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.
A rather battered collection of old Minnesota Fighting Saints programs from the World Hockey Association arrived in the FWiL mailbox this week, by way of an Upper Midwest estate sale. Several were so banged up that I just tossed them in the circular file, but this one was a real diamond in the rough. (It sold to a Canadian WHA collector just a couple hours after I pulled it from the mailbox.)
The special appeal here is that this January 4, 1976 program features the 2-day old Ottawa Civics hockey team. This story of the Civics is a particularly infamous bit of WHA lore. The Civics were the former Denver Spurs, a long-time minor league club in the Western and Central Hockey Leagues that was accepted into the major league WHA as an expansion team in the spring of 1975. Spurs owner Ivan Mullenix was awarded a conditional 1976 NHL expansion franchise in June of 1974 and spent much of the next year promoting the arrival of NHL hockey. But after a series of misadventures and disagreements with the NHL, the offer was withdrawn a year later and Mullenix agreed to pay a reported $1.4 million join the rival WHA instead.
Denver fans read the move as a bait-and-switch. Despite the presence of all-time greats like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull in the WHA, many local fans considered the recently formed league to be an inferior product to the NHL. The Spurs did all they could to back up this belief, losing their home opener 7-1 and falling quickly into the WHA’s Western Division cellar. Fans stayed away in droves. By Christmas, Mullenix was busted and he sold (or attempted to sell) the Spurs off to a group of Ottawa businessmen known as the “Founders Club”.
The franchise quietly shifted to Ottawa on January 2, 1976 without so much as a formal announcement. The team was in the middle of a road trip at the time. WHA lore has it that no one bothered to inform the Spurs players about the move and they figured it out only after the arena organist in Cincinnati played “O Canada” prior to the team’s game in Ohio on January 2, 1976. The team was hurriedly re-named the “Civics”, but no logo or colors were prepared, so the team simply played in their old Denver unis with the Spurs logo ripped from the chest and sleeves.
The Civics are still listed as the Denver Spurs in this January 4th program from the team’s visit to the St. Paul Civic Center to play the Fighting Saints. The Saints were also in big trouble – the team had missed it’s most recent payroll and the four-year old club would eventually fold about six weeks after this contest without completing the 1975-76 WHA regular season.
This night proved to be the Civics finest hour. A minor league warhorse named Don Borgeson scored two goals to pace the Civics to a 5-2 victory over the unpaid Saints. This turned out to be the only victory the Civics would ever enjoy. The Founders Club never came up with the promised funding and the St. Louis-based Mullenix wound up stuck with the club. But not for long – after only two home games in Ottawa, Mullenix closed down the team on January 17, 1976. The Civics existed for only 15 days.
The Ottawa Nationals were a short-lived original franchise in the defunct World Hockey Association (1972-1979). Originally the WHA and team founder Doug Michel hoped to place the club in either Toronto or Hamilton, but the Nationals struggled to line up an arena in those cities and ultimately ended up at the Ottawa Civic Centre.
While upstart franchises in Winnipeg, Philadelphia and elsewhere made headlines luring big-name players away from the NHL, the cash-poor Nationals were unable to lure big names to Ottawa. Nevertheless, the club was competitive under Head Coach Billy Harris, finishing with a 35-39-4 record and a 1973 playoff date with the New England Whalers. Ex-NHL journeyman Wayne Carleton was the Nats’ leading scorer with 42 goals and 49 assists.
The team was poorly supported in Ottawa and chose to move its home playoff games to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The Whalers eliminated the Nationals 4 games to 1.
In May 1973, John Bassett Jr., the son of former Toronto Maple Leafs owner John Bassett, Sr., purchased the Nationals. Bassett was considerably wealthier than the club’s previous owners. He moved the franchise to Varsity Arena in Toronto and re-named the team the Toronto Toros prior to the 1973-74 season.