HOUSTON (SPORTSRADIO 610) – Professional hockey of any kind has been missing from the sports landscape in Houston for four years and despite being the seventh largest television market and the fourth largest city in the United States the National Hockey League has never had a franchise in Houston. That could change potentially as the primary tenant of Toyota Center is under new ownership.
Tilman Fertitta is the new man in charge of the NBA’s Houston Rockets as the restaurateur spent $2.2 billion of his personal wealth to purchase his hometown team nearly a quarter century from his last purchase attempt back in 1993 when the franchise purchase was ultimately awarded to Leslie Alexander.
Fertitta was introduced officially as the Rockets new owner at a press conference at Toyota Center on Tuesday and while most of the questions were about his new dream purchase, Fertitta addressed that if the deal is right, the NHL would be a possibility.
“I would put an NHL team here tomorrow, but this one has got to work,” Fertitta said referring to the Rockets as his primary worry. “Would I love to have the other dates in the building, do I want to see Toyota Center filled up 300 nights a year, definitely. So we’ll do whatever we can do, but whatever we do is going to make sense. But yes, Will we be aggressive? Yes. That’s my nature.”
Hockey has a long history in Houston including the original Aeros of the WHA that featured the legendary Gordie Howe on the roster. The American Hockey League, hockey’s top minor pro league had a team named the Aeros in Houston starting in 1994, but were moved to Des Moines, Iowa in 2013 after a lease dispute with the Rockets who are the primary tenant and arena managers of Toyota Center.
Alexander had flirted with bringing the NHL to Houston in the past including a purchase of the Edmonton Oilers in 1997 that fell through because of a clause to keep the team in Edmonton for seven years that Alexander refused to comply with as he preferred to relocate the team to Houston.
Also in 1997 Alexander was in a battle with two other potential ownership groups, including with Chuck Watson the former owner of the Aeros, whom he was in a lawsuit with over the lease to the Compaq Center. Ultimately the competing bids in Houston and the lack of a new arena at the time forced the NHL to abandon plans for Houston and award franchises to Atlanta, Columbus, Minneapolis, and Nashville.
“We’ve looked at many NHL teams over the years and 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,” Rockets CEO Tad Brown said on Tuesday at Fertitta’s introductory press conference. Leslie (Alexander) 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 fill more dates. The NHL at the time, the teams that he looked and that we looked at, the numbers didn’t work, the CBA didn’t work, and it just didn’t work for the structure that we had in place.”
The NHL has had a desire in the past to put a team in Houston in the past either with relocation or expansion. The Pittsburgh Penguins ownership group once visited Houston in 2007 as a likely contingency as they fought for a new arena, and Jeremy Jacobs who owns the Boston Bruins told ESPN.com in 2015 “I would love to see (an expansion team) in Houston, but we can’t get into that building.”
The NHL currently stands at 31 teams with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights beginning play this year. A potential desire to expand to a 32nd team or with several franchises flirting with relocation like Arizona and Calgary, there could be a variety of options for a Houston franchise.
Larry Tanenbaum, one of the owners of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment that owns both the Toronto Raptors of the NBA and Maple Leafs of the NHL, sits on the board of governors for both leagues and has expressed a desire to Rockets CEO Tad Brown to chat with the new Rockets owner about possibilities within the NHL with Brown saying that Tanenbaum is, “very excited” to meet Fertitta.
“I am sure that Tillman and I will be up in Toronto at some point to meet with Larry (Tanenbaum) and talk about the NHL’s position and their interests and things that could possibly happen,” Brown said. “Larry and I have had conversations at various times over the years and again it gets down to, and he understands this, it gets down to, there weren’t deals to be done with the teams that were available and there wasn’t a situation that made sense here for the structure here within Houston.”
Brown emphasized that Fertitta is aggressive and if the right deal is in place to make professional hockey work in Houston, it is something they will pursue.
Fertitta made sure to emphasize that pro hockey in Houston won’t work unless he has the support from the city and that enough hockey fans are around to make an NHL team successful. He cited the small attendance numbers of the Aeros near their final season and that strong attendance would be important for an NHL team to work,
“If we have an NHL team we need to put 16,000 people in that stadium every night, 17,000, 18,000 that’s what we hold here so if I go out and get an NHL team, I am going to ask the citizens of Houston to make sure they’re going to commit to help me do it, because once again none of this is successful without the fans out there and I know that.
Professional hockey isn’t imminent for Houston, but it took a step in the right direction with a new aggressive owner running the Toyota Center.
Alex Del Barrio covers the Houston Texans for Sportsradio610.com and is the color commentator for the Houston Dynamo. He also hosts “ADB and Murph” with Matt Murphy which can be heard on Saturday afternoons 4-7 pm Follow Alex Del Barrio on Twitter: @alexdelbarrio