Original Aeros brought Hall-of-Famer Gordie Howe and hockey to Houston
The deal that made hockey less foreign to Houston began in the kitchen of a suburban Detroit home.
Mark and Marty Howe let their parents, Colleen and Gordie, negotiate their first professional contracts. They didn’t sit in on the talks with Houston Aeros coach Bill Dineen and president Jim Smith.
Their mother, Mark Howe said, had a much better idea of what to do than her teenage sons did, so they stayed out of the way. She had a dollar figure she wanted for her boys, and it was much higher than what the Aeros, of the then-upstart World Hockey Association, wanted to pay.
No matter. An agreement occurred only about a week later. Houston had an extra incentive to have the Howe boys join the team, one Mark wasn’t originally privy to.
His father, nicknamed “Mr. Hockey” and considered one of the best players ever, would come out of two seasons of retirement to join his sons in Houston.
After the Howes finalized deals with Houston at the family cottage three hours north of Detroit, Gordie went water skiing. He almost hurt himself when he hurtled through the air.
“Everyone else’s heart dropped 10 feet,” Mark said.
But Gordie Howe, no surprise, came up smiling. And soon after, the man who played professional hockey in four decades would head down to Texas with his family. There, the man who held many of the NHL’s scoring records until Wayne Gretzky broke them in the 1990s, played four seasons with his sons. The Howe trio helped the team win two straight league titles.
The dad, at 46, won the WHA’s MVP trophy, which later became known as the Gordie Howe Trophy. That was only fitting for a man who energized a humid city with a sport on ice.
“I think initially a lot of people thought it was a hoax,” Mark said. “A lot of things were written about it: ‘It must have been a pretty bad league if a 45-year-old man could lead the league in scoring.’?”
The WHA, like many upstart leagues, had its moments in flux, times at which it presented itself as more amateur than professional. The Aeros moved from Dayton, Ohio, to Houston before their inaugural 1972 season. The team hired its broadcaster, Jerry Trupiano, two days before its first game. The team traveled in a plane nicknamed “The Shaker,” which once took 17 hours to travel from Houston to Ottawa.
“It was the same ilk as the old American Football League,” Trupiano said. “They were challenging the NHL the same way the AFL challenged the NHL, the ABA challenged the NBA.”
Like those other upstart leagues, the WHA offered its benefits. In an effort to attract premium talent, such as Howe and Bobby Hull, who signed a 10-year, $2.75 million contract to play for the Winnipeg Jets, the WHA often paid more than the NHL.
The WHA also allowed younger players to play professionally before the NHL, which had an age minimum of 20. The two younger Howes came to Houston at 18 and 19 years old.
“Really there wasn’t much of a discussion, much to think about,” said Terry Ruskowski, who joined the Aeros after the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, the team that drafted him, wanted him to go to its minor league affiliate in Dallas.
Ruskowski, like many other Northern-born Aeros players, knew practically nothing about Houston.
But he and his teammates bonded by participating in the foreign culture - though none of them dared stay for the summertime. They golfed frequently. They fished together. They attended high school and college football games.
“Hook ’em Horns, yeah?” former Aeros wing Rich Preston, a Saskatchewan native, said with a Canadian accent.
On the ice, Gordie Howe and Dineen established a winning culture.
The first couple of weeks of his first Aeros training camp, Howe struggled and wasn’t in proper condition coming out of retirement. His sons grew concerned. But soon, according to Mark, the father’s face “didn’t start turning colors, and his endurance came back.” Eventually, the elder Howe showed up at optional practice, which meant the sessions weren’t really optional. Not if a 40-something was practicing.
“This isn’t like real hockey,” Gordie told his sons. “This is too much fun.”
Players called Dineen “Foxy” for his intelligence. He managed the personalities, a mix of older and established players with teenagers.
“We’d go through a wall for our teammates,” Ruskowski said. “When we partied, we partied hardy. And when we played, we played hard.”
Fans in Houston, former players said, appreciated the team. Though the Aeros, with the exception of Gordie Howe, weren’t celebrities on the level of football or baseball players, the team felt community support. In the franchise’s first season, when the team played downtown at the Sam Houston Coliseum - where chicken wire, not plexiglass, protected spectators from the puck - the atmosphere was rabid.
When the team moved to The Summit, games weren’t sold out as often, but something else happened. Fans began to clap and cheer at more opportune times. They stopped simply yelling and began cheering with a purpose. Houston was learning hockey.
“Winning the (championships in the) second and third year really put it over the top,” Trupiano said. “It really became entrenched in Houston.”
The Howes’ last season in Houston was 1976-77. They went to the New England Whalers and then back to the NHL.
After the 1977-78 season, the Aeros folded. The owner at the time, Houston developer Kenneth Schnitzer, failed in his bid to make Houston one of the four WHA teams to merge with the NHL.
“He worked tirelessly to try to work the merger,” the former owner’s son Douglas Schnitzer said. “Each time that he got close to the goal line, he got pushed back.”
Now, the people associated with the Aeros just hope the team has a legacy. In a city that hasn’t experienced much sporting success, the Aeros won a lot in a short time.
“The people who remember hockey, remember the Aeros,” Ruskowski said. ”(They) always think positives.”