Some hockey players never learn. Take Norm Ferguson. Ferguson played for the Oakland Seals in the NHL for four years before the creation of the WHA, and during that time he had a few on-ice encounters with Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings. What Ferguson should have learned, but obviously didn't, was that an encounter with Mr. Howe leaves one party—not Gordie—with a pained expression, along with sore ribs or a black eye. So last week there was Ferguson, now a San Diego Mariner, chasing Mr. Howe, now a Houston Aero, into the corner after a loose puck. Chop! Chop! Chop! Out came Howe with the puck, and off went Ferguson to the doctors' room for facial repairs. In his last hurrah at the pensioner age of 47, Ol' No. 9 was leaving the boys with stitches to remember him by.
When last we looked in on the Howe family, the Houston Aeros had won the Avco World Trophy to become the 1973-74 WHA champion. Gordie was the league's MVP; son Mark was the officially ordained Rookie of the Year; another son, Marty, was the popular choice as Rookie Defenseman of the Year; and wife-mother-agent Colleen was trying feverishly but unsuccessfully to sell their act in the Houston endorsement market. Not much has changed. Last week Gordie et fils played dominant roles as Houston completed its devastation of the San Diego Mariners in four straight semifinal playoff games. Then on Saturday night at the Sam Houston Coliseum Gordie scored and Mark got an assist as the Aeros thumped the Quebec Nordiques 6-2 in the opening game of their best-of-seven championship series. Off the ice, Colleen was still receiving stiff resistance from the advertising moneymen around Houston, probably because Texans generally link ice with alcohol, not hockey.
Catch the Howe show, male version, in the final win over San Diego. The Aeros trail 4-3 early in the third period, but Gordie muscles Jimmy Hargreaves, a 25-year-old Mariner, off the puck along the boards, wheels out and—using Mark as a screen—wrists a 30-foot tying bullet past Mariner Goaltender Russ Gillow, who promptly leaves the game. "Geez," Gordie says as Gillow departs and Ernie Wakely comes in, "my shot's not that bad, is it?" Now overtime.
"You know, in my 27 seasons in the big leagues," Gordie says, "the one thing I've never done is score a goal in sudden death." Tough. On Houston's first rush, Mark lures a San Diego defenseman out of position, slips the puck to linemate Jim Sherrit and then watches Sherrit slap a 25-footer past Wakely for the decisive goal. "I didn't even get to take a shot," Dad grumbles. "Geez."
Although Gordie will retire—again—after the playoffs, he has already announced that he will unretire—again—in October and play the Aeros' first game in the new 16,000-seat Summit, which, as Texans expect, will be the poshest palace this side of Versailles. Then he will retire—again—to a still undetermined position in the Aeros' executive suite.
Some minority owners of the Aeros, urged on by Gordie and Colleen, are trying to wrest control of the team from Irvin Kaplan, who also owns the NBA's Houston Rockets. If the minority bloc gets control, and it most likely will, it intends to oust 34-year-old Jim Smith as president and general manager and replace him with—who else?—Gordie Howe. Smith, who engineered the $2 million financial coup that brought the Howes to Houston two years ago, is understandably bitter but seems resigned.
For their part, Gordie and Colleen blame Smith and Kaplan for not allocating enough money to promote the Aeros properly. In fact, the team had only two sellouts in 39 home games this year, and playoff attendance has averaged slightly more than 7,000 per game in the 9,000-seat Coliseum.
Smith admits that the Aeros spent next to nothing on promotion this past season. "The club has lost about $2.5 million over three years," Smith says. "The sad fact is that we could sell out every game in the Coliseum and still lose money. But the way it looks now, the club probably will cover all its operating expenses just from the sale of season tickets at the Summit next season."
Money aside, the Aeros have provided Houston with a winner. Scratch Philadelphia, Buffalo and Montreal from the NHL, and both Houston and Quebec could play on a competitive basis with the remaining teams in the old league. Houston Coach Bill (Fox) Dineen offers no secrets for his club's success the past two seasons. "We've used the same three lines for two years now," he says, "and we've also kept two of our three defensive pairs intact. Why break up combinations that work well? In this game you can outthink yourself if you try."
For starters, there's the Grandfather Line, with Gordie playing right wing, Mark on the left and Sherrit at center. Then there's the Go-Go Line, featuring three recruits from the minor league Phoenix Roadrunners—Larry Lund, Andre Hinse and Frank Hughes. And finally, the Over-the-Hill Gang of Captain Ted Taylor, Murray Hall and Gordon Labossiere. For added impact Dineen signed up a new Kid Line this season, consisting of Center Terry Ruskowski, Right Wing Don Larway and Left Wing Rich Preston. Larway was the No. 1 draft choice of the Boston Bruins but joined the Aeros for more than $100,000 per year. The defense is solid, with steady but unspectacular types such as John Schella, Paul Popiel, Larry Hale and Glen Irwin, along with Marty Howe, one of the game's ruggedest body checkers. "Our only real change," Dineen says, "has been in goal."
After leading the Aeros to the Avco Trophy, Goaltender Don (Smokey) McLeod demanded a 200% raise to the neighborhood of $100,000, but the Aeros declined to meet his terms, so McLeod signed with the Vancouver Blazers. This season Dineen rotated veteran Wayne Rutledge and rookie Ron Grahame throughout the regular schedule, but has stuck with Grahame during the playoffs, even though the University of Denver All-America is a skating advertisement for Ace Bandages. Right now he has two bad knees that require the full tape treatment twice daily. Despite his disabilities, Grahame came up with two shutouts in the first three games against San Diego, and stopped 122 of the 123 shots fired at him. In the final Mariner game he gave up four goals but Grahame would like to claim an asterisk for that performance. "I'm superstitious," he says. "What I look for is a repetition of things. Like if I made it through a certain stoplight coming to a game and then played well, you can be sure that I'm going to make it through that same stoplight the next game."
Grahame followed his superstitious instincts prior to the last game in Houston, but just before the opening face-off he stopped a practice shot with the blade of his skate, and the blade cracked. Grahame panicked; he hadn't worn his other skates in months. "If there's a welder in the crowd, would he report immediately to the Aeros dressing room," the P.A. man announced. No welder appeared, so Grahame had to wear the old skates. He tripped over himself a few times, and he had trouble regaining his feet after sprawling for saves, but he survived. Then again, he knew Howe to do it.