Drop the puck?

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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5 questions on the John Wall trade

The Rockets made a big move. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets point guard carousel continued to spin Wednesday night, as the Woj bomb-iest of Houston-related Woj bombs erupted in the Space City:

For the third year in a row, the Rockets will begin the season with a new point guard, in an attempt to finally find someone that can play alongside James Harden. Let's take a look at how the Rockets got to this point, and what it means moving forward.

What led to the trade?

Russell Westbrook simply wanted out. Westbrook is the type of player that needs to be the number one ball handler and that simply wasn't ever going to happen on a James Harden led team. Other reports cited Westbrook's frustration with the lack of accountability and casual atmosphere within the locker room. Ultimately if anyone was going to be moved between Harden and Westbrook, it was always going to be Westbrook.

Why John Wall?

This one is another fairly straightforward answer: they both have relatively similar contracts. Each is making an absurdly overpriced $40 million this season, and both were disgruntled with their current team. Rockets General Manager Rafael Stone and Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard tossed the idea around a few weeks ago, but couldn't find a deal they liked. It was reported that discussions resumed Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours the deal was done in an almost one-for-one swap.

How does Wall fit?

This is a little more complicated because it's not exactly known what head coach Stephen Silas' game plan is. It's also difficult to predict whether or not Harden will still be on the roster when the season starts. But let's assume that Harden takes the court for the Rockets and that Silas' system resembles something similar to what we've seen in Houston for the past few years. In that case, Wall would be a slight upgrade to Westbrook. Westbrook is more athletic than Wall, but when healthy Wall was no slouch. In addition he's a much better defensive player and has much better court vision than Westbrook. Westbrook's assists were usually a bailout after attacking the lane with his head down, while Wall is more likely to set up a teammate.

This isn't to say that Wall doesn't need the ball though. He's fairly ball dominant, but not nearly as much as Westbrook. Harden proved last season that he's capable of effectively playing off the ball if necessary, so it seems like a better fit from a distribution rate alone. If they can find that sweet spot like they did with Chris Paul and stagger the lineups so that each star gets their own time to create, there's potential for an improved Rockets team more reminiscent of their 2018 run than the past two years.

What are the best and worst case scenarios?

The worst case is that the Rockets were sold a lemon. Wall has potential to be an upgrade, but comes with huge risk. He last took the court in 2018, where he was sidelined with a knee injury. He subsequently ruptured his Achilles in an accident at his home while recovering from the knee injury, forcing Wall off the court for almost two years. It's possible an extremely unfortunate Wall reinjures something and completely derails the machinations of the trade. Even if he's recovered fully, it will take time to get him up to game speed which could frustrate Harden on a team that can't afford a slow start in their stacked conference. Harden has managed to cultivate drama with just about every co-star he's played with, so there's no reason to assume this attempt would go any better.

The best case scenario is that Wall arrives ready to play team basketball and resembles the better part of his pre-injury form. Wall and Harden buy into Silas' new system, space the floor, and take turns carving up the lane with dribble drives and kick outs to players who can actually hit from distance. This version of the Rockets could potentially be a 3-seed in this year's Western Conference.

Who won the trade?

At the moment the Rockets. Not only did they remove at least one of their locker room distractions, but they also gain a first round pick. If Wall can stay healthy and Silas can keep both stars happy, this team should be a lot more fun to watch than last season's clunker.

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