The NHL went through the expansion process several years ago. Three cities were thought to be serious about joining the league, but only one, Las Vegas, was granted a franchise — Seattle couldn’t decide on an ownership group and didn’t have an arena while Quebec City had an arena and an ownership group but the NHL didn’t like the market. The result is a 31 team league.
No one from the city of Houston submitted a bid during that expansion process. Primarily because there was only person who was in a position to pull it off, and that person was Les Alexander, the owner of the Houston Rockets and the person who controlled the Toyota Center lease. Alexander made a few attempts in the 1990s to bring a NHL team to Houston, but failed. And when the NHL expansion talk started again, Alexander was quiet on the subject.
By this time, Alexander had already run off of the minor league Houston Aeros and word was he was making more money not leasing out the arena to a hockey team than he would by leasing it out to a team or by getting his own team. It thus made no sense for any other potential ownership group in Houston to consider bringing a team to Houston since it appeared there would be no place for the team to play.
But now Tilman Fertitta owns the Rockets and the Toyota Center lease, and Fertitta has not only expressed an interest in bringing a NHL team to Houston, he has also had meetings with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in regards to getting a team. Now it’s up to the NHL to decide best how to make hockey in Houston happen again.
It would make sense for the NHL to expand and go to 32 teams. But it’s become my understanding that expansion is off the table for moment. The NHL would instead prefer to first stabilize some of its troublesome franchises, and one way the league is looking at stabilizing such franchises is through relocation to another city. A city such as Houston.
Houston presents a bit of a perfect opportunity for the league. It’s got a possible owner in Fertitta who has a passion for sports, a passion for Houston, and who seems passionate about bringing hockey to the city. Houston also has an arena which seats more than 17,000 fans and which was built with a NHL franchise in mind. It’s an arena run by Fertitta who has stated he wants it busy every night, and who, since he’s also a NBA team owner, means there won’t be some of the conflicts seen in other cities where NBA and NHL teams have different owners but share the arena.
Houston also has more of a substantial history with hockey than most of the other southern cities the league has moved into over the years. Legendary hockey great Gordie Howe came out of retirement to play with his sons in the WHA version of the Houston Aeros, and the Aeros won multiple titles. The minor league Aeros were successful on both the ice and with attendance in both the IHL and the AHL — the team only left Houston because of Alexander’s lease demands. Thus a committed owner, an arena, a large market, and a market with hockey history all favor the sport in Houston.
There are numerous candidates for relocation to Houston. No. 1 on the list is the Arizona Coyotes which is begging the Phoenix-metro area to build it a new arena after failing to attract fans to the taxpayer-funded arena built for the Coyotes in Glendale and which is currently playing on a year-to-year lease. Then there are the Carolina Hurricane which have been struggling at the gate. The New York Islanders are unhappy in a new arena in Brooklyn and are seeking to move, and the Calgary Flames are threatening to move if a new arena is not built by Calgary taxpayers.
An educated guess would be that it is the Coyotes who relocate to Houston within the next several years. That team has struggled throughout its time in Phoenix and has never been able to attract a strong fanbase. The question then becomes one of the current Coyotes owner being willing to sell the team to Fertitta, or failing that, whether Fertitta would be content with being the landlord to a hockey team playing in his building?
Hockey in Houston is going to happen. It’s just a matter of how. And it’s just a matter of when.