Houston Aeros (1994–2013)

The Houston Aeros were a professional ice hockey team in the American Hockey League. The team played in Houston, Texas, at The Summit (renamed Compaq Center in 1998) from their inception in 1994 until 2003 when they moved to the Toyota Center, where they remained until the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season when they relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, rechristened as the Iowa Wild. The team operated as an independent minor league team from 1994-2001 when they were members of the International Hockey League, though occasionally accepted some players on loan from various National Hockey League clubs for development. Upon joining the AHL for the 2001-2002 season, they became the primary affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, a partnership they maintain to this day in Iowa. While the team's only formal partnership with the Dallas Stars came in the form of a partial affiliation agreement during the 2004-2005 season, Dallas occasionally sent some of their prospects to the Aeros on individual loans from 1993-2005, until the establishment of the Iowa Stars gave Dallas its own primary farm team. As of March 12th, 2020, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon, and Matt Dumba are the only players still in the Minnesota Wild system who had once spent time in Houston.

Houston Aeros
Houston Aeros.svg
CityHouston, Texas
LeagueAmerican Hockey League
Operated1994–2013
Home arenaCompaq Center (Houston) (1994-2003)
Toyota Center (2003-2013)
ColorsGreen, Red, Wheat, White                    
Owner(s)Minnesota Sports and Entertainment (86%),
Chuck Watson (10%),
Nick Sheppard (4%)
AffiliatesMinnesota Wild
(2001–2013)
Dallas Stars (partial)
(2004–2005)
Franchise history
1994–2013Houston Aeros
2013–presentIowa Wild
Championships
Regular season titles1 IHL (1998–99)
0 AHL
Division Championships1 IHL (1998–99)
1 AHL (2002–03)
Conference Championships3 (1998–99) (2002-2003) (2010–11)
Turner Cups1 (1998–99)
Calder Cups1 (2002-03)

Early yearsEdit

The Houston Aeros started out as an expansion franchise in the IHL in 1994. The team's name was a tribute to the original Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association in the 1970s, who won the Avco World Trophy twice with hockey legend Gordie Howe anchoring the team. The Aeros were the second IHL team to be named after a WHA franchise, the first being the Phoenix Roadrunners; unlike the Roadrunners, who used the same logo as their WHA predecessor, the IHL Aeros used a new logo, a Douglas B-23 Dragon bomber underneath a stylized wordmark. The original color scheme was forest green, navy blue, and a red accents on jerseys.

The team was an immediate success, both on the ice and at the gate. The Aeros posted a winning record in their inaugural season and made the playoffs, while the team repeatedly sold out its home games at The Summit, impressive for a deep southern market that hadn't had professional hockey in nearly two decades.

Despite missing the playoffs in their sophomore campaign, the Aeros spent the back half of the 1990's becoming one of the more dominant teams of the IHL. Independently owned and operated by Chuck Watson without a primary NHL affiliate, the franchise spent money on burgeoning stars still trying to make a name for themselves and former NHL players in the twilight of their careers. Some of these signings included Mark Freer, who still holds the Houston/Iowa franchise record for career goals, eventual coach Mike Yeo, veteran NHLer Jim Paek, and lethal goaltending duo Frederic Chabot and Manny Fernandez. In 1996, Watson hired former Hartford Whalers standout player Dave Tippett as his head coach. Houston won 44 games in 1996-1997, and followed that up with their first 50 win campaign in franchise history the next year, losing in the 1998 Western Conference Finals to the Long Beach Ice Dogs.[1]

Turner Cup ChampionshipEdit

By the start of the 1998-1999 season, the Aeros had assembled one of the best teams in IHL history. The goalie tandem of Chabot and Fernandez posted a combined 2.35 goals against average, the best in the league by far. With minor league journeyman Jeff Christian scoring a team-leading 45 goals and along with 109 points (including 88 assists) from former Michigan Wolverines star Brian Wiseman, Houston rolled to a 54-15-13 record with 121 points in the standings, 10 more than the closest team to them, the Detroit Vipers.[2]

Despite the record-breaking regular season, the Aeros struggled in the playoffs. While they earned a bye from the best-of-three preliminary round, it took Houston the full five games series to eliminated the Long Beach Ice Dogs in the second round. For the Western Conference Finals, Houston matched up with their long-time expansion rivals, the Chicago Wolves. Again, the series was a back and forth affair, with the Aeros advancing to their first Turner Cup Finals with a win over the Wolves in Game 7 at the Compaq Center.

The Aeros faced the Orlando Solar Bears for the 1999 Turner Cup. Much like their previous series, neither team could find a significant edge, and the best-of-seven went to a final seventh game at the Compaq Center. In another back and forth contest before a sold out home crowd of more than 16,000, the Aeros won their first championship in franchise history with a 5-3 victory.[3]

Move to the AHLEdit

As is the case with many successful minor league teams, much of the 1999 Turner Cup team began a slow deconstruction. Dave Tippett left that summer to take an assistant job with the Los Angeles Kings. Captain Mike Yeo signed a NHL contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who assigned him to their minor league affiliate in the AHL, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. While Houston still posted winning seasons with playoff appearances the next two years, they were never able to get close to another Turner Cup.

By 2001, the IHL was in dire financial straights. The league had expanded well beyond its capacity in the 1980's and 1990's, straining an increasingly thin talent pool of players. Part of the aggressive expansion included moving into already-established NHL markets. As a result, the NHL actively encouraged its owners to reassign their development operations to clubs in the American Hockey League, the chief rival of the IHL. Without any support from the NHL and league costs already stretched thing, the IHL declared bankruptcy and disbanded during the summer of 2001.

With the AHL looking to increase its prestige as the top development league for the NHL, the AHL began discussions to absorb some of the IHL's more well-to-do clubs. The AHL and IHL eventually agreed for the AHL to absorb six franchises; the Aeros, who had made the playoffs in all but one of their IHL seasons and were selling out more than half of their games at the Compaq Center each year, were admitted to the AHL for the 2001-2002 season along with the Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins, Milwaukee Admirals, Manitoba Moose, and Utah Grizzlies.

Calder Cup ChampionshipEdit

The Aeros joined the AHL just one year after the NHL expanded, and the Minnesota Wild, coming off their inaugural season, didn't have a primary development affiliate. With the ability to easily transport prospects wherever needed due to Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the Wild pounced at the opportunity and entered an agreement with the Aeros to have them become the team's top development affiliate. Now full of young NHL prospects and with Todd McLellan installed as head coach by the Wild, the Aeros made the Western Conference Finals in their first AHL season before falling to their old IHL rivals, the Chicago Wolves.[4]

For the 2002-2003 season, the Aeros assembled one of the best teams in their AHL history. Behind 31 goals from Jean-Guy Trudel and solid goaltending from Johan Holmqvist and Derek Gustafson, Houston swept the Milwaukee Admirals in the first round, disposed of the Norfolk Admirals in six games, and prevailed in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals over the Grand Rapids Griffins. Houston took on the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Calder Cup Finals, and with the series again going the distance, the Aeros captured their first AHL title with a 3-0 road victory.[5]

Later yearsEdit

For the 2003-2004 season, the Aeros replaced their original bomber logo, carried over from their IHL days, to a new logo featuring a forward-facing modern fighter jet below a bold "AEROS", and switched to the WHA Aeros colors of light and dark blue. The revert to the WHA color scheme didn't last long; NHL teams began to build stronger ties with their farm clubs, and as part of their affiliation with the Wild, the Aeros changed their colors to the Wild's forest green and iron range red along with wheat accents. In both color schemes, the fighter jet logo was not popular with many of the longtime fans and thus, prior to the 2006–07 season, the Aeros announced they would bring back the original bomber logo associated with their championship seasons with only minor color alterations; the navy blue elements of the original logo were replaced with forest green.[6]

On the ice, the Aeros remained competitive, but were never able to get back to championship form. In their final 10 seasons before relocating, Houston qualified for the playoffs eight times, but only made it past the second round twice. They were eliminated in the 2009 Western Conference Finals by the Manitoba Moose. In 2011, the team made it back to the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since their 2003 victory, but fell in six games to the Binghamton Senators.

Relocation to IowaEdit

Despite the local popularity of the team (sellouts throughout their IHL tenure and a top 10 attendance ranking in all 12 AHL seasons, with many of those in the top five),[7] the presence of a hockey franchise didn't sit well with the then-owner of the Houston Rockets, Les Alexander. Bad blood had began between the two franchises in the 1990's; despite being a minor league hockey franchise, the Aeros had full control over operations at Compaq Center. When Alexander tried to break the Rockets lease on the building shortly after their 1995 title, Watson blocked the move, holding Alexander to his original agreement of expiration in 2003. Watson knew Compaq Center wasn't a viable long term option for his hockey franchise either though, and so the two sides agreed to an arena deal in 1997 that would give the Rockets and Aeros equal control over a new building. This moment of peace hit a snag in 1999 however, when the referendum for a new building was shot down by Harris County voters.

Alexander instead used the opportunity to shut the Aeros out of the building operations for good; in 2001, he reached his own agreement with the City of Houston to build the Toyota Center. The lease agreements of both the Aeros and Rockets expired in the summer of 2003, and with the city set to sell Compaq Center to Lakewood Church, the Aeros were forced to move into the Toyota Center and pay rent to the Rockets.[8]

Almost immediately, Alexander looked for a way to get the Aeros out of his new stadium. When the initial three year agreement between the Aeros and Rockets expired, Alexander's rent price skyrocketed. Negotiations were so stymied that Chuck Watson nearly relocated his hockey team in the summer of 2006 however, the AHL and NHL both stepped into the negotiating process, and the Aeros and Rockets agreed to a last-minute new seven year agreement that ran through the 2012-2013 season. Under the agreement though, the Aeros were suddenly paying some of the highest rent prices of any AHL franchise.[9]

When the 2012-2013 season came around, Alexander made it clear he wanted to use the 38 home dates the Aeros normally used the building to host concerts, something that could bring in a great deal more revenue than a minor league hockey team's rent could. Due to the already high rent he had to pay, Chuck Watson had since sold his majority stake of the Aeros to Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Minnesota Wild. In the first negotiations between Alexander and MS&E, the Rockets owner demanded a 550% increase in the team's rent if they wanted to stay.[10] Already paying some of the highest rent in the AHL, MS&E began exploring other options. Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa hadn't had professional hockey since the departure of the Iowa Chops franchise to Cedar Park, Texas in 2009. In negotiations with the venue, an agreement was made in which MS&E's rent costs would go from one of the highest in the AHL to one of the lowest, 27th of the AHL's 30 franchises. On April 18th, 2013, Minnesota Sports and Entertainment announced that the Aeros would be relocated to Des Moines at the conclusion of the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs.[11] The franchise played its final game under the Houston Aeros name just under a month later on May 4th, 2013, a 7-0 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins in a winner-take-all Game 5 in the opening round of the postseason.

Season-by-season resultsEdit

Regular Season Playoffs
Season Games Won Lost Ties OTL SOL Points PCT Goals
for
Goals
against
Standing Year Prelims 1st
round
2nd
round
3rd
round
Finals
1994–95 81 38 35 8 84 .519 272 283 2nd, Central 1995 L, 1–3, PHX
1995–96 82 29 45 8 66 .402 262 328 5th, Central 1996 Out of playoffs
1996–97 82 44 30 8 96 .585 247 228 2nd, Southwest 1997 W, 3–0, LV W, 4–1, SA L, 1–4, LB
1997–98 82 50 22 10 110 .671 268 214 2nd, Southwest 1998 L, 1–3, MIL
1998–99 82 54 15 13 121 .738 307 209 1st, Southwest 1999 W, 3–2, LB W, 4–3, CHI W, 4–3, ORL
1999–00 82 44 29 9 97 .591 219 197 3rd, Western 2000 W, 4–1, UTA L, 2–4, CHI
2000–01 82 42 32 8 92 .561 229 245 2nd, Western 2001 L, 3–4, MTB
2001–02 80 39 26 10 5 93 .581 234 232 2nd, West 2002 W, 3–2, UTA W, 4–0, HER L, 1–4, CHI
2002–03 80 47 23 7 3 104 .650 266 222 1st, West 2003 W, 3–0, MIL W, 4–2, NOR W, 4–3, GR W, 4–3, HAM
2003–04 80 28 34 14 4 74 .463 197 220 4th, West 2004 L, 0–2, CIN
2004–05 80 40 28 6 6 92 .575 212 195 4th, West 2005 L, 1–4, CHI
2005–06 80 50 24 3 3 106 .663 285 242 2nd, West 2006 W, 4–0, PEO L, 0–4, MIL
2006–07 80 27 43 4 6 64 .400 205 269 7th, West 2007 Out of playoffs
2007–08 80 45 29 2 4 96 .600 206 183 3rd, West 2008 L, 1–4, RCK
2008–09 80 38 31 2 9 87 .544 218 230 3rd, West 2009 W, 4-3, PEO W, 4-3, MIL L, 4-2, MTB
2009–10 80 34 34 7 5 80 .500 206 224 7th, West 2010 Out of playoffs
2010–11 80 46 28 1 5 96 .613 238 211 2nd, West 2011 W, 4-0, PEO W, 4-3, MIL W, 4–3, HAM L 2-4, BNG
2011–12 76 35 41 5 11 86 .566 202 206 4th, Midwest 2012 L, 1–3, OKC
2012–13 76 40 36 5 5 90 .592 212 199 4th, South 2013 L, 2-3, GR

PlayersEdit

Team CaptainsEdit

Retired numbersEdit

9 Gordie Howe (1973–77 with the WHA team)

Franchise recordsEdit

Single season
Goals: Patrick O'Sullivan, 47 (2005–06)
Assists: Brian Wiseman, 88 (1998–99)
Points: Kirby Law, 110 (2005–06)
Penalty minutes: Gord Donnelly, 333 (1995–96)
GAA: Josh Harding, 2.01 (2004–05)
SV%: Josh Harding, .930 (2004–05)
Career
Career goals: Mark Freer, 132
Career assists: Mark Freer, 210
Career points: Mark Freer, 342
Career penalty minutes: Erik Reitz, 721
Career goaltending wins: Frederic Chabot, 126
Career shutouts: Frederic Chabot, 18
Career games: Mark Freer, 469

ReferencesEdit

External linksEdit