Drop the puck?

With Fertitta's purchase of the Rockets, the NHL in Houston makes perfect sense

With Fertitta's purchase of the Rockets, the NHL in Houston makes perfect sense
Las Vegas made its debut in the NHL. Will Houston be next? Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Fred Faour is host of The Blitz on ESPN 97.5 and Editor in Chief of SportsMap. In this column he makes the case for an NHL team in Houston.

The Billion Dollar Buyer spent more than two billion to get the Houston Rockets. Tilman Fertitta's purchase of the team was officially announced on Tuesday, and Rockets fans are excited -- as they should be -- about the new ownership.

Fans of hockey in Houston should be thrilled as well. Fertitta and Rockets CEO Tad Brown addressed the possibility of an NHL team at his introductory press conference.

“We’ve looked at many NHL teams over the years. It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to bring someone in, whether they be a tenant or not, it’s just that the deals didn’t work," Brown said. “Tilman and I have talked about a number of different things. There’s optionality going forward with things that he wants to look at. And we’re going to look at everything that makes sense for this building, for his companies, and for the city of Houston."

“You’ve got to pay attention to the numbers," Fertitta said. "I would put an NHL team here tomorrow, but this one (the Rockets) has got to work. Do I want to see Toyota Center filled up 300 nights a year? Definitely. We’ll do whatever we can do, but it’s got to make sense. But will we be aggressive? Yes, that’s my nature.” 

Former Rockets owner Les Alexander tried several times in the late '90s to bring in a team, but it never came to fruition. More recently, he lost interest and in fact hindered the sport in the city, essentially chasing away the AHL Aeros. His strangehold on the Toyota Center made it impossible for another owner to bring in a franchise.

But with Fertitta now in charge, there are plenty reasons why the NHL needs to be here. Houston is by far the largest city in the U.S. or Canada without an NHL team. Before you say hockey would not work in H town, consider these positives:

1) By 2020, Houston is expected to surpass Chicago as the third largest city in America. It is roughly the size of Toronto and continues to grow each year. It recently became the No. 7 media market and continues to move up those rankings, too. It was No. 11 just a few short years ago.

2) Many of the people moving here are from the Midwest and other hockey hotbeds. It is also the most diverse city in the country. 

3) It is a very transient place. A good majority of the population is from elsewhere and those numbers only continue to increase. There is also a huge contingent of Canadians, many from Alberta due to the oil business. And we all know Canadians love hockey.

4) The fast-growing East Downtown area -- walking distance from Toyota Center -- is a hotbed for incoming Houstonians and new homes are going up almost daily. 

5) Before the Aeros left, hockey was exploding on the youth level, with several rinks popping up around the city. When the team made the Calder Cup Finals, it packed Toyota Center.

The negatives:

1) Houston is a spread out city, and many people live in the burbs. When the Astros and Rockets are struggling, people are less likely to make the trip downtown or stay after work. It's also a front-running city. When teams win, people get behind them. When they lose? Empty seats. That has been consistent with Houston fans and teams for years. 

2) While there are a lot of hockey fans in the city -- more than enough to fill Toyota Center nightly -- they are Blackhawks fans, Flames fans, Oilers fans, Rangers fans, Red Wings fans, Leafs fans...would they go to see a Houston team?

3) The NHL might not appreciate the gold mine that is sitting here. In 2007, as part of a group of sports editors who met with league commissioners, I asked Gary Bettman point blank why Houston was not on the NHL's radar. He gave a smarmy non-answer and insinuated the NHL already had the Texas market thanks to the Stars. I don't need to state what a silly concept that is. 

But that's it. The positives win.

Besides, the NHL needs a market like Houston to grow its product. The diversity here could help the league tap into demographics where it has little foothold. It would also bring in East Texas and Western Louisiana.

And rest assured, the NHL also needs owners like Fertitta, a high-profile TV star who is media savvy. He helped lead UH's bid to get into the Big 12, and while that failed, the university is well-positioned to do great things athletically in the future. He will do the same for the Rockets. 

And hopefully soon, an NHL team.

There are struggling franchises who would thrive in Houston -- Carolina and Arizona come to mind. (Although the Phoenix area is a good market; the team needs to be somewhere other than Glendale and sort out its arena issues). The Dallas Stars have been successful, so hockey can work in Texas, although Dallas is a better sports city than Houston. Seattle is the main destination often mentioned for the NHL, but a viable arena remains years away. Toyota Center is still state of the art and ready for business right now.

So the whole thing makes too much sense. 

Of course, this comes with a disclaimer: I am a rarity in the city, a native Houstonian who actually grew up a hockey fan. My father worked at the Houston Chronicle and took me to all the home games when the old Aeros with Gordie, Mark and Marty Howe were prowling Sam Houston Coliseum. (As an aside, I was too young to appreciate it, but I met the Howes several times). In 1996 I attended a game at old Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, fell in love with the place and the fans, and became a huge Leafs fan myself, which I have remained to this day. (And yes, it has been painful until the last two years). I had ticket packages for the more recent incarnation of the Aeros when they were a Minnesota Wild affiliate. I am married to a Canadian, spend a few weeks a year in that country and have spent many nights at the Maple Leaf Pub watching hockey, so I am familiar with the culture and desperately want a team here.

Having said that, there are more of me out there. More than enough to support an NHL team. 

And with Fertitta in charge, it all makes perfect sense.

 

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Can't get enough football? Composite Getty Image.

The NFL hasn't scheduled a game for every day of the week.

Yet.

“We’re going to be the new 7-Eleven," New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "NFL, 24 hours, you can watch them play any given day.”

The veteran preparing for his 14th season has a way of lacing his critiques with playful satire that hits his intended target. With the NFL close to filling every day of the week with a game in the 2024 season, the league with a reputation of “any given Sunday” might just qualify for that new nickname.

It's all part of the NFL's plan to keep growing the game and the league.

“Our job is to be everywhere our fans are,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when asked about the league's new three-year Netflix deal that this year adds Wednesday games. “They have almost 300 million global subscribers. We are obviously focused on becoming more global. So it's a huge benefit to us.”

That deal is why the league that has scheduled and played games on Christmas for years will be playing not one, but two games on Christmas when defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City visits Pittsburgh as part of a holiday doubleheader capped by Baltimore at Houston.

The difference is this will be only the third time the NFL has played on a Wednesday since 1950.

The four teams involved all play on Saturday, giving coaches and players the kind of turnaround faced when a Sunday game is followed by a Thursday night kickoff. Tuesday is the only day the Chiefs won't play a game this season — technically the lone day off for NFL players with Sunday games.

Washington coach Dan Quinn said the key to preparing is sticking to a routine and shifting days. That involves trying to fool the body clock.

“This would be like a Wednesday, this would be like a Friday, this is what we do before the game, so it’s not as difficult as it seems," Quinn said. "You have some travel that you have to work in, shorter weeks, longer weeks, but staying true to a process.”

The Baltimore Ravens will only miss playing a game on a Tuesday and Friday in a schedule that includes a pair of Thursday games. Christmas will cap a stretch of three games in 11 days for Baltimore.

Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton said it's not so much a concern as more of a “shock factor,” but players will adapt and prepare for what may be the start of a new stage for the NFL. He said players likely had the same conversations when the NFL introduced games on Monday nights, then Thursday nights.

“I’m sure 10 years from now, that might be the norm,” Hamilton said of an NFL schedule featuring games throughout a week.

Arizona offensive lineman Will Hernandez said getting the body to bounce back quickly is tough.

"I just go back to this: We all signed for it. We know what it is. Let’s just go,” Hernandez said.

Monday nights used to be for a premier game for the NFL. A new contract added games on Sunday night.

Then the NFL started opening seasons on Thursday nights in 2006. In 2020, the NFL played its first Tuesday night game since 2010 because of the pandemic. Before that, the NFL hadn't played on a Tuesday since 1946.

The schedule released last week opens as usual on a Thursday night with Baltimore visiting Kansas City.

Then Philadelphia plays Green Bay in Brazil on Friday night — previously seen as a sacrosanct night for high school football.

Aaron Rodgers and the New York Jets kick off the traditional Monday night slate on Sept. 9 at San Francisco.

Thanksgiving long has been a day for the NFL with games in Detroit and Dallas now expanded into Thursday nights with a triple-header. This will be the second straight season the league will compete with stores for attention on Black Friday, with Las Vegas visiting Kansas City for anyone not shopping.

Add in the international games, NFL players' body clocks and circadian rhythms easily could be thrown off.

Jordan said the league preaches about using Guardian caps for player safety. “But nobody cares about our protocol of how to get our bodies back from a Sunday game to now a Wednesday game?” Jordan said. “Not saying that sounds absurd."

Player safety didn't stop the NFL from expanding the schedule from a 16-game season to 17 games in 2021 by cutting a preseason game in the league's first expansion since 1978. Now expanding to 18 games at some point in the future is a topic for discussion as Goodell says people "want obviously more football.”

Then the schedule-maker has to find a day to slot those games, giving the NFL another chance to fill out the rest of a week where every day looks like just another work day for players.

“If anything, we were going to practice, so why not play?” Jordan said. "And now we can wear our Guardian caps in the game!”

___

AP Pro Football Writers Dennis Waszak and Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Noah Trister, David Brandt, Stephen Whyno, Dave Skretta, Joe Reedy and Mark Anderson contributed to this report.

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