When the NHL began discussing expansion a few years ago, the plan was never to add one team. No owner or league executive stood up and said “31 is the perfect number!” The idea has always been to bring in two more teams to bring the total to 32, the same number that the National Football League has managed since 2002. So whether you are of the opinion that the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, or New York Islanders need to re-locate or not, the fact of the matter is that the NHL will welcome a new city regardless in the near future.
The overwhelming opinion seems to be that Seattle, Washington is next in line to follow Las Vegas. The city is full of die-hard sports fans who cheer vehemently for the Seahawks, Mariners, and Sounders and have been clamoring for a basketball team since the SuperSonics left. They also show up to watch junior hockey, as the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds finished in the top half of attendance in 2016-17. Millionaire Chris Hansen has been pushing hard for support to build a new arena with plans to bring back the NBA and bring in the NHL, while Seattle mayor Ed Murray has been negotiating with the NHL on the city’s behalf as well.
Seattle could very well be the 32nd NHL team. However, some hockey purists would like to see the league go back to the small market of Quebec City and revive the Nordiques. Others don’t mind the Seattle plans, but would rather a team go about 150 miles south to Portland, Oregon, where the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks outdraw the Seattle Thunderbirds. Some stand up for places like Kansas City, Missouri, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Hartford, Connecticut. You may even hear a few in favor of going back to Atlanta already. What you don’t hear much of though is talk about Houston, Texas. That is until now.
Last month, Leslie Alexander, the owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and the Toyota Center, announced that he would be selling the team. While this may simply seem like the NBA’s business on its face, it could have big implications for the NHL. Alexander had attempted to purchase the Edmonton Oilers back in 1998 with a plan to move them to Houston. However, the league turned the offer down, opting instead to keep one of it’s most well-known franchises in Canada where it belonged. Alexander held a grudge not only against the NHL, but against hockey. He all but forced the AHL’s Houston Aeros, beloved by the local fan base, out of the city by charging unreasonable rent at the Toyota Center. The Minnesota Wild had to move their part-owned affiliate to Iowa, where they remain today. With the Aeros gone, the city’s interest in hockey seemingly disappeared and with Alexander remaining in charge of the Rockets and Toyota Center, there was little hope of the NHL or AHL ever returning.
With Alexander selling the Rockets, and likely his stake in the Toyota Center as well, those hopes are alive once again. But is Houston interested in having an NHL team? Is the NHL interested in going to Houston? It certainly makes some sense on paper. Houston is the fifth largest city in the United States – behind only New York, L.A., Chicago, and nearby Dallas – and has only seen its population grow in recent years. It is also a major three-sport city. The Rockets have always been very successful, recently the MLB’s Astros have righted the ship and boast a strong team, and the NFL’s Texans, still the league’s newest team dating back to 2002, are wildly popular. With that success comes both a strong fan base and a industry that is comfortable with throwing lots of money into athletic sponsorship. Financially, Houston would seem to be as good a fit as any. They also have a suitable arena, which Seattle does not, and a much greater population and pro sports history than any of Quebec City, Portland, Milwaukee, or Hartford.
The NHL sought expansion bids three years ago and accepted just one: Bill Foley’s Las Vegas bid. Many were surprised that Seattle and Quebec City among other could not place a suitable bid. If that process was to occur again, after the Rockets deal is done, would the new owner or another interested Texan place a bid? Or would a perceived lack of interest in the NHL prevent it from happening, yet another surprise in the NHL bidding process? There is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the situation, but NHL Expansion is not over yet and now, for the first time in years, Houston is at least back in the conversation.