Great-looking game day mag from the short-lived San Diego Mariners (1974-1977) of the old World Hockey Association. The Mariners had a decent club, making the WHA’s AVCO Cup playoffs in all three seasons of their existence. But they never quite managed to rekindle the enthusiasm that San Diegans showed for the Gulls, the city’s minor league hockey team of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
The Gulls occasionally sold out the 13,600 seat Sports Arena for their Western Hockey League tilts. That was a feat that the Mariners – who displaced the Gulls in 1974 – could only dream of. The 8,386 fans on hand for this March 1976 contest against the Houston Aeros was one of the largest Mariners gates of the 1975-76 season. (San Diego averaged 6,237 per game that winter, ranking 12th in the 14-club WHA, per Kenn.com).
The special attraction that goosed the box office was Gordie Howe of the visiting Aeros, pro hockey’s all-time leading scorer who was due to turn 48 years old two weeks later. Howe set up Andre Hinse for Houston’s first score in the opening period, but the Mariners carried a 2-1 lead into the final stanza. That’s when the Howe family took over the game. Gordie’s son Mark Howe notched the equalizer eight minutes into the third period. Gordie then beat Mariners netminder Ernie Wakely with less than two minutes left to lift the Aeros to a 3-2 road victory.
The Mariners and the Aeros would meet again in the AVCO Cup playoff quarterfinals a month later. Houston would end the Mariners’ postseason run for the second straight year, knocking off San Diego in six games.
The Houston Aeros were a powerhouse club in the World Hockey Association, a 1970’s-era rival to the NHL. The franchise was originally announced for Dayton, Ohio when the WHA was formed in late 1971, but arena and community issues forced the shift of the club to Houston before the league got under way in 1972.
The Aeros are best remembered for luring pro hockey’s all-time leading scorer, Gordie Howe ,out of retirement in 1973 and signing him to play alongside his sons Mark and Marty Howe. There was no rust on the 45-year old star. He scored 31 goals and added 69 assists to finish 3rd in the WHA in scoring and win league MVP honors in 1974. The Aeros won the first of two straight AVCO Cup championships that spring.
The Aeros would win the Western Division title all four seasons that the Howe family play in Houston from 1974 through 1977. The Aeros had great depth beyond the Howes as well. Goaltending was a consistent strength of the club, first with Don McLeod (1972-1974) and later with the platoon of Ron Grahame and Wayne Rutledge.Frank Hughes and Larry Lund were the Aeros’ all-time leading scorers with 149 goals a piece and both played all six seasons for the club. Andre Hinse, Gord LaBossiere and Ted Taylor were also prolific scoring threats. Future NHL stars Terry Ruskowski and John Tonelli both got their starts with the Aeros and the WHA in the ’70’s.
After winning their second straight WHA title in the spring of 1975, the Aeros moved out of the old Sam Houston Coliseum and into the brand new 15,000-seat Houston Summit later that fall. Aeros attendance reached an all-time peak at 9,180 per game during the 1975-76 season. The Aeros (53-27) made a third straight trip to the AVCO Cup finals in 1976, but were swept by their arch-rivals, the Winnipeg Jets, in four games.
Financial cracks began to show in February 1977, as the Aeros missed their payroll for the first time and players were asked to accept an indefinite deferment that drifted through the summer of 1977. The Howe family departed en masse via free agency with Gordie and sons all signing with the WHA’s New England Whalers in free agency. Owners George Bolin and Walter Fondren – the team’s third investor group in five years – withdrew their backing and Summit arena chairman Kenneth Schnitzer had to step in to re-capitalize the team in late 1977.
Meanwhile, merger talks with the National Hockey League got underway in 1977. At first blush, the Aeros seemed like a strong bet for acceptance into the senior circuit (which would require a rumored fee of around $3 million). The team was an annual contender and played in a brand new 15,000-seat arena in a large media market. But NHL owners voted down the proposal. When merger talks resumed in 1978, a shorter list of four WHA remained under consideration for entry to the NHL and the Aeros were left off the list . From the time he took control of the team in November 1977, Kenneth Schnitzer made clear that he wanted into the NHL. Schnitzer sought to purchase the NHL’s struggling Colorado Rockies in June 1978 and relocate the franchise to Houston, but NHL owners let it be known that they opposed the move. Frustrated with the various roadblocks to NHL membership, Schnitzer folded the Aeros on July 9, 1978.
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.