FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

HOWE TO THE HALL

Mark Howe was making the one-hour drive from his beach house in Beach Haven, N.J., to his home in Jackson, N.J., on Tuesday afternoon when his cell phone rang.

Howe said reception in the area isn’t always good, but the connection lasted long enough for him to hear the news that he wasn’t sure would ever come.

In his lucky 13th year of eligibility, Howe was one of four new members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining father Gordie and former teammates Ron Francis, Dave Keon, and Bobby Hull, as well as Paul Coffey as Hartford Whalers to earn the honor.

“Oh, wow, that’s great,” Howe told Jim Gregory, co-chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee, in an interview shown on the NHL Network. “I’m just back from a fishing trip so this is great.”

Howe later twittered, “I know what this means to my dad, so there’s a tear in my eye.”

When reached at his home, Howe said it was a call he didn’t expect.

“I was supposed to trim the bushes today, but this was a lot better news,” Howe said with a chuckle. “I know a couple of people like Scotty Bowman and Mike Emrick have been supporting me, and I had heard for a few years that I had a chance to get in. But I’m not a presumptuous person. Maybe if I had played on a team that had won a Stanley Cup instead of just come close, I would have been in already.

“I considered myself a borderline (Hall of Fame) guy, and it had been a bit disheartening not to get the call for so many years. But I’m not into knowing when things are happening, so I was just going on with my daily life when I got the call. I was really surprised because it’s not something you expect. You don’t start playing to get in the Hall of the Fame. You play to win the Stanley Cup, but when you get the phone call, it takes your breath away.

“I don’t consider myself in the class of players like Gordie and Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, but to be mentioned in a class like means everything to me, just a tremendous honor.”

Howe was joined in the Class of 2011 by forwards Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk and goalie Ed Belfour, chosen in his first year of eligibility. They received at least 75 percent of the vote from an 18-member Hockey Hall of Fame committee that had to choose from a deep field of candidates. The chosen four will be inducted Nov. 14 at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, where Francis, the Whalers’ first-round pick (fourth overall) in 1981 and fourth all-time leading scorer in NHL history, became a member on Nov. 12, 2007.

Howe, 56, is the younger of the hockey-playing brothers of their legendary father, who was enshrined in 1972, the year before he came out of retirement to play with sons Mark and Marty with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. The Howes joined the WHA’s New England Whalers in 1977 and played together until Gordie retired after the Hartford Whalers’ first NHL season in 1979-80.

One of the first congratulatory calls that Howe received was from Gretzky, arguably hockey’s all-time greatest player whose hero as a youngster was Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe.

“Dad and Wayne have become good friends, so that was really, really nice of him,” Mark said of the call from “The Great One,” who played with Gordie in the 1979 NHL All-Star Game in Detroit, where “Mr. Hockey” starred for 25 years.

Gordie, Mark and Marty were at the XL Center on March 26 for “Howe Family Night” when the Connecticut Whale raised a banner to the rafters recognizing them and their late wife/mother Colleen as the “Family of Hockey.” Gordie’s No. 9 is one of six Whalers players to have their numbers retired alongside the No. 12 of Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale player, assistant coach and now coach Ken Gernander. Mark made one of his four All-Star appearances as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers at the then Hartford Civic Center in 1986.

“The Howes put this city and this franchise on the map,” former Whalers owner and managing general partner Howard Baldwin, now president and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, said before the special evening for hockey’s No. 1 family. “I’m not saying they’re the only reason the Civic Center got rebuilt, but who knows what would have happened if they weren’t here?

“I remember doing something in Des Moines, Iowa, and telling all the people, ‘Remember this day because you’re part of a city that’s honoring the Babe Ruth of hockey and the first family of hockey.’ How many people wouldn’t remember if they were at Fenway Park and saw Ted Williams hit his last home run?”

Mark, 56, was a three-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman and appeared in the Stanley Cup finals three times with the Flyers. He had 1,246 points in 22 seasons in the WHA and NHL, where he was a six-time All-Star. He also helped Team USA win a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, when he was only 16.

A member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, Howe had 123 goals and 273 assists in 366 games with the Whalers and was involved in one of the more memorable and worst injuries in NHL history on Dec. 27, 1980. Late in the third period, he slid into the pointed metal center of the net and cut a five-inch gash in his upper thigh and buttock, narrowly missing the base of his spine and ending his career. He was essentially impaled by the metal and taken off on a stretch and to the hospital.

The injury prompted the NHL to change the design of its nets so there would no longer be a center portion that jutted up toward the goal line. He lost 35 pounds and his stamina suffered after requiring liquid diet to avoid intestinal infections. Howe became damaged goods in the eyes of Whalers management, so they traded him to the Flyers as part of a three-team, four-player deal on Aug. 20, 1982, one of several days that live in infamy in Whalers history.

Howe’s career then really took off. The backbone of one of the NHL’s best defensive teams of the mid-1980s, Mark was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 1982-83, 1985-86 and 1986-87 and helped lead the Flyers to the 1985 Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Oilers of Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr.

Howe had his best season in 1985-86 when he posted some of the best numbers ever by an NHL defenseman. He had 24 goals and 58 assists and was an unfathomable plus-85. He also had seven shorthanded goals while being the lifeline out of the Flyers defensive zone with his outstanding skating and passing ability. Unfortunately for Howe, Coffey had one of the best seasons by a defenseman, breaking Orr’s single-season records for goals while getting 138 points. For the second time, Howe finished second in Norris Trophy voting.

The following season, the Flyers led the Prince of Wales Conference in points for a third consecutive season but had numerous injuries when they again reached the Stanley Cup finals and again lost to Gretzky & Co., this time 3-1 in Game 7.

Knee and back injuries helped turn Howe into a part-time player for most of the rest of his career, and after the 1991-92 season, the Flyers granted Howe free agency so he could try to win the elusive Stanley Cup. He signed with the Red Wings and helped them become constant Stanley Cup contenders for three years while a steadying influence on Detroit’s young defensive corps, mostly notably future captain Nicklas Lidstrom. Howe would have one more appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, but the Red Wings were swept in 1995 by the New Jersey Devils.

Howe retired after the finals and became a scout with the Red Wings, finally earning a Stanley Cup ring in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. When he retired, he was the last active member of Canada’s 1974 Summit Series team in the NHL. He was elected to the Flyers Hall of Fame in 2001 and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. He’s now the Red Wings’ director of pro scouting, and his son, Travis, works in hockey scouting and coaching.

Howe had 197 goals and 545 assists in 929 games in a 16-year NHL career. Mark was a three-time first-team All-Star and played in four All-Star Games. He also played six seasons in the WHA, mostly as a forward, helping lead the Aeros to the AVCO Cup in 1974 and ’75.

“I was elated to have this dream come true given that it is a tremendous honor just to have my name mentioned with the upper echelon of hockey,” Howe said. “To actually have my name in the Hall of Fame with my Dad means so much to my family.”

But it often seemed as if it would never happen. Despite all his credentials, Howe wasn’t named to the Hall of Fame after being eligible since 1998. Some thought his chances were hurt by the fact he played both forward and defense.

“You get a backlog of very, very worthy players, and I guess it was just Mark’s time,” Pat Quinn, co-chairman of the selection committee, said on NHL Network when asked why Howe was finally named.

“I’ve always thought Mark was a terrific player and should have been in before this, so I’m thrilled that that oversight has been corrected,” NHL.com’s E.J. Hradek said on the NHL Network. “I’ve got to know him pretty well, so I’m especially happy for him.”

“I’ve lobbied for Mark Howe for years, and I’m tickled for him,” longtime hockey writer and former selection committee member Stan Fischler said on NHL Network. “I think it took this long because Mark stayed in his father’s shadow, and I don’t know how some people looked at the WHA. But the Howes were trailblazers, and Mark belongs just as Brian Leetch and Brad Park belong for the kind of players they were.”

Leetch, a Cheshire native who starred at Cheshire High and Avon Old Farms, and Park excelled for the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins.

Belfour is third all-time in career wins with 484 and won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, posting a 1.67 goals-against average in the playoffs. He played for Chicago, San Jose, Dallas, Toronto and Florida over his career, which included 963 appearances and 76 shutouts.

Belfour won the Vezina Trophy twice, the William M. Jennings Trophy four times, the Calder Trophy with Chicago and the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999. Five of the six goalies right behind him on the wins list are already in the Hall of Fame.

“It is hard to put into words what this means to me,” Belfour said. “I would like to thank all of my teammate and people along the way who helped me achieve my hockey dreams.”

Gilmour, who has been eligible for induction since 2009, won the Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989 and the Selke Trophy with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1993, when he was also a runner-up for the Hart Trophy. He finished the 1992-93 season with 127 points and finished his career with 1,414 points in 1,474 games in 20 seasons. He is also part of an exclusive group of players who averaged more points per game in the playoffs (1.15, 188 points in 182 games) than regular season (.96) and is seventh all-time in postseason scoring. As a natural leader, he captained the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks.

“This is an overwhelming honor and one that makes me reflect back on the teammates and coaches I have had over years,” Gilmour said. “Larry Mavety, who gave me a chance in Tier II hockey and Gord Wood who drafted me into Junior at Cornwall are two people who were instrumental in helping me establish myself as a player.”

Nieuwendyk, who was in his second year of eligibility, won the Stanley Cup three times with three different teams in three different decades. He won his first with Gilmour in 1989, his second with Belfour in 1999 and again with New Jersey in 2003.

Nieuwendyk, who is general manager of the Dallas Stars, was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner when he helped the Stars win the Cup in 1999. He finished his career with 564 goals and 562 assists in 1,257 games. He also won the Calder Trophy in 1988 and an Olympic gold with Canada in 2002.

“Every player does their best year after year and strives to play at a very high level,” Nieuwendyk said. “I truly love the game and love to compete, and I’m pleased to be honored by the Hockey Hall of Fame.”

FORMER WOLF PACK DEFENSEMAN NAMED SOUND TIGERS COACH

The New York Islanders named former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson the coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Tuesday.

Thompson was coach of the ECHL’s Alaska Aces the past two seasons, leading them to a league-best 47-22-0-3 record and their second Kelly Cup championship last season. Thompson also won the John Brophy Award as ECHL Coach of the Year.

“Brent’s background as a player and his recent success as the head coach of the Alaska Aces makes him the perfect fit to show our young prospects what it takes to play at the NHL level,” Islanders general manager Garth Snow said in a release announcing Thompson’s appointment.

“I’m extremely excited for the opportunity to serve as the head coach of the Sound Tigers,” Thompson said. “I look forward to working with Garth Snow, (Islanders and former Sound Tigers coach) Jack Capuano and the entire hockey operations staff in developing the organization’s prospects into everyday NHL players.”

Before his two seasons in Alaska, where he had an 83-50-11 record, Thompson was an assistant coach with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen from 2005-09. He began coaching after a 15-year playing career that included two seasons with the Wolf Pack (1997-99) in which the 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenseman had seven goals, 30 assists and 573 penalty minutes in 153 games. He won the 1999 Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, presented annually to the AHL Man of the Year for service to his local community. The award winner is chosen by the league president and named after former Hershey Bears player Yanick Dupre, who died of leukemia at 24.

A second-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 1989, Thompson played in more than 900 professional games, including 121 in the NHL with the Kings, Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes before he retired after the 2004-05 season with the Providence Bruins.

PIRATES NOW AFFILIATED WITH COYOTES

With the Buffalo Sabres buying the Rochester Americans and reuniting with their former longtime AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates were in need of a new affiliation.

No more. The Pirates reached a multi-year affiliation agreement with the Coyotes starting this season, and named Ray Edwards the franchise’s seventh coach.

“We are looking forward, with a great deal of excitement and optimism, to our new affiliation with the Phoenix Coyotes,” Pirates managing owner/CEO Brian Petrovek said at a press conference at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. “When (Coyotes general manager) Don Maloney, (Coyotes assistant GM) Brad Treliving and I began our discussions about a relationship months ago, it was clear to me from the start that our objectives and philosophies matched and that the Coyotes would deliver to our fans an entertaining, consistent and competitive team with players and coaches of strong character and work ethic in a winning environment. Furthermore, their genuine desire to be in Portland for the long term far exceeded any other team we considered, which I know our fans will appreciate from this day forward.”

Before joining the Pirates, the Coyotes were affiliated with the San Antonio Rampage and have been operating under the direction of Maloney and Treliving, who will be Pirates GM, for the past four seasons. In that span, the Rampage had a 154-131-14-21 record (.536 winning percentage). Their most successful season as a Coyotes affiliate was in 2007-08 when they posted a franchise-record 42 wins.

“We are very pleased to announce our new AHL affiliation with the Portland Pirates,” said Maloney, the former Rangers assistant GM/Wolf Pack GM who played with the Rangers and Whalers. “Brian Petrovek and the Pirates are a well-run, first-class organization with a great history of success and we are looking forward to a strong and long-lasting partnership.”

Said Treliving: “We are very excited about our new partnership with Brian Petrovek and the Pirates. We look forward to providing fans with a talented, hard-working and competitive team that will play an exciting brand of hockey.”

Edwards, a native of Wasaga Beach, Ontario, has a 70-63-9 record in two seasons with the Rampage. He joined San Antonio as an assistant before the 2007-08 season, helping the Rampage to a .525 winning percentage in three-plus seasons. Edwards was named coach of the Rampage early in the 2009-10 season.

“I am very excited about the opportunity to coach the Pirates,” Edwards said. “Portland is a great hockey city with passionate fans. We will work tirelessly to ice a team that Pirates fans will be proud of and enjoy watching for years to come.”

Pho becomes the fourth NHL affiliate in Pirates history. The Pirates were affiliated with the Sabres the past three seasons (2008-2011) and had a 131-79-17-13 record. In 2005-2008, Portland was affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks, compiling a .563 regular-season winning percentage and reaching two Eastern Conference finals, losing in Game 7 in the 2005-06 and 2007-08 seasons. The first 12 seasons of Pirates hockey were played under an affiliation with the Washington Capitals.

ADMIRALS HIRE MULLER

The Milwaukee Admirals have hired Kirk Muller as the 18th coach in franchise history. Muller succeeds Lane Lambert, who was promoted by the parent Nashville Predators as an assistant to Barry Trotz after serving four seasons as the Admirals bench boss.

The 45-year-old Muller spent the past five seasons as an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens, helping guide them to the playoffs four times, including in 2009 when they reached the Eastern Conference finals as the eighth seed.

Known as an excellent communicator, motivator and outstanding strategist, Muller is credited with transforming a Canadiens penalty-killing unit that has finished in the top half of the NHL each season since his arrival. During the 2011 playoffs, the Canadiens did not give up a power-play goal, going 21-for-21 in their first-round series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

“Kirk Muller was everything we were looking for in our development coach,” David Poile, Predators president of hockey operations/general manager, said in a statement. “With his playing pedigree, experience as a captain and Stanley Cup winner, and his solid communication skills, we feel our young players and prospects are in great hands.”

Before the Canadiens, Muller was coach of the Queen’s University Golden Gaels in Kinston, Ont., for one season and he also served as an assistant coach for Team Canada in the 2005 Lotto Cup and the 2006 Under-18 World Championship.

The Kingston, Ont., native finished a standout 19-year playing career with the Dallas Stars in 2003 after being a six-time All-Star. Drafted second overall by the New Jersey Devils in 1984, he finished with 357 goals and 602 assists in 1,349 regular-season games and 33 goals and 36 assists in 127 playoff games with the Devils, Canadiens, Stars, Islanders, Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers and played for Team Canada in the 1984 Olympics. He scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for the Canadiens in 1993 when they beat Los Angeles, and he made it back to the finals in 2000 as a member of the Stars.

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