The word in Houston was that Gordie Howe was finally hanging up his skates, a development that seemed all but assured when the Aeros elevated their 47-year-old wonder to the club presidency. So what was the boss' first big executive decision? To play another season, of course. Declaring that "it's nice to know you're still wanted," Gordie had the word PRESIDENT sewn on the back of his jersey and, just like that, skated out for another pro season, his 28th.
Howe's presence doubtless will help lure fans into The Summit, the new 15,000-seat arena considered crucial to Houston's hope of reducing the flow of red ink, a bane of the 3-year-old WHA generally. But Gordie also remains a formidable right wing, and it would be no surprise if he winds up leading sons Mark and Marty and the other Aeros to their third straight WHA championship. It might even be the romp it was last year, when Houston put together the league's most potent attack and stingiest defense during the regular season, then breezed through the playoffs with a five-game triumph over Cleveland followed by four-game sweeps of San Diego and Quebec.
The lineup for the powerhouse of the "other" league is virtually intact. Gordie and 20-year-old Mark, a sharp-shooting left wing, are among no fewer than 10 returning 20-goal scorers, a deep and talented group that also includes, notably, 48-goal man Frank Hughes, who married the "other" motorcycle daredevil, Debbie Lawler, in August. Marty Howe, a two-year veteran at 21, shares defenseman's duties with scrappy John Schella and WHA All-Star Poul Popiel. Goalie Ron Grahame, a rookie last season, led the league with a 3.03 goals-against average, then won the Gordie Howe Trophy, which is what the WHA awards the MVP in its playoffs. To all this Houston has added 18-year-old John Tonelli, a highly touted center, in an underage signing that brought a wrist slapping by the WHA and the threat of litigation by the Toronto Marlboros, Tonelli's amateur club. Gloats General Manager-Coach Bill Dineen: "I don't think any team in either league has the talent we do."
Such comparisons with the NHL are overdrawn, but not by much. If only because of the diluted quality of the expanded and reexpanded NHL, the WHA is closer to parity of talent than the upstart AFL was at a similar stage or than the ABA is even today. The WHA might have pulled closer still had Minnesota succeeded in its $4 million bid for Bobby Orr. But the Fighting Saints did grab 35-year-old Dave Keon, the Toronto Maple Leafs' alltime scoring leader, and wooed Henry Boucha away from their arch-rivals, the Minnesota North Stars. Boucha is still bothered by the eye injury suffered in the Dave Forbes fracas, but his defection is a big blow in the raging interleague battle between Minnesota's two pro hockey teams.
While Houston and Minnesota are the only safe bets, it is not inconceivable that, as it did last year, the West could again account for four of the WHA's eight playoff spots. Phoenix, which sneaked into the playoffs as a rookie-dominated expansion club, expects a full season from Cam Connor, a 6'2", 205-pound enforcer who missed 20 games with a broken ankle. The Roadrunners also have signed Left Wing Barry Dean, a young hotshot drafted No. 1 by the NHL Kansas City Scouts. A protein diet and weight training have been introduced to beef up the sophomore club, which President Bill MacFarland insists is already one of the WHA's three best.
San Diego is led by shifty little Andre Lacroix, the WHA's alltime scoring leader, and 20-goal Defenseman Kevin Morrison, but salary disputes and the firing of Coach Harry Howell, who took the Mariners to the WHA semifinals, suggest that the team might be suffering from the shorts. The Mariners still have more firepower than Denver, a new club composed largely of refugees from the defunct Chicago Cougars, including second-year man Gary MacGregor (44 goals). Owner Ivan Mullenix says that the Spurs must draw well at the new McNichols Sports Arena right away. Otherwise, Denver's stay in big-league hockey could be exactly 27 years shorter than Gordie Howe's.
As an expansion franchise last season, the Indianapolis Racers staggered to an 18-57-3 record, worst in the WHA. Now the Racers have signed veteran Defenseman Pat Stapleton, and President Jim Browitt is talking big. "With Pat's arrival, we look to a playoff spot and a winning team," he says. Presumably he means this season. Don't count on it.
Browitt's optimism is not entirely baseless, however, for the Racers compete in the WHA's weakest division. Indeed, the East's only shoo-in for a playoff berth is New England. The one team besides Houston to win a league title—in the '72-'73 inaugural season—the Whalers finally gave up trying to buck the Bruins in Boston and moved last year to Hartford, Conn., where empty seats in the new 10,507-capacity civic center Coliseum were gratifyingly few.
It has no doubt contributed to their acceptance in the insurance capital that the Whalers have a bit of an institutional flavor themselves. Let others have their Howes and Hulls, the Whalers get what scoring they need from such relatively faceless forwards as Tom Webster (40 goals), Wayne Carleton (35) and Larry Pleau (30). "People say we're dull," concedes Winger Webster, an ex-NHLer who has played for New England since the team's founding. "But we're solid. We're a super hockey team."
Still, the Whalers' basically conservative approach did not prevent them from staging another of those controversial underage signings for which the WHA is famous. This one yielded Gordie Roberts, a hard-skating innocent of 18 who joins a corps of fine defensemen that includes Brad Selwood, Rick Ley and Sweden's Thommy Abrahamsson. But easy come, easy go. New England lost a player when Goalie Al Smith decided to give up hockey. The job may go to Christer Abrahamsson, Thommy's twin brother, and in large part the Whalers' hopes of overtaking Houston depend on how well Christer has recovered from surgery on his right knee.
So steep is the dropoff after the Whalers that the runner-up spot could go to Cincinnati, an expansion team that, like a Hollywood epic, has been two years in the making. In a kind of lend-lease arrangement, the Stingers started signing players in 1973 and then shrewdly let other WHA teams use them—on a salary-sharing basis. Now, with the $20 million Riverfront Coliseum ready for occupancy, back come 32-goal scorer Dennis Sobchuk and hustling Defense-man John Hughes, both of whom acquired seasoning at Phoenix. Add Winger Rick Dudley, a fugitive from the NHL Buffalo Sabres, and you have the makings of a lively intrastate rivalry with Cleveland, which compensates for a punchless offense—or tries to, anyway—with Gerry Cheevers' inspired goaltending. The Crusaders should also get a lift from Bryan Maxwell, a rookie defenseman whose tough-guy reputation leads him to conclude perceptively, "I guess I'll have to establish myself early."
So where does this leave Indianapolis? As part of his commendable campaign to overhaul the Racers, resourceful Jim Browitt sent a couple of marginal players to a Swedish club in exchange for Goalie Leif Holmquist in hockey's first intercontinental trade. And, as Browitt insists, the acquisition of Pat Stapleton will help. But Stapleton himself says that a complete turnaround "will take longer than some people think." Pat Stapleton knows whereof he speaks. He was formerly player, coach and part owner of the WHA's Chicago franchise—which folded.
The Toronto Toros and Winnipeg Jets held training camps in Sweden and Finland respectively, which is just one of the novelties in this division. Another is speculation that a couple of the Canadian clubs may soon be turning—don't faint—profits. Save for the fact that no Canadian team has yet won the WHA championship, you could call this the league's most successful division.
The likeliest candidate to end the title drought is Quebec, last year's runner-up to Houston. Nordique fans whip themselves into a Gallic frenzy when Defenseman J. C. Tremblay, that stylish stickhandler, does nothing more than clear the puck, so you can imagine how they react when the potent goal-scoring machine of Serge Bernier (54), Marc Tardif (50) and Rejean Houle (40) puts another one in the nets. The speedy Nordiques remain deficient in muscle, but newcomer Gord Gallant should get them out of the 98-pound-weakling class. Gallant arrives from Minnesota, where he led the WHA with 203 penalty minutes before making himself expendable by punching Fighting Saint Coach Harry Neale.
If things are looking better in Winnipeg, credit both the handsome mop covering Bobby Hull's once-bald pate and—speaking of transplants—the team's growing horde of Scandinavians. Hull, the league's MVP, scored an unprecedented 77 goals last season and joined with his Swedish linemates, WHA rookie-of-the-year Anders Hegberg and 120-point scorer Ulf Nilsson, to form the WHA's, if not all hockey's, most explosive line. Hegberg and Nilsson provided such value—neither earns more than $60,000—that the Jets have bullishly raised their total of Swedish and Finnish players to nine. A playoff berth ought to mean black ink in Winnipeg.
Another club with a chance to make money is Edmonton, which tied for last place last season yet led the WHA with a home-attendance average of 10,722. Goalie Dave Dryden, Ken's older brother, and longtime NHL Center Norm Ullman have arrived and along with Winger Mike Rogers, a 35-goal scorer as a rookie, should give the Oilers the upper hand in the budding rivalry with nearby Calgary, which is where the Vancouver Blazers wound up after being chased out of town by the NHL Canucks. Renamed the Cowboys and operating out of a 6,445-seat arena evocatively named the Stampede Corral, the club is short of able defensemen, which means that Goaltender Don McLeod will have to contend with the shootout in front of his net all by his lonesome.
Toronto should finish ahead of both Edmonton and Calgary, but strange things are happening. The Toros let Wayne Dillon and Pat Hickey, both good young prospects, slip away to the NHL's New York Rangers, and those are just two of the reasons why season-ticket sales are off by 25%. Another is the oddly dispirited play of Frank Mahovlich, who ranks behind only Howe and Hull among the sport's alltime leading scorers. Mahovlich, a $200,000-a-year man, is drawing more boos from Toronto fans playing for the hometown Toros than he ever did in the uniform of the despised Montreal Canadiens.
Coach Bob Baun, an aggressive sort as an NHL defense-man, may yet succeed in imposing the necessary discipline on the Toros, whose still-talented ranks also include Czech Center Vaclav Nedomansky, 52-goal scorer Tom Simpson and bruising Defenseman Jim Dorey. Meanwhile, the suspicion lingers that the Toros trained in Sweden only because Owner John F. Bassett Jr. wanted to spare Torontonians the sight of the team. Of the decline in ticket sales, Bassett says, "You can't blame subscribers for canceling, not with the garbage product they put up with last year." So there is another novelty in this division: candor.