Roar of the crowd keeps ailing Mark Howe on the ice

March 24, 1991|By Timothy Dwyer | Timothy Dwyer,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- When he was 11, maybe 12 years old, Mark Howe heard a sound that he has not heard since. His famous hockey-playing father had just scored a goal for the Detroit Red Wings, a goal that at the time made him the greatest scorer in National Hockey League history.

Young Howe screamed his lungs out along with the rest of the crowd. But the noise was so deafening he could not hear his own cheers. The crowd stopped cheering after 20 wild minutes, but Mark Howe can hear the noise to this day.

He has done things on the ice himself to get the crowd to his feet, but never like his father did. Still, he won't stop trying. He can't stop. It is the memory of that ovation that feeds his love for the game. Cheers have always drowned out the pain.

Even now, as he begins what will be his last comeback, Howe is haunted by crowd noise. As he paces the locker room of the Spectrum while his teammates play, unable to watch the game himself because of the helpless feeling it leaves him with, he has become an expert on crowd noise.

Just by listening, he can tell what has happened. He knows when the Flyers have scored or when Ron Hextall has made a save or given up a goal. He can tell when there's a fight or a penalty. The crowd has lived within him since that day in Detroit when he watched Gordie Howe break Rocket Richard's record.

Now Mark Howe longs to be on the ice again. At 35, he knows enough not to be greedy when it comes to time. Two or three years would be fine. He has endured injury after injury throughout his career. Pain, his father once told him as he lay in a surgical recovery room, is part of what you get paid for in the NHL.

But he no longer plays for money. There isn't enough money to get any hockey player through 17 years of pain in pro hockey. So what drives him? What makes him undergo risky back surgery and agonizing workouts? Why not take the scars and go home? Why not put the pain out to pasture?

It keeps coming back to that night in Detroit. He can talk for hours about all his injuries with the clinical detail of a doctor, and it always comes back to that night in Detroit. That night, the little boy fell in love with hockey, and all the pain and injuries have not killed the boy in him.

The man still wants to play.

So much that he is now trying to overcome the most intense pain in an injury-riddled, honorable career for one last shot at the glory the boy heard that night in Detroit. Only a few months ago, he was ready to retire. Now, after back surgery, he thinks he might be skating in another two weeks, might return this season, might play another two, three years.

Is he crazy?

"When the day comes when I got to retire, I will retire," Howe said. "But I still think I am capable of playing good enough hockey to contribute to this hockey team. I'm not ready to retire, and that is kind of the bottom line."

First, a little medical history.

Now in his 18th season as a professional hockey player, Howe has suffered four concussions, four broken ribs, a blown knee, knocked-out teeth, four separated shoulders and a chronically sore back. Most bizarre of all, he was once nearly killed when a pipe flange supporting a net stabbed him in the back.

He can give a detailed tour of his body, scar by scar. In fact, he seems to know enough about human bones and medicine to skip the first two years of pre-med.

Howe does not complain or brag about the injuries. But each is important because when pain outweighs love, you know it's time to quit. And, for the last few years, the scale has been tipping back and forth.

His latest injury has been different from all the others. At times it has seemed overwhelming. Last season, the right side of his back began bothering him. Some days, his right leg hurt so much he wanted to just cut it off. His right foot was numb.

Rest was a curative, but as soon as he worked out, the pain would return. X-rays showed nothing abnormal. By February 1990, he knew he was through for the season.

"I was frustrated," Howe said. "The team never said a thing to me. They've always been supportive. I saw Paul Holmgren one day and said, 'Listen, it's not working for you, it sure as hell ain't working for me. It's just not fair. I'm really unhappy.' He said, 'Well, just take as much time off as you need.'

"And so I went about three weeks or a month, and the numbness started to go out of my foot and the pain started to go out of my leg and I came back. I tried to work out. I worked out one day, and my foot was twice as bad. I was really frustrated. I said that's basically it."

He was ready to retire. But once again, rest chased away the pain, and he changed his mind.

So there were more X-rays, 40 in all. Finally, in two of them, something showed up.

Howe did have a herniated disk. But the disk material was oozing out of the side of his backbone instead of straight out. It was pressing on the nerves that went to his leg and foot. That's why he was having such pain.

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