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When Houston Met Gordie Howe

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Hockey legend Gordie Howe died last Friday. I never met Howe, and I never had any type of interaction with him, so I can’t write about Howe the person. I choose instead to write of Howe, the legend. Of Howe, the hockey great who had retired from hockey in 1971 at age 42 as one of the greatest hockey players ever.

It’s at that point that the legend of Howe grows even larger because, after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Howe returned to the ice, but not as a coach, but as a player. And he didn’t return to his former team the Detroit Red Wings, or to the NHL. Instead, at the age of 45, Gordie Howe, the man known as Mr. Hockey, came to Houston and joined the Houston Aeros.

The first iteration of the Houston Aeros was a powerhouse franchise in the World Hockey Association. The team played from just 1972 through 1978, but it made the playoffs in every season the team’s existence, played three times for the WHA’s Avco Cup championship trophy, winning it twice. And for four of those years, the team was led by Howe, an old man, by hockey standards, who came out of retirement so that he could play with his sons Mark and Marty who had been signed by the Aeros.

What Gordie Howe did during those years in Houston was remarkable for any player, not just a player of his age. He netted over 30 goals in three of the four seasons with 65 or more assists in three of those four. With those numbers, and with the Aeros winning, Houston became a hockey town, and it became evidence that the teams in the south could support a professional hockey franchise.

Howe went to the WHA All Star game twice in his four seasons in Houston, and he also won the WHA’s Most Valuable Player trophy once — a trophy that would become known as the Gordie Howe Trophy. It’s easy to think that Gordie Howe took advantage of the lesser competition offered up by a brand new league, to rack up points and awards. But the WHA was a serious league, raiding NHL teams and bringing in top talent. So while the league was new, what Howe did was against top talent.

It’s a bit hard to think of Houston as a hot spot for hockey. But that was the case in the 1970s. The Aeros were a relatively stable franchise, playing the first several seasons in the Sam Houston Coliseum before moving to The Summit when it opened up. The Aeros' success and stability was a stark contrast to that of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets bounced around multiple arenas and cities during the early years in Houston, playing at the Dome, the Astro Hall, the Sam Houston Coliseum and Hofheinz Pavilion, while also playing home games in San Antonio, Waco, and Albuquerque.

Howe and his sons eventually departed Houston for Hartford, Connecticut and the New England Whalers, a team that would survive the WHA and merger with the NHL. With the Whalers, Howe made his return to the NHL, playing one season at the age of 51, the oldest man to ever play in the league. The Aeros meanwhile faded away into nothingness after owner Kenneth Schnitzer’s attempts to get the Aeros into the NHL failed.

The Houston Aeros returned as a minor league franchise in the 1990s, playing in The Summit before moving to Toyota Center. The team developed a passionate fan base, drawing on people with memories of Howe and the original WHA franchise. And 20-30 years later, Gordie Howe was still an electric name to that group of Aeros fans, the hockey legend who willingly came to Houston and who, for a short time, and helped make Houston a major league hockey city.

Gordie Howe returned to Houston many times after he retired. The last time was during the Aeros 2010-2011 season. There was an electric feel in the arena that night with fans hoping to get a glimpse of the great one. But the electricity was greater in the bowels of the building as players, coaches, officials, and any person with any reason for being in the lower parts of the arena trying to get over to Howe and shake his hand or get a photo.

Gordie Howe reacted, of course, as a legend is supposed to react. He smiled. He shook hands. He laughed, and he posed. There was no hint of irritation, or of resignation. And after the game, the players didn’t talk about what the game, or what happened. They talked about meeting Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey. No matter what else might happen, they’ll always have the night they met a legend.

Houston might be without hockey at the moment, and it might be so for a long, long to come. But for a few short years, Houston was the center of the hockey universe, and Gordie Howe made that all possible. 

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