Arguably, the WHA had the three biggest stars to play the game in their league at the same time: Howe, Hull, and Gretzky. It was the first two men, however, that really gave credibility to the league and to their two chosen teams in the Houston Aeros and the Winnipeg Jets, respectively. While some in the NHL thought that Gordie Howe's career was done after he had retired, Bobby Hull was arguably the biggest name in hockey at the time with the Chicago Blackhawks. Both men put together some pretty incredible seasons in the WHA, and both men brought championships to their respective teams. Without a doubt, these two men helped to shape the way that the WHA did business, and gave the league an immediate infusion of talent upon their arrival.
I'll repeat this before going on: this is an excellent two-DVD set about the history of the Houston Aeros and Winnipeg Jets, and some of their interactions with other teams in the WHA. Journalist Timothy Gassen does a superb job in interviewing former players and personalities that were a part of these teams' lore, and he really brings the stories that made the teams and players as popular as they were to light. Mr. Gassen has lots of video and audio clips in the stories, and there are lots of pictures shown as well. If you're a fan of hockey history, this DVD set is one to have in your collection.
The documentaries of these two teams are broken up into separate sections. We'll start with a look at the Winnipeg Jets before moving onto the Houston Aeros. Much like yesterday, if you'd like to keep this information away from your eyes, please scroll to the bottom of this article for information on how to order this two-DVD set. Otherwise, let's get ready for stories of the marquee players and the two most successful teams of WHA.
The Winnipeg Jets definitely made the biggest splash upon their entry into the WHA by signing hockey's most marketable and most idolized star. Bobby Hull was the Sidney Crosby of the 1970s - young, attractive, and personable. So when Ben Hatskin founded the Winnipeg Jets on December 27, 1971, he immediately wanted a marketable star to help his upstart team. With Bobby Hull becoming a free agent at the end of the 1972 season, Mr. Hatskin immediately approached the WHA owners with an idea: let's go get hockey's biggest star for our league.
Mr. Hatskin's idea, coupled with Bobby Hull's growing unhappiness over the low salaries being paid to stars in the NHL, fueled the signing that made the WHA an immediate rival to the NHL. Bobby Hull became a member of the Winnipeg Jets after the owners of the WHA franchises agreed to bring aboard the most marketable hockey figure at that time. On June 27, 1972, Bobby Hull received a $1 million signing bonus as part of a $2.5 million, 10-year contract with the WHA. Instantly, the Winnipeg Jets and the WHA had recognition and credibility in the hockey world.
It took a few weeks after the season started, but Bobby Hull finally joined the Jets for their sixteenth game of the season. The Jets opened the season in New York against the Raiders on October 12, 1972, but litigation from the Chicago Blackhawks delayed the debut of Bobby Hull. By the time that "the Golden Jet" finally took flight, the Winnipeg Jets were the talk of the hockey world.
As the first few seasons progressed, the line-up of the Jets took on a very international flavor. Hull was front and center, and he was joined by Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson to create one of the most dynamic lines in WHA history called the "Hot Line". Other Swedish stars such as defenceman Erik-Lars Sjoberg, forward Kent Nilsson, and goaltender Curt Larsson as well as Finnish players like Heikki Riihiranta and Veli-Pekka Ketola made their way to the Manitoba capital by 1974. Winnipeg literally was a landing ground for Scandinavian hockey stars, and Winnipeg's plan to use them changed hockey in a big way.
First, the doors was now opened for European stars to play hockey in North America. The NHL had very few players who were born and trained in Europe, but the WHA welcomed the great players from across the pond with open arms. The game itself flourished from the added talent that the WHA saw on its ice, and this led the Jets to debut a very new style of play that was quite foreign back in the early-1970s.
With Erik-Lars Sjoberg, the Jets got themselves a very good puck-handling defenceman who could skate with the very best in the world. While it was common practice at the time in North American hockey to dump-and-chase while crashing and banging along the end boards, the Swedes and Finns brought over a new style of play: puck possession.
What this type of game allowed for was more controlled passing and far more puck control than what had normally been seen in North American games. The Jets were, as Mr. Gassen points out, much like the Detroit Red Wings of today's hockey teams where they would circle back in the neutral zone if there were no opportunities to skate the puck into the zone. Because this style of play allowed the Jets more opportunities to control the puck in the neutral and offensive zones, they found themselves playing some incredibly entertaining hockey that confounded some of the WHA teams.
The one man who admired and appreciated this new style of hockey? Glen Sather. And Sather put this idea to work when he started to build the Edmonton Oilers of the early-1980s. Paul Coffey skated like Sjoberg and could handle the puck just as well. Coffey would circle in the neutral zone, waiting patiently for an opening he could skate the puck into, and he would go east-west as often as he had to when deking and dangling through defenders - all of this in the same vein as that of Sjoberg. Esa Tikkanen, Jari Kurri, and Willy Lindstrom all contributed in big ways for the Oilers during the dynasty years - all in the same vein as Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, and Kent Nilsson. The work done by the Jets to change how hockey was played clearly had a big impact on Glen Sather and the Edmonton Oilers who, in turn, introduced it into the NHL while defeating all opponents who played the North American style of game.
The Jets would go on to win the Avco Cup three times in the short history of the WHA, including the last two Avco Cup Championships. After their win in 1975-76, the Jets put an open invitation on the table to any NHL team to play them and beat them. No NHL team took the challenge, and many feel that the Jets of '75-76 would have soundly beaten any NHL team that year. Thanks to Winnipeg, though, many of those teams got much better over time through the signing and drafting of European players and by developing a European-Canadian hybrid gameplan on the ice.
The first thing that everyone talks about in Houston, and I can attest to this, is the weather. The hot, humid Houston weather made for some interesting times for hockey players who were used to winters in New England or Indianapolis or Edmonton. The ice suffered because of this, and players found it sluggish at times in the Sam Houston Coliseum while skating. But the Aeros turned a negative into a great positive by winning under the direction of Bill Dineen.
June 19, 1973 is a date that everyone should remember, but the people in Houston should really look at making it a holiday. That is the day that Gordie Howe signed with the Aeros to unite him with his sons, Mark and Marty, as teammates on the Aeros. The one thing that every player interviewed said was that they all knew who Gordie Howe was, and that they respected him for all that he was doing and had done for the game of hockey - even after taking an elbow and a facewash from the hockey legend!
As crazy as that last statement sounds, a lot of people felt that Gordie Howe might have been the dirtiest player in the WHA just because that's how he played the game. The difference, according to players, was that Gordie played hard all the time - regular season, playoffs, and practice! But everyone loved playing with and against Gordie Howe simply due to the immense talent he brought to the ice each and every night.
The two younger Howes certainly didn't need Gordie there to help them out. Marty and Mark Howe showed their incredible talents throughout their WHA careers, and they really helped the Houston Aeros become a dominant team in their own ways. Mark Howe was a magician with the puck on the left wing before shifting back to become a defenceman in his second professional season, the position he for which he is remembered. Jim Sherritt had the responsibility of centering Mark Howe on the left and Gordie Howe on the right before Bill Dineen decided to shift Mark back to the blueline.
Marty Howe didn't score as often as his dad, but he was a solid winger who worked well in the corners. In each of his four seasons with Houston, Marty Howe increased his point total from the previous season, and he showed that he knew the rewards of hard work and determination by winning a lot of one-on-one battles. This kind of effort doesn't go unnoticed by teammates or by the opposition.
There is a great segment at the end of the Aeros documentary about Houston's push to become an NHL city with the WHA's time coming to a close. Reports had the Aeros merging with the Colorado Rockies, and the NHL franchise would play out of Houston. The Rockies' owners, however, wanted Houston's owners to buy the franchise outright whereas the Aeros were content to allow this franchise to move in and play out of the Summit Arena with the Rockies paying rent. Because of this difference in approaches, the deal never materialized. Instead, John McMullen purchased the team and moved it to New Jersey where the Devils began play. In an ironic twist, McMullen would also own the Houston Astros in 1979 - the place to where the hockey franchise was reportedly going to move!
After a last-minute deal could not be brokered between Houston and the NHL, the Aeros folded. The Aeros were the first team to win back-to-back Avco Cups, their only two championships as a WHA team, and they were the gem of the city. Today, Houston remains the largest city in North America without an NHL franchise to have ever called the city home.
Like the previous DVD set, this two-set DVD comes with a lot of extras packed into each DVD. Disc One has the two documentaries featured above in "Remembering the WHA Winnipeg Jets" and "Remembering the WHA Houston Aeros". There are also "Jets vs Aeros WHA Game Highlights" which really show how good these two teams were. There are also higlights from "International WHA Games" that show the Jets playing the USSR in Tokyo, Japan and the Aeros battling the Finnish national team.
Disc Two contains a "Jets vs Aeros Complete WHA Game" which, to my surprise, was a very good game to watch. Both teams are highly-competitive, and you can actually see Howe vs. Hull in this game. There is also an electronic book in on this disc that you can read through called Winnipeg Jets: The WHA Years, written by Curtis Walker. It's very informative as well.
If you'd like to add this DVD to your collection, please click here to get to the ordering page. You get all the features of the two discs above, and you can even get an autograph from Timothy Gassen inside the DVD case!
If you prefer the old-fashioned way of ordering, you can do that via snail mail. There are some rules, though, so please read the following:
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Tomorrow, we'll have the final DVD set featured on HBIC as we look at "The WHA Hall of Fame: Remembering the WHA". Honestly, these DVDs have been an excellent source of information, and there is so much history contained in the videos produced by Mr. Gassen. If you want some added information on a league that no one at the NHL wants to talk about, I highly recommend these DVDs!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!