SPORTSMAP ROUNDTABLE

3 reasons NHL could be coming to Houston

Houston is the largest city in the country that doesn't have an NHL team, and many fans are wondering if Tilman Fertitta will find a way to relocate a team to H-Town.

ESPN 97.5's Fred Faour, Joel Blank, and Raheel Ramzanali weigh in on how likely Houston is to get an NHL team, and if that team would get enough support from the fans. Enjoy this heated debate!

How Tilman Fertitta could relocate an NHL team - possibly Ottawa - to Toyota Center

Is NHL hockey heading to Houston?

Courtesy photo

Houston is the 4th largest city in the United States and is home to some amazing professional sports teams. The Astros, Rockets, Texans and Dynamo have drawn fans in from all over the South Texas area for years. But there is something missing; an NHL team of course. Sure the city has had two iterations of the Houston Aero's in 70's and again in the 90's until 2013 when they relocated to Iowa. Houston has had success with minor league hockey throughout the years, but has never fielded an NHL team.

There was an attempt to bring the Edmonton Oilers to Houston in the 90's. Former Rockets Owner Leslie Alexander was in talks to purchase the Canadian hockey team and relocate them to Houston. The deal almost went through, but a grassroots bid by a local businessman in Edmonton prevented the sale, and insured the Oilers would remain in Canada. He also bid on an expansion team but came up short there, too.

After this failure, Alexander never pursued an NHL team again and the city of Houston had little to no hope that a National Hockey League team would ever come to Houston. That is until Tilman Fertitta stepped into the picture.

In 2017, Fertitta purchased the Rockets for an astounding 2.3 billion dollars, a record for a NBA team at the time. With this purchase also came the ownership of the Toyota Center and it wasn't long before he stated he was interested in having more than just the Rockets play in his newly acquired arena.

"I'm very interested in the possibility of bringing the NHL to Houston, but it will have to be a deal that works for my organization, the city, the fans of the NHL throughout the region, and the NHL Board of Governors," Fertitta said in November 2017.

Since this statement, Houston has become a hotbed for NHL expansion and relocation rumors. The easy solution would be to apply for an expansion team and just pay the $650 million expansion fee. But Vegas and Seattle were just awarded expansion franchises with the latter starting play in 2021.This brings the total number of teams in the NHL to 32. So, it may be a while before the league would like to expand beyond 32 teams.

Relocation would be the next best bet, but which teams could relocate? The Arizona Coyotes would be an obvious choice to move to Houston for they have struggled with low attendance and financial problems throughout their existence in the desert. They currently play on a year-to-year lease in the outdated Gila River Center. It seems like a perfect solution for the Coyotes to move to Houston, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is hell-bent on keeping a team in Arizona for whatever reason. In addition, the Coyotes were recently purchased by Alex Meruelo in July of 2019, putting their relocation plans on hold for the time being.

Another team that could relocate is the Florida Panthers. This team has struggled to draw fans in South Beach for decades, but they are locked into a lease until 2028 making relocation highly unlikely.

That leaves just one team left, the Ottawa Senators. It was only two years ago this proud Canadian team nearly reached the Stanley Cup Final, one goal shy of beating the eventual champions Pittsburgh Penguins. Since their conference finals appearance, this team has plummeted. They are now one of the worst teams in the league, and have one of if not the worst owners in professional hockey.

Eugene Melnyk purchased the team in 2003 and the Senators enjoyed some success early on including a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. But as time progressed, fans in Ottawa became unhappy with his management style and his cheap nature. He has been criticized for not spending money to keep a competitive team in the nation's capital.

In 2018 fans started a GoFundMe page to put up billboards that state #MelnykOut in the city of Ottawa to voice their displeasure with the team's owner. The fans raised more than $10,000 to put up four billboards. It's clear to see that the relationship between the owner and the city has gotten sour. Something needs the change otherwise fans may stop showing up to their games. Speaking of which, this leads me to my next point.

The Senators currently play in Canadian Tire Centre which is located just west of downtown Ottawa in Katana. It is not easily accessible by public transit and is a nightmare to traverse during rush hour traffic according to Ottawa locals. This has led to a steady decline in attendance throughout the years. As it currently stands, the Senators draw the lowest number of fans in the NHL at just under 12,000 fans per game. A far cry from the 18,000 plus the stadium can hold.

Melnyk has tried to get a downtown venue for many years with little to no avail. The city is unwilling to pay a premium to build the Senators a new arena, and Melnyk has already threated to relocate this team a year ago during their NHL Winter Classic game against the Montreal Canadians. Not the best time to announce your team could be moving before the biggest game of their season.

So a team with a cheap owner, struggling fan base and a less than ideal arena situation should be all Fertitta needs to bring an NHL team to Houston. Currently the Senators are valued at $445 million according to Forbes. Melnyk rejected an offer to sell the team for $430 million not too long ago. This makes sense as Seattle paid $650 million for their NHL expansion fee, and I believe Melnyk will not sell his team for less than this amount.

Enter Fertitta. The billionaire could purchase the team outright from Melnyk and move the Senators to Houston. They would play their games in Toyota Center which is more than capable of hosting NHL games, and is up to standards per NHL stadium regulations.

Another reason this should happen is because the NHL would love to see their largest untapped market finally have a team. Houston would have plenty of corporate sponsorships, and it would be easy to sell season tickets to a market of more than 4 million people.

The state of Texas has shown it can support an NHL team with the Dallas Stars as a prime example. Just a week ago, The Stars hosted the first ever outdoor game at the Cotton Bowl in front of a sellout crowd of more than 85,000 people. This was the second-largest crowd for an NHL game in league history.

Bringing a second team to the Lone Star State could increase the number of Hockey fans in South Texas exponentially and it would set up yet another Houston – Dallas rivalry.

The one issue that would arise is the Senators play in the Eastern Conference and would have to play in the West if they moved to Houston. The answer is simple, move the Nashville Predators to the Atlantic Division and have the new Senators team replace them in the Central Division. Also, the name would have to change. The Houston Senators doesn't fit. I would suggest renaming them the Aero's or call them an entirely new original name.

I could see the city of Houston receiving an NHL team sooner rather than later. Bringing the Senators down to Houston would be an easy fix that would benefit both the league and the city. Fertitta was quoted just last September that he is working hard to achieve his dream.

"There's not a month that goes by that we don't have some talks about the NHL," Fertitta told Houston Public Media's Houston Matters radio program. "And it's definitely something that one day I look forward to bringing to Houston, Texas."