The Houston Aeros were a professional ice hockey club that played in the World Hockey Association (WHA) from 1972 to 1978. The World Hockey Association was a second major league and was in direct competition with the long established National Hockey League (NHL). The Aeros were arguably, at that time, the most successful professional sports franchise in Texas history and made the playoffs in every year of their existence—making the finals three times and winning the league championship twice.
The franchise was originally formed as the Dayton Arrows by the millionaire Ohio architect Paul Deneau in late 1971. Deneau was unable to arrange a suitable venue for the team in Dayton and ultimately decided to relocate the franchise to Houston, Texas. In April 1972 Deneau finalized a lease for the team to play in the Sam Houston Coliseum, which the Aeros would call home until 1975, when the team moved to the Summit, where they would remain for the rest of their history. The name of the team supposedly came about when Deneau, while traveling, saw an AeroMexico jet on the tarmac and immediately realized Houston’s aerospace connections; the Dayton Arrows became the Houston Aeros. Deneau remained the primary owner of the franchise until midway through the 1974 season.
In addition to bringing the franchise to Houston, Deneau’s other most important contribution to the franchise was the hiring of Bill “Foxy” Dineen as coach and general manager of the club. Dineen was the only coach the franchise ever had. Dineen, who had a long career as a player in the NHL and in the minor leagues and as a coach in the minors, assembled a roster of established players, primarily from the Western Hockey League where Dineen coached the Denver Spurs. Many of the players he signed had some experience in the National Hockey League and formed the nucleus of the team for its entire existence. Players such as Poul Popiel, John Schella, Larry Hale, Larry Lund, Frank Hughes, Ted Taylor, and goalie Wayne Rutledge played all six seasons with the team.
In their first year (1972–73) the Aeros, comprised of a solid lineup of journeymen players, finished with a record of 39–35–4, good for second place in the WHA’s Western Division behind the Winnipeg Jets and their superstar Bobby Hull. The Aeros then defeated the Los Angeles Sharks in six games before ultimately being swept by the Jets in the next round. The New England Whalers eventually defeated the Jets in five games to win the inaugural Avco World Trophy, symbolic of the WHA championship. While the Aeros began to establish themselves in Houston, they played under relatively primitive conditions at the Coliseum, which had chicken wire instead of glass around the ice surface for the first season.
The 1973–74 season saw the Aeros blossom into one of the best hockey franchises in North America. Dineen was able to coerce his former Detroit Red Wings teammate and hockey legend, the forty-five-year-old Gordie Howe out of retirement. Howe, who played for the Red Wings from 1946 to 1971, was convinced to once again put on his skates in large measure because he was given the opportunity to play with two of his sons, Marty and Mark (who was an underage junior and ineligible for the NHL draft). In addition to the publicity generated by signing the three Howes, the Aeros also secured three extremely talented hockey players. Gordie Howe continued to play until well into his fifties, Marty Howe went on to have a commendable career in the WHA and the NHL, and Mark achieved greatness in his own right, going on to make the Hockey Hall of Fame as a defenseman after a twenty-two-year career, mostly with the Philadelphia Flyers. Led by the Howes, the Aeros compiled a record of 48–25–5, for a total of 101 points. In the playoffs, the Aeros quickly ousted the Winnipeg Jets in four games and played a thrilling series against the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the Western Division finals before sweeping the Eastern champion Chicago Cougars in four games. This series was actually played at a Chicago area shopping mall, because the Cougars’ building was unavailable because of a traveling production of Peter Pan. The Aeros brought their first Avco World Trophy back to Houston.
Gordie Howe won accolades as the league’s MVP that season; the league MVP trophy was later named the Gordie Howe Trophy. His son Mark was named the WHA Rookie of the Year, and goaltender Don “Smokey” McLeod won recognition as the league’s best goaltender, compiling a record of 33–13–3 with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.56. Midway through the season, Irv Kaplan became the new owner of the franchise; he owned the team for roughly a year before selling out to Houstonian George Bolin. On September 26, 1974, the first interleague game between the WHA and NHL was held. The match took place in Houston between the Aeros and the NHL’s St. Louis Blues; the Aeros won 5–3.
The 1974–75 Aeros had the best season in franchise history despite numerous question marks at the beginning of the season. Gordie Howe was now forty-six years old, and nobody knew if he would be able to stand up to the rigors of another season. Goaltender Don McLeod had left the club and was traded to the WHA Vancouver Blazers. Both concerns proved to be without foundation. Howe amassed 99 points—scoring 34 goals and adding 65 assists. Rookie goaltender Ron Grahame out of Denver University had a spectacular season and achieved a record of 33–10–0, with a goals against of 3.03. He won the Hatskin Trophy, emblematic of the league’s best goalie. The club also received a considerable infusion of youth with the addition of what became known as the “Kid Line” of Rich Preston from Denver University, Don Larway and Terry Ruskowski of the Swift Current Broncos, and defenseman Glen “Waldo’ Irwin from the Fort Worth Wings. The Aeros had a dream season, amazingly losing not one single player to injury for the entire season. The Aeros finished with a 53–25–0 record, for a league leading 106 points. They defeated the Cleveland Crusaders four games to one in the first round, swept the San Diego Mariners in four games in the Western Division finals, and then swept the Quebec Nordiques in four games in the Avco finals to win their second and last championship.
The 1975–76 season opened with tremendous optimism. The team was coming off its best season to date, the young players had improved immensely, and the team prepared to move out of the Depression-era Sam Houston Coliseum into the Houston Summit—the most state-of-the-art facility in the entire league. The move came off without a hitch, and the Aeros were once again the class of the league; the team finished with 106 total points and amassed a 53–27–0 record. Five Aeros scored more than thirty goals, and four other players tallied twenty or more goals. The club also added another young star that season in the person of John Tonelli, an eighteen-year-old underage junior who would go on to win four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders of the NHL. A third straight championship for the Aeros was, however, not in the cards. In the quarterfinals of the playoffs, the Aeros defeated the San Diego Mariners in six games. The semifinal round pitted them against the New England Whalers in a series the Aeros won in seven grueling games. In the final that season they faced the Winnipeg Jets, who had enjoyed eighteen days off after dispatching their semifinal opponents, the Calgary Cowboys, in five games. The Aeros, fatigued from their extended first two series, proved to be no match for Winnipeg, who swept them in four games to wrest away the Avco World Trophy.
Although not readily apparent as the 1976–77 season got underway, the halcyon days of the Aeros were at an end. The club once again compiled the best record in the league during the regular season and again finished at the top of the league standings with a 50–24–6 record for 106 points. Coach Bill Dineen was honored as the league’s Coach of the Year, and Ron Grahame was the league’s top goaltender. Another rookie, Morris Lukowich, who went on to star for years in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets, had a successful season. The Howe family again was a major contributor to the team’s success, but their scoring numbers fell off in what proved to be their final season in Houston. In the playoffs, the Aeros easily dispatched the Edmonton Oilers in five games but were no match for the defending champion Winnipeg in the next round; they succumbed to the Jets in six games. While the Aeros were certainly among the league’s powerhouses on the ice, their financial situation, never good, was getting even shakier. George Bolin sold his controlling share to a group led by Kenneth Schnitzer, the developer of Greenway Plaza, who was in turn unwilling to pump the necessary capital into the club to assure its financial health despite the fact that the Aeros were included in the WHA’s merger talks with the NHL. The talks never led to a merger, and the Howes, unable to receive the financial assurances they needed to remain in Houston, reluctantly departed for the New England Whalers that summer.
As the 1977–78 season began, few realized that the end of the franchise was near. In addition to losing the Howe family during the summer, the Aeros also lost goalie Ron Grahame to the Boston Bruins of the NHL. To replace the Howes, the Aeros were able to acquire the services of another superstar, Andre LaCroix, who was picked up when the San Diego Mariners folded. The Aeros got off to a slow start before surging to a third place finish. Lukowich scored forty goals that season, while five other players reached the twenty-goal plateau. Veteran goaltender Ernie Wakely, another refugee of the San Diego club, stabilized the goaltending. Bill Dineen was again named the league’s Coach of the Year. The ownership group decided that the Aeros would make an all-or-nothing bid to enter the NHL. Towards that end, Schnitzer launched a campaign to sell 8,500 season tickets. He also began negotiations to bring the Colorado Rockies of the NHL to Houston and the Summit. The fans stepped up and purchased the requisite number of tickets, but the Colorado ownership group refused to move the club to Houston, so the deal fell through. The Colorado Rockies eventually moved to New Jersey and become the Devils. The Aeros were then knocked out of the playoffs in six games by the Quebec Nordiques in the first round. That summer, ownership decided to sell out. When a new owner could not be found, the club ceased operations in July 1978. The contracts of fifteen players were sold to the Winnipeg Jets, and the balance of the players were released. The Houston Aeros were then relegated to history.
While Houston has not to date played host to another major league hockey franchise, the Houston Aeros helped cement Houston’s place as a major league city. Houston was in the running for an NHL expansion franchise in 1997, but competition between Chuck Watson and Les Alexander, owner of the Rockets, resulted in the franchise being awarded instead to Columbus, Ohio. The name Aeros resurfaced in Houston when the International Hockey League expanded in 1994, and the independent Houston franchise became a member of the American Hockey League in 2001 as an affiliate of the Minnesota Wild of the NHL. Minor league hockey came to an end in Houston in 2013, when the franchise moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and became the Iowa Wild.
As for the former players of the Aeros, many faded into obscurity when the team folded. John Tonelli won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders and also played for the Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Quebec Nordiques of the NHL. Terry Ruskowski had a stellar NHL career and played with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and Minnesota North Stars. Morris Lukowich played 582 NHL games with the Winnipeg Jets, Boston Bruins, and Los Angeles Kings. Rich Preston played until 1987 with the Chicago Blackhawks and New Jersey Devils. The ageless wonder, Gordie Howe, remained with the New England/Hartford Whalers until he retired at the age of fifty-two in 1980 after one more season in the NHL. Marty Howe played into the mid-1980s with the Hartford Whalers and Boston Bruins. Mark Howe became a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011 after a distinguished career with the Hartford Whalers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Detroit Red Wings. In his induction speech, Howe made a point of thanking the World Hockey Association and the Houston Aeros for the role they played in his career.
The World Hockey Association ceased operations after the 1978–79 season. The Quebec Nordiques, New England Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, and Edmonton Oilers merged into the NHL. The Nordiques ultimately became the Colorado Avalanche, the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes, the Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Oilers remained in Edmonton.