NHL Hockey in Reliant Stadium? In September?

Hockey in Reliant Stadium? In September? A disaster in the making?
The word on the street yesterday was that the NHL is coming to Houston. Not to play real hockey, of course. And not for the season. But just for a preseason game. At Reliant Stadium. In September.

I like hockey. I want hockey to become a huge thing in Houston. But seriously, a hockey game in a football stadium in September just speaks to this whole thing not being completely thought out, which, in a way, makes sense seeing that one of the teams supposedly involved in this supposed game is the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that's been such a monumental failure in Phoenix that the vultures from Canada have been hanging over the team for several years, just waiting for the chance to return the team to the country from which it came.

Let's go to the obvious problems with this game. There's the Coyotes, who don't even have a following in Phoenix, much less a national following, and they're playing the Dallas Stars from the hated city of Dallas. Then there's the fact that this game is supposedly being played at Reliant Stadium. Supposedly being the operative word, seeing as how the good folks out at the Reliant complex say that an agreement for this game doesn't even exist.

And have I mentioned that they're playing this in a football stadium in September?

The NHL has had some success with its Winter Classic Game, played outdoors on New Year's Day and generally at a football or baseball stadium in a cold-weather city -- Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston. But inside a football stadium in Houston, in September? Hell, the Aeros couldn't play a preseason game in their practice complex last September because of poor rink conditions, so you can just imagine what it will be like in a stadium that's not designed for hockey.

The Aeros, like most hockey teams based in the South, have trouble keeping their ice cold and in non-slushy conditions at Toyota Center, and Toyota Center was built with the plan to host a hockey team, whether the Aeros or an NHL team. So just imagine what the ice conditions will be like in that huge football hangar the Texans play in? Let's just say that it's hard to imagine the stars on either team getting much ice time.

Now there's some thinking that playing this game in Houston, at Reliant Stadium, is part of a feeling-out process for whether Houston can support a NHL franchise, specifically the Coyotes, who are bleeding money and being subsidized by the NHL. But if that's the plan, then it's almost as if Houston is being set up to fail.

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Is this some kind of NHL test?
If there's going to be a NHL franchise in Houston, the games will be played at Toyota Center. So one would think that, to test the league's viability, they would play the game, or several games, at the actual venue that would host the future team. It's even more puzzling if you remember that Les Alexander, the owner of the Rockets and the landlord of Toyota Center, has dibs on any NHL franchise that may move to Houston. So not only would you expect the games to be played at Toyota Center, you would expect some involvement from Les Alexander.

Then there's the thing about the game being played in a football stadium. It sucks watching basketball in that thing, but hockey, which probably can't have a raised floor, will be worse. And Reliant probably seats about 74,000 for hockey. The NHL may be able to get 74,000 in a football stadium for a match-up between the Penguins and Capitals, two of the league's premier franchises, but does anyone expect that for a game with the Coyotes?

Instead, no matter how the rink is laid out, no matter how the upper level is curtained off, the TV cameras and visiting media will still be confronted with tons of empty seats. So even if 20,000 seats are sold, which would be a huge number for a preseason game, the national story will be that Houston's just another Southern city that doesn't care about hockey, just like Atlanta and Phoenix and Miami, so why keep trying? Why not just move the Coyotes back to Canada -- the Coyotes were originally the Winnipeg Jets.

And to make it worse, the Houston Aeros, the AHL affiliate of the NHL's Minnesota Wild, aren't even being asked for assistance with marketing or ticket sales, which the Aeros have provided in the past when NHL preseason games were played in Houston. One would think that for this thing to succeed, one would want to try and enlist the aid of the minor league franchise that, despite the odds, is succeeding and drawing good crowds.

I want the NHL to move here. I want the game to grow in Houston like in Dallas. But attempting to play a preseason game in a football stadium in September -- and in which the stadium landlord says there's not even a deal in place for the game -- involving two teams with no real followings just screams a disaster in the making.

But here's hoping I'm wrong.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal