World Hockey Association Programs
When 45-year old Gordie Howe emerged from a two-year retirement to return to the ice in the autumn of 1973, it was not with the Detroit Red Wings, the club he skated for twenty five seasons between 1946 and 1970. Howe left the Red Wings front office to sign with the Houston Aeros of the upstart World Hockey Association (1972-1979), for reasons both financial and personal. The Aeros offered a million dollars over four seasons, plus the opportunity to skate alongside his two sons, Mark and Marty Howe. As with the Winnipeg Jets‘ acquisition of Bobby Hull a year earlier, the Howe signing conferred instant credibility on the second-year league, which was already locked in an expensive with the venerable NHL for talent and expansion markets.
The elder Howe was already a member of The Hockey Hall of Fame, having earned induction in 1972 shortly after his original retirement from the Red Wings. Opposing teams often marketed Howe’s appearances with the Aeros as main attractions on the annual schedule. For this December 9, 1973 game against the Vancouver Blazers at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, the local club commissioned artwork of the future Hall-of-Famer for the cover of the evening’s game program. (The following the season, the mid-year bankruptcy of the WHA’s Detroit-based Michigan Stags franchise would be partially blamed on poor scheduling which delayed Howe’s much anticipated return to Detroit until February, by which point the Stags were out of business).
Howe was everything the Aeros expected and more. During his first two seasons in Houston, Howe and his sons led the Aeros to back-to-back AVCO World Trophies as WHA champions. In his first WHA season in the winter of 1973-74, the 46-year old Howe scored 100 points and won the Gary L. Davidson Trophy as league MVP, an award which was subsequently renamed in Howe’s honor the following year.
Howe’s four-year Aeros contract elapsed in 1977. Howe and his sons moved on to the WHA’s New England Whalers. The Aeros would survive only one additional season without the Howes, folding in July 1978.
At age 50, Gordie Howe led the New England Whalers in scoring with 96 points during the 1977-78 season and led the club back to the WHA championship series. The Whalers were one of four WHA clubs allowed to join the NHL in 1979 with the demise of the WHA, and Howe played a final pro season – his 32nd – at age 51 in the winter of 1979-80. Remarkably, he played in all 80 games that season.
In 1997 the Detroit Vipers of the minor league International Hockey League signed Howe – then aged 69 – to a one-day contract. Howe skated a single 47-second shift for the Vipers on October 3, 1997 against the Kansas City Blades and became the first (and obviously only) player to play pro hockey in six different decades.