Everybody pretty much yawned when the San Diego Mariners called a press conference to announce the signing of Right Wing Doug Volmar, a hard-shooting but obscure refugee from the NHL. But interest quickly picked up when Volmar strolled in arm-in-arm with his fiancée, a 21-year-old model whose name turned out to be—so help us—Maureen Le Hocky. The troubled Mariners, who were the Jersey Knights last year, could certainly use the sort of lift the Houston Aeros received from Gordie Howe, and Miss Le Hocky's presence means that the club now has somebody whose name is just as synonymous with the sport.
Unfortunately, San Diego and most other WHA teams will have difficulty emulating defending champion HOUSTON in more meaningful ways. Led by the 46-year-old Howe and his sons Mark and Marty, the Aeros have made Houston a rabid hockey town. This is one of the few WHA franchises with even a remote chance of turning a profit sometime soon. The Aeros are no cinch to win the Avco World Trophy again, but they definitely will not be hurt by the league's new three-division alignment. It provides for eight playoff spots—two from each division and wild-card berths for the two remaining teams with the best records—and there is no doubt whatever that Houston and Minnesota are the best in the West.
The season will almost surely be the last one for the elder Howe, who should break all records for standing ovations by January at the latest. Gordie, the league's MVP, is just one of Houston's eight returning 20-goal scorers. Another is 19-year-old Mark, a left wing whose searing shot and ability to play keepaway with the puck are about to make him the WHA's first homegrown superstar. Marty, 20, is a defenseman who bears a sharp resemblance to the old man around the elbows. "I don't like to hurt anybody, just knock the wind out of them," Marty allows.
In the matter of age. Gordie Howe is not the only old Aero skate—the average age of the forwards is 32—and Goalie Don (Smokey) McLeod left for Vancouver when Houston reportedly fell $30,000 shy of the $100,000 a year he felt he deserved. There are questions about how Wayne Rut ledge will fare as a replacement, as well as what the fans in Sam Houston Coliseum will now be humming; the organist's most popular song was On Top of Old Smokey.
Minnesota also lost a goalie, but only for the first five games. That was the length of the suspension, along with a $1,500 fine, laid on the Fighting Saints' Mike Curran, who last spring lived up to the first half of the team's nickname by attacking a referee. Minnesota has the league's leading scorer in break a vay-specialist Mike Walton. But Walton lives up to his nickname—Shakey—when back-checking, and lapses by Minnesota defensemen are enough to keep Curran and John Garrett, the other goaltender, plenty busy. Still, the goal-producing machine of Walto (57), Wings Wayne Connelly (42) and George Morrison (40) assures a winning season.
Michigan should stay out of last place, but avoiding the poorhouse may be harder. Formerly the Los Angeles Sharks, the Stags have acquired ex-Islander Goalie Gerry Desjardins, but they can be sure of luring fans to Detroit's Cobo Arena only when old Red Wing Howe comes to town—and won't those be emotional binges? The Stags have sold just 1,500 season tickets, 3,000 fewer than PHOENIX, an expansion team that joins the WHA after a successful run in the now-defunct Western Hockey League. A holdover from Phoenix's minor league days is crowd-pleasing Right Wing Howie Young, a onetime NHL bad boy who is now 37 years old and plays with a pendant in his pierced ear.
San Diego is another town that admirably supported its minor league team and has now gone WHA. The city council, upset by allegations that Owner Joe Schwartz had Mafia connections, tried unsuccessfully to bar the Mariners. Center Andre Lacroix is the team's No. 1 scorer and Maureen Le Hocky its most optimistic fan. Asked when she expects to be wed, she replies, "Some time after the season, but the exact date depends on whether or not the Mariners make the playoffs."
She can safely plan on becoming Maureen Volmar before the first round gets under way.
After taking the WHA championship in the league's inaugural season, NEW ENGLAND was eliminated from last year's playoffs, but the Whalers hope to bounce back stronger than ever. Address get-well cards to Hartford, Conn., where the Whalers are headed after losing $2 million trying to buck the Bruins in Boston. They play their first 14 home games in West Springfield, Mass., after which the new Hartford Civic Center will be ready to accommodate them. The move to the Connecticut capital was partly underwritten by two local insurance giants, Aetna and Travelers, neither of which is known to invest money rashly.
It ought to impress these conservative backers that the Whalers are as prudent about stopping goals as they are about scoring them. Al Smith is spectacular if erratic in the net and he receives quality protection from hard-hitting Defensemen Rick Ley, Ted Green, Brad Selwood and Jim Dorey. For additional, well, insurance, New England has imported Thommy and Christer Abrahamsson, twin brothers who starred as defenseman and goalie respectively on the Swedish national team. Another recent arrival, ex-Toronto Toro Forward Wayne Carleton, adds his proved scoring ability (37 goals) to that of Tom Webster (43) and Tim Sheehy (29). "New England is a solid, all-round, well-run club," says Bud Poile, the WHA's boss of hockey operations. "They have no flamboyant stars, just an awful lot of depth."
Chicago was the WHA's surprise runner-up last season despite erratic goal-tending, and the Cougars have taken corrective action by grabbing Dave Dryden away from the NHL's Buffalo Sabres. But not even Dryden's arrival is likely to deter Defenseman-Coach Pat Stapleton from continuing to make like a second goalie out in front of the Chicago net. The Cougars signed Gary McGregor, a 100-goal man as an amateur, but Stapleton says, "We don't have any big guns. We have to play a tight game, keep the score down and wait for the breaks." The Cougars also are looking forward to a new arena. But with groundbreaking near O'Hare Field stalled by litigation and tight money, they once again expect sparse crowds in the malodorous old International Amphitheatre.
Better off than Chicago in this respect, CLEVELAND will move into the Coliseum, a spiffy $20 million, 18,000-seat edifice situated midway between that city and Akron. The Crusaders' hopes of making the playoffs depend largely on Goalie Gerry Cheevers, and that may be enough. By WHA standards, the goaltending in the East is strong. Along with Smith, Dryden and Cheevers, there is Andy Brown, who should help get INDIANAPOLIS, another new expansion club, off to a respectable start. A former Pittsburgh Penguin, Brown is an adventurous fellow who stubbornly refuses to wear a mask and indulges an off-season hobby of driving sprint cars.
"You only consider something dangerous when you're unsure of yourself," Brown philosophizes. His ardent interest in motor sports makes the Racers the perfect team for him. It certainly would not endear him to those insurance men in Hartford.
Frank Mahovlich has a three-year contract with TORONTO but should require somewhat less time than that to score the 11 goals he needs to pass the legendary Maurice Richard and thus give the WHA the three leading scorers in hockey history, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull being the others. It cost $200,000 a year to persuade the 36-year-old Mahovlich to abandon the Canadiens, but the Toros have an expensive hankering to become the first Canadian-based team to win the WHA title.
Not content with landing Mahovlich, the Toros also raided the NHL for Winger Paul Henderson—not at a bargain-basement price, either. They signed a fine-looking rookie defenseman, Jim Turkiewicz. And they spent a bundle on a couple of defectors from Czechoslovakia. One is Vaclav Nedomansky, a hulking center of whom Toro GM Buck Houle says, "He's going to be another Hull or Howe, I just know it." Concluding that the 5,000-seat Varsity Arena would no longer do, the Toros arranged to play in Maple Leaf Gardens, where a hoped-for season-ticket sale of 10,000 would help offset the high rental. Coach Billy Harris, who masterminded Team Canada in the Russian series, is a wily soul who deals effectively—and wickedly—with curfew breakers by fining them and sending the money to their wives.
Their spending binge indicates that the Toros are taking dead aim at their Maple Leaf landlords in the fight for Toronto spectator dollars, but the No. 1 interleague battleground remains VANCOUVER. There the NHL Canucks routinely attracted sellouts last season while the WHA Blazers were leading their league with a home-attendance average of 9,356, impressive numbers considering the Blazers' woeful 27-50-1 record. Their porous defense may have been plugged by Goaltender McLeod from Houston and a flock of new defensemen, including former Maple Leaf Mike Pelyk and 19-year-old Pat Price, the league's best bet for Rookie of the Year. Price's price for a five-year contract was $1.3 million and a Ferrari; the car's brief and tragic history was recounted in an urgent phone call to Blazer GM-Coach Joe Crozier.
"I feel terrible," Price moaned. "I've just smashed up my Ferrari."
"Forget the Ferrari," answered Crozier. "How are you?"
Price was unhurt and the Blazers could sneak in ahead of WINNIPEG. But the Jets have made changes, too. To free Bobby Hull to concentrate on scoring goals they have turned some of his coaching duties over to Rudy Pilous, who used to be Bobby's coach on the Black Hawks and, before that, in his junior days in St. Catharines, Ont. Support for Hull on the ice comes from a smorgasbord of Swedish imports: Defenseman Lars-Eric Sjoberg, Goalie Curt Larsson and Forwards Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg.
Quebec still lacks depth and its goal-tending remains so-so but none of this prevents the rabid Nordique partisans from raising the rafters every time J.C. Tremblay, that stickhandling wizard, goes into his Marques Haynes routine with the puck. Former General Manager-Coach Jacques Plante has left Quebec and is dusting himself off to tend goal in EDMONTON'S new 15,500-seat arena, which replaces the antiquated but evocatively named Klondike Palace. The Oilers have reached into the NHL for Defensemen Barry Long and Ray McKay and Right Wing Bruce MacGregor, and it is conceivable that the 45-year-old Plante will actually get a few chances to take a lap around the rink and blow kisses to the crowd, his longtime practice on nights when he has a shutout in the nets.
Still, few expect Plante to perform well enough to justify the boast of Edmonton General Manager Bill Hunter that the club now has "the best defense in pro hockey." Plante is 10 months Gordie Howe's junior and a friend confides, "Jacques came out of retirement because of that big ego of his. He figures, 'If Gordie can do it, so can I.' " Howe's influence on the struggling WHA is felt in many ways.