Saturday, May 12, 2012
The third season of play in the World Hockey Association in 1974-75 saw the league still in a period of growth, as the league added both the Indianapolis Racers and the Phoenix Roadrunners, brining the number of clubs up to 14 from it's original 12.
While the league was not without it's issues that season, mainly the failure of the Michigan Stags, who were 18-40-3 in Detroit before folding in January and resurfacing a week later as the league-owned Baltimore Blades to complete the season with a dismal 3-13-1 run, there were many bright spots at the time.
Franchises in Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton, New England, Cleveland, Houston and Minnesota were all enjoying competitive play and healthy attendance at the time.
League scoring leader Andre Lacroix was the star attraction in San Diego, while the line of Bobby Hull and Swedish imports Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg were generating excitement not only in Winnipeg, but in the world of hockey as a whole. Gordie Howe was grabbing headlines in the world of sports playing his second season with his son's Mark and Marty in Houston.
The Howe Family, Gordie, Mark and Marty
With the addition of the two new clubs, the league expanded from two divisions to three, with the Canadian, Eastern and Western Divisions. The playoff format called for the top two teams in each division, regardless of record, to qualify for the playoffs, along with the best two clubs of the remaining eight.
Advancing from the Canadian Division were both the Quebec Nordiques (who had a second overall 92 points) and the Toronto Toros (88 points). The weak Eastern Division supplied the formidable New England Whalers (91 points) and the sub-.500 Cleveland Crusaders, who had only 73 points, who benefitted from the top two in each division rule, as they actually had less points than Winnipeg (81), Vancouver (76) and Edmonton (76), all of whom failed to qualify for the postseason!
The strongest division was definitely the Western Division, which sent the Houston Aeros (with a best overall 106 points), San Diego (90) and at-large qualifiers, the Minnesota Fighting Saints (87) and first year Phoenix Roadrunners (86).
The inaugural 1974-75 Phoenix Roadrunners
The Quarterfinals saw the Aeros open their playoffs with an opening game loss to Cleveland, but then win four in a row to advance past the lowest seeded Crusaders 4 games to 1 to set up a meeting with the Mariners, who ousted the Toros 4-2.
The Whalers were upset by Minnesota 4-2 and their reward was to face the Nordiques after they defeated the Roadrunners 4-1.
In the semifinals, Houston cruised past the Mariners in four straight, which included two lopsided shutouts 4-0 and 6-0, to earn their place in the finals and the opportunity to defend their championship won the previous season.
The other Semifinal was a bit unusual, as the the teams alternated clear cut wins over the course of the first five games, with every game being decided by at least two goals or more. Finally, Quebec put Minnesota away with a Game 6 win on the road by a score of 4-2, their second win on the road in three tries during the series.
The Aeros and Nordiques began their battle for the Avco World Trophy on May 3, 1975, with went the way of the Aeros 6-2 in Houston. Game 2 was the final Aeros game at the Sam Houston Coliseum, and they sent their first home out in style with a 5-3 victory as the series moved to Canada.
Goaltender Ron Grahame, who led the WHA in wins, shutouts and goals against average, shut out leading scorer Serge Bernier and the Nordiques 2-0 in Quebec to take a commanding 3 games to none lead.
Game 4, played on this date in 1975, was all Aeros, as they broke loose for a dominating 7-2 win to win their 12th straight playoff game and second consecutive championship.
Gordie Howe opened the scoring with his 7th playoff goal at 2:41 with the Aeros up a man. Quebec countered with a power play goal at 6:01. Mark Howe's power play goal at 12:18 put Houston back on top to stay and a Gord Labossiere goal with just seven seconds remaining in the first Houston into the locker room with a now two goal margin.
Gordie Howe's second of the game arrived midway through the second. Rejean Houle's second goal for Quebec gave them a glimmer of hope at 14:51 only to have Frank Hughes counter at 16:52 for a 5-2 Aeros lead after two despite begin outshot 30-23.
With Grahame holding the Nordiques at bay, goals by Larry Lund at 14:06 and Hughes on the power play at 18:30 sealed the victory and the championship for the Aeros.
Mark Howe led the Aeros in playoff scoring with 10 goals and 22 points in the Aeros 13 games, followed by father Gordie's 20 points. Regular season leading scorer Lund came next with 18. Grahame finished with a stellar 12-1 record, which included 3 shutouts, with a .941 save percentage and a goals against average of exactly 2.00 and even picking up an assist along the way.
Grahame would win the WHA Playoff MVP Award as well as the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the Best Goaltender for the 1974-75 season (his first of two, the other coming in 1977) in addition to being named the league's First Team All-Star Goaltender.
"All I wanted to do was repay the organization more than anything," Grahame said. "The best way to do that was to put the Aeros name back on the Avco Trophy. I've never played this many games together and won like this. With the defense we have, it's no secret why we won. Larry Hale, John Schella and Poul Popiel block shots or force play wide, resulting in long shots from the side. If I can't stop those shots, I shouldn't be playing."
He would be joined on the first team by Gordie Howe at right wing and defenseman Popiel on the Second Team.
Today's featured jersey is a 1976-77 Houston Aeros Ron Grahame jersey. This jersey, with it's single color, non-serifed font for the name on the back identifies at as being from either the 1975-76 or 1976-77 seasons, the latter of which saw Grahame win this second WHA Best Goaltender award. For their back-to-back championship seasons of 1974 and 1975, the names on the back of the Aeros jerseys used a thicker, serifed font for the names.
Today's video section is the Aeros from 1975-76, taking on the Winnipeg Jets, and staging an unreal comeback to win the game. And there was much rejoicing, which included something we've never seen before, a football style spike of the puck!