But in the Rockets' uncertain future, Houston hockey fans can feel a sense of optimism. With Les Alexander on his way out, a major impediment to the return of professional hockey to the city is gone.
There is no indication that that return is imminent — Alexander still controls the Toyota Center lease and there is no current talk in the NHL or the AHL about franchise expansion or relocation. But with a hockey arena opening up in one of the largest markets in North America — a market with a history of supporting hockey and which would probably already have an NHL club were it not for infighting among potential ownership groups — discussions could soon begin again.
The NHL sought expansion bids several years ago and accepted just one, the Vegas Golden Nights, which will have its inaugural season this year. This gives the league 31 teams, an odd number that is just perfect for the addition of another. The only other city to bid for a franchise at that time was Quebec City, and the NHL chose to pass. Seattle was thought to be gung-ho for a franchise, but there was no arena and dueling ownership, so that city lost out, too.
No ownership groups in Houston attempted to lure the NHL, which some hockey observers took as a sign of a lack of interest from the city. But that overlooks the matter that the only party in Houston in a position to bid on a team and also able to offer up an arena was Les Alexander, and Alexander had no interest in doing so. He also made clear over the years that he had no interest in sharing Toyota Center with another tenant — thus the AHL Aeros departed for Iowa despite solid fan support (the saga of the Aeros’ departure can be read here).
So if Alexander wasn’t interested in bidding on a team, and if there was no arena available for a team to play, why would any other person or groups in Houston attempt to bid for a team? But Alexander's selling the Rockets (and the lease that goes with it) opens up an NHL-ready hockey arena in Houston. And that’s something that Seattle, which the NHL seemed to favor, can’t offer, and, unlike Quebec City, Houston offers up a huge media market with many, many large corporations around to buy up luxury seats.
The NHL has not discussed further expansion, but there is another way for Houston to get an NHL team into Toyota Center. The Arizona Coyotes have been trying to get a new arena in the Phoenix suburbs for several years, especially after the city of Glendale canceled the team’s lease in 2015 — the Coyotes/Glendale saga is long and ugly (with lots of details here). The team played under a temporary lease, which just expired.
Several weeks ago the team hired a new CEO to handle getting a new arena. That man, Steve Patterson, was a controversial and short-lived athletic director at the University of Texas. But forget about UT; remember that Patterson and his dad were former general managers of the Rockets. And Patterson Junior helped shepherd NRG Stadium into existence and was a key player in bringing the Aeros to Houston in the 1990s. Now he’s running a team that has had absolutely no luck in getting a new taxpayer-funded arena built. And guess what — there just happens to be a hockey arena in Houston soon to open up for availability, in a larger market with a history of supporting hockey.
Nothing is likely to happen for a year or so. But the path to professional hockey in Houston is open again, and that should be cause for optimism for Houston hockey fans. Hell has not quite yet frozen over, but it's getting awful chilly and the denizens are breaking out jackets and scarves.