Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Houston's Flight Plan

Having finally arrived in Houston, Texas on Monday night, I've spent the last few days just trying to stay cool. The heat combined with the high humidity makes the environment like a sauna as Sage C. said in the comments a couple of days ago. What strikes me as interesting is that Houston, for the size of the city it is, could very well be an NHL city. However, the similarities to Winnipeg, a former NHL city, are not that far off in terms of its hockey history. Both cities had WHA teams that were bitter rivals, both cities had IHL teams that were bitter rivals, and both teams have AHL teams that are bitter rivals. What makes this story great is that Houston still has a very strong hockey following despite their teams being shuffled through several professional leagues, and this passion of Houston's fans have made Houston a very attractive city for professional leagues.

We'll start with hockey's start in Houston way back in 1972. The WHA had awarded a franchise to Dayton, Ohio, and the Dayton Arrows were to begin play in 1972. However, owner Paul Deneau was less than thrilled with Dayton's lack of enthusiasm for a pro team combined with its lack of a suitable professional arena, so Deneau didn't waste any time in moving the franchise to Houston, Texas.

In retrospect, this might have been the best relocation in the history of hockey in terms of success for both the team and the owner. The newly-moved Houston Aeros would be a cornerstone for the WHA in terms of its success in the early going, and the team would be one of the most successful teams in the rogue league.

In 1972, the puck dropped for the Aeros as they were part of the six-team Western Division of the WHA's inaugural season. They would battle their way to second-place in the division on the strength of a 39-35-4 record. Gord Labossiere led the team in goals and scoring with 36 goals and 60 assists. Don McLeod and Wayne Rutledge nearly split the games, but Rutledge had the better record with a 20-14-2 mark and a 3.05 GAA compared to McLeod's 19-20-1 record and 3.56 GAA.

In the playoffs in 1972-73, the Aeros squared off against the Los Angeles Sharks. It took six games, but the Aeros advanced to the semi-finals against the Winnipeg Jets who had finished first in the Western Division. Winnipeg decimated the Aeros in the series, sweeping them out of the playoffs on their way to the WHA Final. While the first season for the Aeros didn't result in a parade, there would be big news made in coming seasons.

In the off-season of 1973, the Aeros decided to make a major player signing. They discussed the possibility of 45 year-old Gordie Howe, who had retired in 1971, of playing with his sons, Mark and Marty, in Houston. The elder Howe liked this idea, and he signed on to play with the Aeros for the 1973-74 season. It marked the first time that a father-sons combination had played together on the same ice in professional hockey.

The results were encouraging for the Aeros. Gordie Howe scored 31 goals and added 69 assists for a 100-point season, and the Aeros finished first in the Western Division and as the top team in the WHA with a 48-25-5 record. They matched up against the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, and handily swept the Jets aside in four games. They met up with the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the semi-final, and they were victorious in six games to advance to the WHA Avco Cup Championship.

There, they ran into an upstart Chicago Cougars club that had finished fourth-place in the Eastern Conference, and the Aeros proved they were the real deal. They hammered the Cougars in four games, outscoring them 22-9 in the series, and captured their first Avco Cup! Houston had its first professional hockey championship a mere two years after getting a pro hockey franchise!

Gordie Howe was named the winner of the Gary L. Davidson Trophy as the WHA MVP in 1973-74, and he would prove that the Aeros' success in that season was no fluke. His son, Mark Howe, was named the Lou Kaplan Trophy winner as the WHA's rookie of the year. Goaltender Don McLeod was named the winner of the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the WHA's best goaltender. 1973-74 was a great year for the Houston Aeros franchise!

1974-75 saw the Aeros roll over the WHA, posting the league's best record at 53-25-0 as they ended up first in the Western Conference again. Gordie Howe nearly duplicated his previous season as he scored 34 goals and added 65 helpers. But it was in the playoffs where the Aeros march to dominance really continued.

The top-ranked Aeros eliminated the eighth-ranked Cleveland Crusaders in five games. After dismantling the Crusaders, they trounced the San Diego Mariners in a four-game sweep in the semi-finals to give them a berth in the Avco Cup Championship to defend their title. However, there wasn't much defending as they tore through the Quebec Nordiques in a four-game sweep. The Aeros had captured their second consecutive WHA Championship, becoming the first WHA team to do so!

While there were less accolades for the players of the Aeros this season, Ron Grahame, seen here with the Bruins, did win the Ben Hatskin Trophy for leading the WHA in wins, shutouts and goals against average, as well as being named the WHA Playoff MVP after losing only one game on the way to another championship celebration. As a side note, Ron Grahame is the father of former NHL goaltender John Grahame!

The 1975-76 season was more of the same dominance as the Aeros plowed through the WHA's new 80-game schedule with a 53-27-0 record. The finished first in the Western Division, and tied with Winnipeg for the most points. However, Houston finished with one more regular-season win that Winnipeg, and were once again considered the top seed in the WHA. Gordie Howe was the model of consistency again, recording 32 goals and adding 70 assists in 78 games that season.

The WHA Playoffs saw the Aeros dispatch the San Diego Mariners in six games in the quarterfinals before eliminating the upstart New England Whalers in seven games. Whether the extra games took their toll or Houston simply wasn't as strong, the Winnipeg Jets ran over the Aeros in the Avco Cup Final in a four-game sweep. Disappointing to be sure, but the Aeros still had a lot in the tank.

The 1976-77 season saw the Aeros dominate the WHA once more, posting a final record of 50-24-6. They were the top team in the Western Conference, and owned the best record in the WHA that season. Howe had a serious drop-off in production this season as he only appeared in 62 games, scoring 24 goals and 44 assists - the lowest totals in his WHA career. Terry Ruskowski led the team in scoring with 24 goals and 60 assists.

Houston rolled over the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA Quarter-Finals, beating them four games to one. In the semi-final, Winnipeg and Houston clashed once again, the two WHA rivals renewing their rivalry. Winnipeg won Game One on the road by a 4-3 score in overtime. From there, the home team won each game. Unfortunately, that means that Houston won Games Two and Five before their season came to an end at the hands of the Jets once more, this by a four-games-to-two margin. While there was disappointment over the Aeros' finish once more, there were much larger problems on the horizon.

Merger discussions were initiated in 1977 between the NHL and the WHA about moving the most successful teams into the NHL. The NHL, however, informed the WHA that they were not interested in expansion in 1977, and the conversation was laid to rest. The six most successful WHA teams - Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec, Cincinnati, New England, and Houston - decided to push the fact by applying to the NHL as a franchise, but the chatter died down with the approaching 1977-78 season after the NHL voted down the offer.

In Houston, the Howes were asked to defer some of their salaries as the team found itself in a financial crisis. The Howes balked at the offer, and the three men walked away from the Aeros. As free agents, they garnered offers from NHL and WHA teams, but it came down to two offers: the NHL's Boston Bruins and the WHA's New England Whalers. The Howes opted to stay in the WHA with New England thanks largely to the guarantees made by the Whalers franchise. As a result, Houston's biggest stars were now playing for the rival New England Whalers.

Without their stars, the Aeros struggled more than they had in the previous four seasons. They finished third overall in the one-division league with a 42-34-4 record. Andre Lacroix emerged from the shadows of the Howes, and posted 36 goals and 77 assists. He finished ahead of teammate Morris Lukowich by an incredible 38 points!

In the playoffs, they met up with the Quebec Nordiques, but it seems that the Aeros couldn't shake the playoff monkey off their backs. Despite finishing ahead of the fourth-place Nordiques, the Aeros fell in six games to Quebec. It maked the earliest exit from the playoffs for any WHA Aeros team, and April 23, 1978 marked the last game they played in Houston. The Aeros defeated the Nordiques 5-2 that night before getting shellacked 11-2 in Quebec City on April 25 to close out the series.

In the off-season, the NHL was willing to listen to the WHA about a merger, but they would only accept four teams rather than the six teams that the WHA wanted to promote. One of the conditions of the merger was that the WHA wanted all three Canadian-based teams included in the merger, meaning that there was one spot remaining in the merger for New England, Cincinnati, and Houston. The NHL was very interested in the Hartford-New England franchise, meaning that the future looked bleek for both Cincinnati and Houston.

However, Aeros owner Kenneth Schnitzer wanted an NHL franchise and proposed that his team be accepted as an expansion franchise outside of the merger. If that was not an option for the NHL, Schnitzer proposed that he be allowed to purchase a current franchise and relocate it to Houston. The NHL declined both of these offers made by Schnitzer, and the Houston Aeros franchise ceased to exist beyond July 9, 1978.

Phew! That's quite the history right there in those seven seasons! Houston's hockey legacy would be cemented with Gordie Howe stories and Avco Cup Championships, but we're not done there. 1994 saw professional hockey return to Houston as the IHL moved into town! However, we'll embark on that leg of the flight tomorrow as we look at the modern Aeros and the history they are currently writing.

Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!

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