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 fianc�e, 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.