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Howe? He showed 'em

Aided by his two sons, old Gordie led Houston to the promised land

Geriatric marvel though he is, it was a suspiciously fast fade that Gordie Howe pulled last week after leading the Houston Aeros to the World Hockey Association championship. Howe showed up at the victory celebration in a Houston hotel, only to disappear after a couple of quick beers, leaving his teammates, including sons Marty and Mark, to revel without him. Twenty-year-old Marty Howe partied into the wee hours with a comely blonde, while 19-year-old Mark did not return home until noon the next day. And Dad? "I got a good night's sleep," said Gordie.

Thus did the old fellow finally act his age. Lured out of retirement this season to fulfill his longtime dream of playing alongside his eldest sons, Howe achieved an improbable comeback. Graying and gristly at 46, he became the WHA's third-leading scorer, with 100 points, and the overwhelming choice for MVP. His sturdy play helped Houston roll over all WHA competition, including a four-game sweep of the Chicago Cougars in the playoff finals. Winning the championship of the two-year-old league, said Howe, pleased him more than the four Stanley Cups his Detroit Red Wings captured during his 25-year career as the NHL's premier scorer. "This one's sweeter because I never expected to be here," he said. "And having the boys with me is the best part."

Besides the satisfaction of taking his sons into the family business, Howe extricated himself from an unhappy situation in Detroit, where he had languished as a vice-president of the Red Wings. While Detroit is famous for forced obsolescence, Houston is the city of space shots and other miracles. During the WHA's first season, the Aeros put together a solid but unspectacular team that failed to catch the fancy of hockey-ignorant Houston. Then the Aero moneymen shelled out $2 million to sign the Howes to separate four-year contracts. "We needed something to give hockey a boost here," recalls Coach Bill Dineen. "It wasn't a gimmick, though. We felt that all three Howes could really help us."

Agreeing, Gordie and Colleen Howe rented office space in Houston for the family's far-flung investments in cattle, real estate and banking. They also bought a $225,000 house, moving in with Marty, Mark and 15-year-old Cathy (the youngest Howe, Murray, 14, attends school and plays Midget hockey in Detroit), leaving the door open for other Aeros to drop by. "Gordie treats the rest of us the same way he does his boys," says Andre Hinse, a speedy Aero left wing. "In a way we're all his sons."

Howe had long been bothered by an arthritic left wrist, a condition that made him a one-armed player in his last seasons as a Red Wing, but surgery had recently brought relief. He controlled the puck less than in olden days, partly because of the take-charge presence of Mark Howe, who played left wing on Gordie's line—and became the WHA's Rookie of the Year. Chicago Player-Coach Pat Stapleton insists that the poised and sharpshooting Mark is already the WHA's best all-round player. Marty Howe, meanwhile, proved himself a hard-checking defenseman.

With the arrival of the Howes the Aeros came alive on the ice and at the box office. Attendance averaged 7,200, up 60%, and corporations began ringing up for season tickets. The team developed a rabid following, including a group of fans from a local bar that had its own bagpipers and card section. Another contingent, complete with bells, horns and sirens, included Allen Abramson, a real-estate man who once celebrated a Houston goal against Chicago by flinging his toupee into the air.

Encouraged by such razzmatazz, the Aeros hope to show a profit next year, a state of financial bliss realized so far by few if any WHA clubs. One difficulty is that the new league has been forced to take potluck with arenas, a circumstance underscored when a production of Peter Pan starring Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby was booked successively into the home buildings of each of the championship finalists—first the International Amphitheatre in Chicago and then the Sam Houston Coliseum. This wreaked havoc with the playoff schedule, forcing the Cougars' home games into a 3,000-seat rink in a shopping center in suburban Mount Prospect, Ill. Said Aero President Jim Smith, "I'm rooting for Captain Hook."

Another problem developed when the Avco World Trophy, the WHA's answer to the Stanley Cup, arrived in Houston badly damaged in transit. "There are enough pieces for every player," moaned a league official. The trophy was patched up just hours before the Aeros completed their sweep of Chicago, a 6-2 win featuring routinely heady performances by Marty and Mark Howe and the gritty goaltending of Don McLeod. The 27-year-old McLeod had a fine year despite a clubbed right foot that bothers him so much—he has undergone five operations—that he leans against the goal at every opportunity to take the weight off it.

Then there were the contributions of Gordie Howe. Slope-shouldered and hunched slightly forward, he steamed up ice, thrusting his chin out in middle-aged determination as he fired on-target shots that other Aeros had no trouble deflecting past Chicago Goalie Cam Newton. He was credited with four assists in the clincher, all on power plays, giving him nine for the series. And Howe showed his other moves, too. As Chicago's Larry Mavety reared back to shoot in the final period, Gordie broke up the play by sprawling fearlessly in the puck's path, earning him a standing ovation. A moment later he and Mavety received two-minute penalties for tangling at the boards, and the Houston partisans, outraged by Gordie's banishment, showered litter onto the rink.

After the game, his 1,770th in big-league hockey, a champagne-drenched Howe spoke wearily of retirement, noting that his contract gives him the option of serving the remaining three years in the Aero front office. But he also said, "If I feel I can still contribute, I'll be back." The best guess is that he will play one more season, quitting just as the Aeros—Mark, Marty and the rest of his "sons"—move into a brand-new arena. The $18 million facility will replace Sam Houston Coliseum, which is considered hopelessly outmoded. It was built in 1938, which makes it 10 years younger than Gordie Howe.