As fans flock to hockey in Las Vegas, Houstonians await their turn.
As fans flock to hockey in Las Vegas, Houstonians await their turn.
Photo by John Royal

Houstonians Ask "Now What"? as NHL Approves Expansion to Seattle

It was just last month that the NHL coming to Houston seemed like a sure deal. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta met with the league in regards to getting a team, and he has stated to the media that he has an interest in getting a team in Houston. There’s also a NHL-ready arena just ready to be used in Houston. The league has only 31 teams and several franchises are possibly looking to relocate.

But then the NHL invited an ownership group in Seattle to apply for expansion (with an expansion fee of $650 million) and gave that same group permission to conduct a season ticket drive. These NHL moves on Thursday came just days after Seattle’s city council gave the okay for a $660 million dollar of renovation of Key Arena that would bring it up to NHL standards by 2020.

Houston was discussed, but it seems that it was mentioned in a rather dismissive matter.

“I had gotten a question about [whether we] had we been in contact [with Houston], and I said, 'Just very generally,’” ESPN.com quoted NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as saying. “There is nothing going on right now with Houston.”

So what happened in this last month? How did a team coming to Houston go from a seemingly sure thing to a long shot? What happens next?

This does kind of fit with what sources told the Houston Press last month; however, in that Houston was not going to get an expansion franchise. The understanding was that the league wanted to get a handle on some of its more troublesome franchises that are having attendance, ownership, or arena issues. Houston was thus going to become to a relocated franchise, which would actually be a cheaper result for Fertitta since he would not have to then have to pay the expansion fee.

Before the NHL announcement last week, there were multiple reports that foresaw the league approving the start of the expansion process for Seattle with relocation going to Houston. That way Seattle has several years to get the arena ready to go. Meanwhile, one of the relocation targets can move whenever it wants to an open arena with an owner who wants to fill the building.

One of the relocation targets is off of the table, though. Dallas billionaire Tom Dundon signed an agreement to purchase a majority stake in the Carolina Hurricanes last week. Part of that agreement is that the team will remain in Raleigh and not relocate (the NHL also forbids a team from relocation for seven years after the purchase of a franchise).

The Arizona Coyotes are still attempting, and failing, to get a new arena in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The new arena would be the team’s third since relocating to Phoenix from Winnipeg in the mid-1990s. The team has been largely non-competitive since 2012, and has struggled to draw fans. It has been through one bankruptcy. It has also been on the verge of relocation to Hamilton, Ontario and Seattle in the past. It is currently on a year-to-year lease in its current arena, so clearing out moving to Houston should be rather easy.

The owners of the Calgary Flames, however have been fighting with Calgary politicians in an attempt for a new taxpayer-funded arena. Those politicians have not been giving in, and Bettman has said that the owners have essentially given up on Calgary “because they think it is futile.” So Houston presents a NHL-ready arena run by a person who wants the building used. That might be just what Calgary owners want to hear.

Thus expansion to Seattle doesn’t necessarily doom Houston getting a NHL team. Houston is a large TV market. It provides a good fit with Dallas and adds a strong sports market with lots of big corporations that will buy up suites and tickets. There’s strong an arena built to NHL standards, and the city has history with the sport.

Momentum for a NHL team to Houston has definitely stalled with the news of Seattle getting the expansion okay. But not all hope is lost. Not yet. It might not be the sure thing it was once thought to be, but it’s still likely to happen.

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