Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Connecting Flight

We check back in today with some more information on Houston's hockey history. As we saw yesterday, the legacy left by the WHA's Houston Aeros in this city might be difficult to match. Not only were they able to have coach Bill Dineen lure Gordie Howe out of retirement to play with his two sons, Mark and Marty, but the team was extremely competitive and twice captured the Avco Cup. Had it not been for some stubbornness on both the WHA's and the NHL's sides, there might be an NHL team in Houston about which I could be writing. Instead, the NHL wanted nothing to do with Houston, Texas in 1979, and the WHA's Aeros were forced to fold. Today, we pick up when hockey came back to town in 1994 as the Houston Aeros were revived in the IHL.

The 1994 version of the Houston Aeros were actually the second team in the IHL to use a former WHA name. The Phoenix Roadrunners were the first team on the scene, but the Aeros would outlive that franchise in spades, similar to their WHA days.

The 1994-95 season saw former Aeros player Terry Ruskowski behind the bench, guiding the team. They would finish in second-place in the Central Division with a 38-35-8 record. Mark Freer led the team in scoring with 38 goals and 42 assists, while Scott Arniel finished second in goals with 37 on the campaign. Troy Gamble, seen here with the Canucks, and Rob Dopson would split the goaltending duties, but Gamble was the better of the tandem as he finished with an 18-17-5 record, a 3.27 GAA, and one shutout. The Aeros would fall in opening round of the playoffs by a 3-1 count to the Phoenix Roadrunners, but their strong showing in their inaugural season would foreshadow great seasons to come.

The 1995-96 Aeros would miss the playoffs and finish dead last in the Central Division with a 29-45-8 record. The hiring of head coach Dave Tippett in the off-season would prove to be a wise choice as the 1996-97 Aeros rebounded to finish second in the South Division with a 44-30-8 record. Mark Lamb led the team in scoring with 25 goals and 53 assists. Tippett and Lamb took the Aeros to the semi-finals by sweeping the Las Vegas Thunder in three games and beating the San Antonio Dragons in five games.

However, they ran into the Long Beach Ice Dogs who knocked them out of the playoffs in five games. In their third season, Aeros fans were excited with their blue-collar team, and looked forward to the following season.

The 1997-98 Aeros finished second in the South Division again, this time with a 50-22-10 record. Brian Wiseman, seen here with the Leafs, led the team in scoring with 26 goals and 72 assists. The playoffs proved to be the Aeros' weak spot once more as the Milwaukee Admirals dispatched the Aeros by a 3-1 margin in the first round.

The Aeros were a determined bunch in the 1998-99 season as they marched through the IHL by posting a 54-15-13 record for first in the Southwest Division and first overall in the IHL. Wiseman was once again a scoring machine, notching 21 goals and adding an incredible 88 assists to lead the team. The Aeros received a first-round bye thanks to their efforts in the regualr season, meaning they waited until the second round to grapple with division-rival Long Beach Ice Dogs. Houston needed the full five games, but prevailed 3-2 over the Ice Dogs to advance to the Turner Cup Semi-Finals.

In the semi-final, the Aeros battled with the Chicago Wolves in a dogfight. Houston went up 3-1 in the series only to see Chicago win Games Five and Six to force a Game Seven at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. However, the Aeros managed to close out the series on home ice with a 4-1 victory in the final game. With that victory, the Aeros advanced to their first Turner Cup Championship!

In the final, the Aeros met the Orlando Solar Bears who finished third in the IHL's Northeast Division. Once again, the Aeros jumped out to a 3-1 series lead over their opponents. But the Solar Bears would not go quietly as they won Game Five by a 5-4 score in overtime before rallying in Game Six by a 3-2 score to force a Game Seven back at the Toyota Center. The Aeros would not be denied on home ice, though, as they defeated the Orlando Solar Bears by a 5-3 score to capture the 1999 IHL Turner Cup! For the third time, a professional hockey championship was delivered to the city of Houston, Texas!

The 1999-2000 Aeros saw head coach Dave Tippett leave as he was hired away by the NHL, and Ron Low would take over. However, Low would only be able to guide the Aeros to the semi-final in his frist season. The Aeros would finish third-place in the IHL West Division with a record of 44-29-9. That record was good enough to earn Houston a bye through the first-round. In the second-round, they eliminated the Utah Girzzlies four games to one to advance to the Turner Cup Semi-Final. The Chicago Wolves got their revenge in this series as they defeated the Aeros four games to two.

The 2000-01 Aeros would see another new coach as Dave Barr was hired to take over the reins. The Aeros would finish second in the West Division with a 42-32-8 record. In the opening round of the playoffs, the Aeros would make a return to Winnipeg where they would play the Manitoba Moose in the Turner Cup Playoffs. The Moose, who finished third in the West, found themselves down 3-1 in the series before pulling off the impossible. The Moose won Game Five in overtime by a 3-2 score, won Game Six in overtime by the same margin, and then rallied in Game Seven in Houston to eliminate the Aeros by a 3-1 score. Heartbreak is the only way this loss can be described as it appeared that Houston had this series won coming home.

In early 2001, it was apparent that the IHL was on thin ice. Travel costs combined with rising player salaries and competition from the American Hockey League forced the IHL into a corner. With little money to save several failing franchises, the IHL decided to close its doors for good. However, where the WHA failed, the IHL succeeded.

The AHL decided to absorb six IHL franchises into the American Hockey League. The six teams included the Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins, Houston Aeros, Utah Grizzlies, Milwaukee Admirals, and Manitoba Moose as the American Hockey League looked to push into the midwestern USA and Canada. The franchises were allowed to align themselves with NHL clubs to bolster their rosters, and the Houston Aeros partnered themselves with the NHL's Minnesota Wild.

The strength of the young Minnesota prospects helped to bolster an already strong club, and the 2001-02 AHL Aeros finished second in the West Division with a 39-26-10-5 record under head coach Todd McLellan. The Aeros earned a bye in the preliminary round of the playoffs, and met up with their former IHL rivals in the Utah Grizzlies in the first round. It took all five games, but Houston knocked out Utah to advance to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

There, the Aeros met the Hershey Bears. After eliminiating one set of bears in the first round, the Aeros had no trouble with these Bears as they swept Hershey out of the playoffs. Up next stood a different animal, but a very familiar foe in the Chicago Wolves with a berth to the Calder Cup Final on the line.

It was a very different story against the Wolves as Chicago eliminated the Aeros by a 4-1 margin. However, the IHL's former teams had a very success first season as the Wolves went on to win the Calder Cup, and five of the six IHL teams made the playoffs in their first venture. Even more encouraging was the fact that Houston looked very good against the rest of the American Hockey League, and this was more foreshadowing for their success down the road.

The 2002-03 AHL season was a very good one for the Aeros as they finished first in the West Division on the strength of a 47-23-7-3 record, and ended up third overall in the AHL. Jean-Guy Trudel finished second in AHL scoring with 31 goals and 54 assists, just one point behind AHL scoring leader Steve Maltais.

The Aeros were seeded as the second-place team in the Western Conference, and this led to an opening-round matchup against the Milwaukee Admirals. The Aeros made short work of the Aeros, sweeping them out of the playoffs in three straight games. That led to a meeting with the third-seeded Norfolk Admirals. Much like the previous Admirals team, the Aeros defeated the Norfolk Admirals in six games to advance to the AHL Calder Cup Semi-Final.

It was here that the Aeros ran into the top-seeded Grand Rapids Griffins. Much like their history before them, the Aeros managed to go up 3-1 in this series. The Griffins, much like the Aeros' opponents in history, managed to claw their way back to a 3-3 series tie. Houston, however, played solid hockey on the road, and defeated the Griffins by a 2-1 score in Game Seven to secure the series win. Just to show how closely these two teams were matched, six of the seven games were decided by one goal!

The win vaulted the Aeros into the Calder Cup Final against the Hamilton Bulldogs who had been the best team through the regular season. Through five games, the Aeros found themselves with a 3-2 series lead. But these were the Aeros we were talking about, so you knew that Game Six would be a Hamilton victory. And it was as the score was 2-1 in favour of the Bulldogs. Houston, though, would not be denied. A 3-0 victory on Hamilton ice was all they needed to claim their first Calder Cup in just their second season in the AHL!

Goaltender Johan Holmqvist was named the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy winner as the Calder Cup Playoff MVP. Curtis Murphy was named as the Eddie Shore Trophy winner as the top AHL defenceman. Homlqvist also wrote himself into the AHL record books by recording the first shutout on the road in a Game Seven of the Calder Cup Final and by playing the most minutes in a Calder Cup postseason with 1498. Head coach Todd McLellan was named the top minor league coach by The Hockey News.

I'd say 2002-03 was a pretty good year for hockey in Houston, and the men listed above had pretty solid campaigns as well!

Since that time, the Aeros have lost in the Calder Cup Semi-Final once, and in the Conference Final twice. They have only missed the playoffs once since joining the AHL in 2001, and definitely one of the solid teams in the AHL at this point.

Thanks to Houston's growing legacy in hockey, there might be a time when the state of Texas can have two cities with NHL teams. Right now, though, the AHL's Houston Aeros are doing a fabulous job in keeping Houston hockey fans proud!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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