It's been six years since the Houston Aeros packed Toyota Center during a run for the AHL title. It's been four years since the team came out on the losing end of a lease battle with Les Alexander and relocated to Iowa.
Another season has ended without hockey in Houston, yet there are still hockey fans here. They still long to sit in an arena and watch fast, intense action. But will professional hockey ever return to Houston?
There was some discredited talk last year about an AHL team coming to Pasadena that was easily shot down. There have been hopes that Sugar Land would build an arena that could be home to a team. But that has not happened. And what about the NHL?
The short answer is no. Houston was used as a stalking horse to help get the Penguins a new arena in Pittsburgh several years ago. But other than that, Houston has pretty much been off the NHL radar since the great Les Alexander-Chuck Watson feud of the 1990s helped to send an expansion team to Nashville instead of Houston, followed by Alexander’s failed attempt to buy the Edmonton Oilers and relocate that team to Houston.
But if Alexander were to get on the phone with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and say he's ready for a team, odds are the NHL would head to Houston in a heartbeat. Toyota Center was built to NHL specs. Alexander owns the lease so there would be no nasty rent negotiations. Houston is a market that has supported hockey in the past, unlike Phoenix, Miami and lots of Southern cities. There are ready-made rivalries with Dallas and Nashville, just as in the NFL.
Alexander reportedly angered NHL owners during those past attempts to buy the Edmonton Oilers, get the expansion team, and then in running the Aeros out of town. But the NHL does not have the same TV revenue as the other major leagues, so if Alexander were to offer up huge sums for an expansion franchise, money that goes in the pockets of other owners, he'd likely be approved.
And the NHL is expanding by one team for this next season as Las Vegas joins. That leaves the NHL with an odd number of teams, but there has been no serious talk of further expansion.
The lack of expansion talk to balance out the NHL is likely tied to the continuing struggles for fan support in Phoenix, Miami and Raleigh. And just last week the Calgary Flames threatened to relocate if Calgary did not acquiesce to the team's arena desires.
It's likely that the league holds out hope that if push comes to shove, one of these teams could relocate to a city hungry for hockey. The two cities seemingly at the top of every list are Quebec City, a hockey-mad town in a hockey-mad country with a brand-new arena, and Seattle, where interest has been high and which made a strong push for the expansion team that Las Vegas got.
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Unlike Seattle, Houston has an arena ready to go. Unlike Quebec City, Houston is a huge metropolis with lots of big businesses dying to buy corporate boxes. But working against Houston is the fact that Les Alexander controls the Toyota Center lease.
This is not a problem if Alexander buys a team, but none of the potential relocation teams have spoken of being up for sale. That means reaching a lease agreement with Alexander for the use of Toyota Center, and he has shown he really doesn't like sharing a building.
There is no other building capable of hosting NHL hockey in Houston (or AHL, for what that matters) and it would be the height of insanity to build another arena in Houston. So hockey essentially has to go through Les Alexander to get back to Houston.
Les Alexander has given no indication that he wants to purchase a hockey team — especially during the expansion talks that brought a team to Las Vegas. So while it's nice to think about hockey's return to Houston every time a team indicates that it is going to move, the odds of that happening are as slight as Houston's temperature dropping into the 60s on a mid-August day.