Fifty years ago this summer, hell froze over in Houston when Texas’s Sweat City suddenly found itself at the center of the ice hockey world. Gordie Howe, the NHL’s all-time leader in career goals and points, shocked fans by coming out of retirement at age 45 to play for the Houston Aeros, of the outlaw World Hockey Association.
Howe returned to the ice for a chance to play professionally with his two oldest sons—nineteen-year-old Marty and eighteen-year-old Mark, budding stars in Canada’s junior hockey system. The NHL’s age threshold was twenty years old—and so was the WHA’s—until Aeros general manager Jim Smith and coach Bill Dineen, who’d played with Howe, gambled that they could get away with flouting the rule to gain attention for the two-year-old league by signing the two sons of “Mr. Hockey.”
It was Gordie’s idea to bring the trio of Howes to Houston. According to the Houston Chronicle, when reporters asked about the age difference between Howe and his new teammates, the hockey great said, “I hope they can keep up with me.”
The family affair didn’t stop with the father-and-sons trio. Colleen Howe, Gordie’s wife, helped negotiate the contracts that paid her husband $1 million spread over four seasons and a combined $1 million for Marty and Mark over the same period.
They played together in Houston for four seasons, the first two ending with the Aeros winning the league championship. Gordie, who died in 2016, wrote in his autobiography: “The early years in Houston with Marty and Mark were some of the most fun I’d ever had playing hockey. It made my comeback decision feel like a no-brainer.”
The multigenerational roster made for some curious team dynamics. “If we called him Dad, he wouldn’t even turn around and look at us,” Marty said in a recent interview. “So, we finally figured out if we didn’t call him Gordie, we were never going to talk to him again.”
Tony Pederson, who covered the Aeros for the Chronicle, recalled Mr. Hockey being Mr. Congeniality with a media that lacked hockey nuance. “Gordie was great,” said Pederson, now a professor emeritus of journalism at SMU. “I think part of it was he wanted to take some of that focus away from his kids.”
The Howes’ home debut took place on October 21, 1973. Gordie wrote of seeing a banner hanging from a downtown office tower that read: “Welcome to Howeston.” The Aeros played at creaky Sam Houston Coliseum, home to minor league hockey since the forties. The old barn was outfitted with standard plexiglass atop the rink’s boards that season. Before then, teams had made do with chicken wire.
As the Aeros headed to their locker room after warm-ups, Marty pulled Mark aside and pointed ahead to their father. With three Howes on the team, two with the same first initial, all three had their first and last names stitched across the backs of their sweaters. But their father’s name had been misspelled: “GORIDE HOWE.” Marty recalled it as “GO RIDE HOWE.” “It fit for Texas,” he said. “We told the trainer, and he went and got it changed right away. It was good by game time.”
That first year, with Houston’s other pro teams struggling, the time was right for the fledgling hockey league to make a splash. The Oilers were in the middle of consecutive 1–13 seasons. The Rockets, who’d arrived from San Diego in 1971, had played 13 home games the previous season in San Antonio. The Astros were still seven years away from their first division title.
Sam Houston Coliseum could accommodate fewer than 10,000 fans for hockey and was possibly the perfect setting for Houston’s introduction to the big-league game. “The fans are just right on top of you, just vocal, loud as hell,” Mark recalled. “That, and also playing in the humidity. Those were two huge advantages we had playing at home. The fans were great. The ice was pretty good, I think better than a lot of the rinks are today. It’s easier when you have a smaller facility to keep it cool.”
“The people, I don’t think they knew much about hockey, but they sure had a good time,” Marty said. “Nickel Beer Nights—usually there were more fights in the stands than there were on the ice, which is kind of hard to do.”
Gordie, after two years away from competitive hockey, struggled through training camp. “He was turning different kinds of purple,” Marty said. The legend finally scored his first WHA goal nine games in, at home against the Los Angeles Sharks. The goal was a reminder of the physicality behind much of his NHL success (hence the saying that a Gordie Howe hat trick included a goal, an assist, and a fight). The goal was a product of what the Chronicle described as a “violent” collision of Howe, Sharks goalie Paul Hoganson, and the left goalpost. The puck dribbled across the goal line, Howe was credited with the goal, and Hoganson left the game with a back injury.
The Howes rented a home off Memorial Drive during their time in Houston, with a swimming pool and a putting green in the backyard. The youngest Howe brother, thirteen-year-old Murray, stayed in Detroit to pursue his junior hockey career. Daughter Cathy came south but became homesick and returned to Michigan after a few years. Gordie, an enthusiastic meat eater, adjusted quickly to the family’s adopted home. He wrote: “I was a big fan of the beef in Texas.”
Goals and assists eventually came in bunches for the elder Howe, who played alongside Mark on Houston’s top forward line, with Marty on defense. Gordie scored 31 goals, led the Aeros with one hundred points—seventeen off the league lead—and was named the WHA’s most valuable player. (Mark topped the family with 38 goals and was voted rookie of the year.) Houston finished with the league’s best record and breezed through the playoffs, sweeping the Chicago Cougars in the WHA finals. The Aeros’ average home attendance improved by 48 percent to 6,811 that season, ranking third among the league’s twelve teams. Meanwhile, the Rockets’ home attendance of 3,855 per game that season was the worst in the NBA.
Mark hoped Gordie would follow the championship, his first since winning a fourth Stanley Cup with Detroit in 1955, by going back into retirement, to leave on a high note. Instead, Gordie returned with his boys and won another WHA championship the next season. That year he wasn’t named the league MVP, but the trophy was named for him.
The Chronicle reported that after the second title, with the Aeros moving to the newly opened Summit arena for 1975–76, Gordie planned to play one game there and then skate off into the sunset. But he stuck around for two more full seasons in Houston with his boys. Their first season in the Summit, the Aeros averaged a club-record attendance of 9,180.
With their original contracts expiring following the ’76–77 season, the Howes and the Aeros’ new ownership couldn’t agree on new deals; the franchise would fold a year later. The brothers were now old enough to play in the NHL, and the Boston Bruins offered Mark a deal, but he turned them down. If he’d signed with Boston, Gordie would have retired, and “it’s not going to be on my résumé that I made Gordie Howe retire,” Mark said.
Instead, the three Howes stayed in the WHA, moving to Hartford, Connecticut, to play with the New England Whalers. When the Whalers became one of four WHA teams absorbed into the NHL in 1979 upon the upstart league’s demise, Gordie enjoyed one more go-round in the NHL—turning 52 late that season.
Mark became an NHL standout in sixteen seasons, the final three with his father’s beloved Red Wings, and he joined Gordie in the Hall of Fame in 2011. Marty played parts of six NHL seasons, ending his career in 1985.
Colleen, “Mrs. Hockey” to many, died in 2009. Earlier this month, she was inducted into Michigan’s Sports Hall of Fame for her contributions as an agent and manager, and for helping to bring Canada’s elite Junior A hockey to the United States. “I think Dad would be more proud of that than any of his Stanley Cups,” Mark said.
Marty, Mark, and many of the old Aeros will gather this weekend in Houston for a reunion organized primarily by teammate Jack Stanfield and Charlotte Grahame (wife of Aeros goalie Ron Grahame). There will be a day of golf, a trip to Friday’s Astros game, and a public event on Sunday at Sugar Land Ice.
“It’s going to be fun,” Marty said. He conceded that he might need photos to identify some of his former teammates—besides his brother.