With the men’s ice hockey portion of the Beijing Winter Olympics about to commence this week, the elite professionals of the National Hockey League are nowhere to be found.
Due to the scheduling havoc created by the pandemic, the NHL bowed out of the Games for a second go-round, meaning a team like USA will be comprised mostly of college kids, minor league players and a handful of competitors pursuing careers in European pro leagues.
No one has to remind USA hockey fans of the potential glory that could create. Everybody loves an underdog, especially a successful one.
Just walk down the streets of Lake Placid, N.Y. these days and peek through storefront windows at all the memorabilia on sale from the greatest American sports story of the 20th century – the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.’’
Perhaps a precursor to that fabulous accomplishment took place eight years earlier at the 1972 Sapporo, Japan Winter Olympiad.
There, another rowdy bunch of Yankee Doodle amateurs skated their way to a surprising silver medal. It was nearly as stunning as USA’s gold medal performance in 1960 at Squaw Valley, California.
There was nothing really unusual about that 1972 red, white and blue outfit which skated in the Far East, if you don’t count a 16-year-old player on the roster.
Sixteen? One-six? Yep, a kid by the name of Mark Howe. Still figuring out high school geometry and how to use a safety razor.
And, oh yeah, the son of some player by the name of Gordie Howe.
It was exactly 50 years ago the younger Howe took time off from his amateur hockey career and his high school classes to venture into the unknown.
When the tournament concluded, Howe had become the youngest hockey player in history to win a medal – a record which remains in place to this day.
Howe would go on to enjoy a spectacular NHL career – most of it with the Flyers — which would eventually earn him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Sapporo still brings back fond memories. It all started with a quirk of fate.
“It was a whirlwind,’’ recalled Howe, who recently retired from his long-time position as director of scouting for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. “I was lucky to get there. The only reason I did was because I had a knee injury in the playoffs. I had surgery and was recovering or I probably would have been playing with the Toronto Marlies (AHL), getting 10 dollars a week, which would have made me a pro and disqualified me from the Olympics.’’
Most of Howe’s teammates were five to seven years older but the Detroit native was determined not to be intimidated by them or more battle-tested opponents.
Known mostly for his play as a defenseman in the NHL, Howe was actually a fourth-line forward for the Americans at Sapporo. Not even close to being old enough to have a beer yet, Howe tried to fit in the best he could.
“We landed in Tokyo, spent four or five days there, played a couple exhibition games,’’ Howe said. “I got to go around the city. I’m 16 years old and I’m walking the streets of Tokyo! It was such a great experience.’’
TV coverage was quite limited in those days so this was Howe’s first real look at international hockey. . .and now he was playing in it.
“It was neat for me,’’ he said. “It was an eye-opening adventure. I had never traveled abroad before. The people in Japan were so friendly. Everybody from those days has a story.’’
These days Howe continues to maintain his residence in Jackson, N.J., leaving him a convenient distance from his favorite hangout, the Atlantic Ocean.
It also keeps him close to Philadelphia and the Flyers. He’s quite active with the Flyers’ Alumni Association, headed by Brad Marsh.
Howe enjoys getting back together with guys from those great ‘80s teams – two of them Stanley Cup finalists during his tenure. Recently, the old gang was back for the Paul Holmgren-Rick Tocchet Flyers Hall of Fame inductions.
“What Brad has done is fantastic,’’ Howe said. “He’s gotten everyone involved. Brad knows the traditions. Hopefully, those traditions (team founder) Mr. (Ed) Snider set will continue to the next generations.”
After finishing a disappointing seventh in the 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyongchang, Korea, Team USA has high hopes of getting back onto the podium. There’s a good mix of veterans (such as Yardley native Brian O’Neill) and youngsters which could click, just as they did in Lake Placid in 1980.
Or Sapporo, for that matter. Just ask Mark Howe.