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.