his three children (Travis, Azia, Nolan) and his seven grandchildren (Ella Colleen, Lahna, Ainsley, Emersyn Gordee, Harley, Brody and Berkley).
“I’m just taking life day by day and savoring the moments and I’m very thankful for the past 48 years,” Howe said.
He was given a “generous and unexpected” severance package by the Red Wings and Devellano said he has a “standing offer” to help out the team in any way which fits his schedule in the future.
“What I respect the most is when I was going through a difficult situation when my mom passed and my dad passed, they were there for me,” Howe said. “When my dad passed, we wanted to share that with the hockey world and that never would’ve happened without the Ilitch family. Had I gone someplace else, I doubt that would’ve happened.”