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Tilman Fertitta Pledges to Be Aggressive in Bringing the NHL to Houston

Las Vegas gets ready to host an NHL exhibition game in 2016. Could Houston be the next NHL expansion franchise?
Las Vegas gets ready to host an NHL exhibition game in 2016. Could Houston be the next NHL expansion franchise?
Photo by John Royal
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Tilman Fertitta met with reporters on Tuesday for the first time as the owner of the Houston Rockets. It was  pretty much the standard presser for a new owner — a little biography, a little about the desire to always own a sports team in his hometown. There was talk of his management style, and talk about Les Alexander being perhaps the greatest team owner in Houston sports history.

And then there was the discussion of the NHL and whether Fertitta might seek to bring a team into Houston. The question was first fielded by Tad Brown, the CEO of the Rockets under Les Alexander, who will also hold that role under Fertitta. Brown made clear that Alexander had looked into the possibility in the past, but that the economics had never worked.

“We’ve looked at many NHL teams over the years,” Brown said. “It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to bring in somebody as whether they’d be a tenant or not; it’s just that the deals didn’t work. Leslie was always looking forward to opportunities that could make the city better, the sports scene in the city better, and Toyota Center more effective, and [to] fill more dates. But the NHL at the time — the teams that he looked at, and that we looked at — the numbers didn’t work, the CBA didn’t work. It just didn’t work the structure that we had in place.”

Brown didn’t specify when he and Alexander looked at the NHL, or whether he was looking at expansion or purchasing a team and moving it to Houston. Alexander did attempt to buy the Edmonton Oilers and relocate that team to Houston in the late 1990s, and Alexander was one of the official bidders for an expansion team at that same time in the NHL expansion wave that saw franchises awarded to Minnesota, Atlanta, Nashville and Columbus, Ohio.

But if something has gone on since that time, there was no follow-up, other than the fact that Alexander did not attempt to get an expansion team several years ago when the NHL was accepting bids and ultimately awarded a team to Las Vegas. On Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights played their first ever home game in Sin City.

Fertitta was clear that he would love a team in Houston because he would love to see the arena in use every night. That means that it is possible that Fertitta would not have to own a hockey club, just be a landlord to an NHL franchise as owner of the Toyota Center lease. But his wording also made clear that he himself is open to adding NHL franchise owner to his portfolio.

“I would love to bring an NHL team here," Fertitta told Mark Berman. "It's just got to make sense. It'd be hard to fathom that we can't support an NHL team here. Zero has happened, but we will start looking at it."

If Fertitta is serious, this could be a very opportune time to be looking into getting a franchise. The league has an odd number of teams, so expanding by one team would make perfect sense for the league, especially since that would put the NHL into one of the top media markets in the United States, which just happens to house many Fortune 500 companies. There’s also the fact that Fertitta owns the lease on an NHL-ready building, which is something that cities like Seattle cannot yet offer.

But expansion isn’t the only option. There are numerous NHL teams suffering from financial issues because of bad ownership or bad locations. Arizona has never drawn in Phoenix and is once again in search of a new arena in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The Calgary Flames are threatening to move if Calgary doesn’t give in to demands for a new arena. The New York Islanders are unhappy in Brooklyn. And you just have to know that one of those teams might leap at the chance to relocate to a NHL-ready arena.

“We’ll do whatever we can do, but whatever we do is going to make sense,” Fertitta told the media. “But yes, will we be aggressive? Yes, that’s my nature.”

Fertitta’s focus will rightly be on the Rockets, especially since the season is close to tipping off. But as Fertitta also stated, he’s very good at multitasking, and bringing the NHL to Houston could be just the perfect task for an aggressive dealmaker to work on.

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