It's been two years since professional hockey was last played in Houston. The game, played April 28, 2013, was a 3-2 Aeros loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins in game two of the first round of the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs. The Aeros, not able to come to terms with Toyota Center for a new lease, relocated to Des Moines the following season.
Many of the Aeros on that last squad to play in Houston played key roles as the Minnesota Wild, the NHL team that owned the Aeros, won it's first round Stanley Cup playoff series over the St. Louis Blues yesterday. While happy for the players, and the Wild, it undoubtedly brought about some bittersweet feelings for those Aeros fans now deprived of a team. And it also, as always, brings up talk as to whether there will ever be another AHL team in Houston, or whether Houston could support an NHL franchise.
Houston could support another AHL team, and it could definitely support an NHL team. The Wild was happy with Houston as a home for the Aeros. Attendance was good, the fans were passionate, and players and staff liked playing in Houston. The proximity of two major airports allowed the Wild to easily call up players and get them to any location needed. The league liked having a team in Houston for these same reasons. And Toyota Center was built with housing a hockey team in mind, which would make it easy to accommodate an NHL team.
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Here's the thing. This is just not going to happen. The Wild didn't want to move the Aeros out of Houston. But the Wild were supposedly presented with lease terms that would have the team paying a 300-percent increase in rent while not getting a share of the concessions or parking revenue. There was also supposedly a tentative deal reached for the use of NRG Arena, but Rodeo Houston demands for exclusive facility use for four straight weeks was too much for the AHL, which would not allow a team to travel for that long. Sure, earlier this month there was an American City Business Journals report released that found Houston was one of the most desirable cities for NHL expansion -- note, this report also found Grand Rapids, MI, Albany, NY, and Birmingham AL just as desirable for expansion as Houston. And late last year there was talk of the AHL relocating a team to Sugar Land, as long as someone built a hockey arena for the team.
What's missing from these reports is a very simple fact: there's been no expressed interest by any Houston powerbroker towards wanting to own an expansion franchise, and it's even harder to imagine that there's going to be one seeing as how the NHL wants a $500 million expansion fee. It's also difficult to believe that anyone would buy a AHL team and pay Les Alexander's exorbitant lease demands. Meanwhile powerbrokers in Seattle, Las Vegas, and Quebec City are doing everything possible to bring in NHL teams, and the AHL has no problem with finding cities that provide hospitable housing for minor league franchises.
Several days before that final game at Toyota Center, the Aeros had a pregame skate. Despite being invited, most of the Houston media chose to instead camp out at the Texans office since it was the opening day of the NFL draft. But down in the bowels of the arena, in that corridor that led to the locker room shared by the Aeros and the Rocket Power Dancers, were some Toyota Center underlings who were grabbing Aero players and videotaping their responses to a question regarding their fondest memories of the arena, being as how the 10th anniversary of the building was approaching. It was kind of a strange thing to be asking players of a team that had already announced it was relocating at season's end, and made even more weird when one Aeros players responded to the underling with "why, aren't we leaving?"
It's understandable that there are people who want hockey to return to Houston. Houston's a good market that would support the sport -- did support the sport -- and it can't do worse than Atlanta did, or as Miami's now doing in terms of support. But the reality is that it's not going to happen. But the expansion's fee ridiculously high, no one's stepped forward to lead any efforts to bring a team here, and the obstacle presented by Les Alexander with there being no other alternative hockey facility in Houston is probably just too much to overcome.