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."

The new year is nearly upon us and people have begun making resolutions they wish to carry out in 2020. Whether you plan to eat better, exercise more, read more books, or just have a new outlook on life, chances are you've already planned to approach the next twelve months with a fresh approach and a list of goals.

However, regular people aren't the only ones who get to partake in this cherished annual tradition. As NBA teams approach the second half of their season, what better time than now to make a list of goals and see if you can carry them out. If your favorite team isn't the Milwaukee Bucks, chances are there are areas of improvement they can strive for in 2020. And the Houston Rockets, currently the 4th seed in the West at 22-11, aren't an exception.

So without further adieu, here are a proposed list of new year's resolutions for the Houston Rockets in 2020.

1) Improve defensively

One of the harder things to do in the NBA is to improve midseason as a team defense. Defensive habits are formed early in training camp and schemes are tweaked throughout the regular season, not the other way around. However, it's possible and the 2018-19 Rockets are proof that it can be done. (Last season, Houston jumped from bottom of the league to middle of the pack in defense.)

The Rockets currently stand at 17th in defense (109.2). Simply put, that is not good enough to win an NBA championship. To put it in perspective, 14 out of the last 15 NBA champions have had top ten defenses. In fact, the only team since 2001 to not have a top ten defense and still win the title is the 2018 Golden State Warriors (11th in defensive rating).

Fortunately for Houston, they still have 49 regular season games to turn this around.

2) Extend Mike D'Antoni

The Rockets got a lot of scrutiny in 2019 - some of it earned and some of it unfair. However, one of the more justified criticisms Houston received this past year is not extending head coach Mike D'Antoni past the 2019-20 season. D'Antoni is too good of a coach and too important to what the Rockets do day-in and day-out to have to coach a lame duck season. Houston made efforts to extend D'Antoni this summer and ultimately failed. You can point fingers at ownership or management, but ultimately, this was an organizational failure as nobody looked good after this debacle.

Under D'Antoni, the Rockets have a record of 173-73 (.703) which is currently the highest regular season win percentage in franchise history by a wide margin. It's also the sixth most wins in franchise history. In the likely scenario that the Rockets win at least 21 more games this season, D'Antoni would jump to 3rd all-time behind Rudy Tomjanovich (503) and Bill Fitch (216). Outside of winning a championship, D'Antoni has been as good as any coach Houston's ever had. He's instilled a healthy culture, an offense that manages to be elite every season, and has the backing of the best players on the team.

The Rockets have said that the plan is for D'Antoni to ride out his contract this season and re-negotiate with the organization this summer. However, in situations like this, it's completely feasible for both parties return to the negotiating table and hammer out a new contract midseason (preferably at the All-Star break).

3) Add size to the roster

Going back to Houston's weaknesses defensively, one of the bigger issues is Houston's lack of size and defensive versatility. The Rockets pretty much have a log jam at the guard positions and a need at the forward positions. Outside of Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House, Houston doesn't really have anyone reliable in the front court to depend on. They've been trying to counteract this by playing small ball with P.J. Tucker at center. Tucker has played 25% of his minutes at the center position - the highest of his career (played 6% last season and 2% the year before that).

Tucker at center is a nifty lineup to throw out in spurts to spread the floor and switch everything on defense, but the Rockets have relied on it far too much. They need legitimate size now to compete in the Western Conference. Tyson Chandler isn't very reliable night-to-night at his advanced age and Isaiah Hartenstein is too young to contribute for Houston at the highest levels. Whether it's through trade or buyout, Houston has to find someone who can play the bulk of these power forward and center minutes.

Size may be one of the most significant reasons Houston isn't at least a top twelve defense.

4) Pay the luxury tax

The Rockets have danced around paying the luxury tax for far too long. Even if it's purely symbolic and Houston can't acquire anyone of significance at the deadline, owner Tilman Fertitta has to show his level of commitment to the franchise in 2020 by dipping into the tax. As it currently stands, the Rockets would have to do some serious cap gymnastics to dodge the tax by a hair this season.

The fan base largely gave ownership a pass last year for blatantly avoiding the luxury tax, but you only get to cry wolf about the repeater tax once. Historically, dodging the tax for consecutive seasons as a title contender is a PR nightmare as ownership gets brandished with the ugly label of being cheap.

Now in fairness to Fertitta, we know through reporting that trades fell through for the Rockets. For example, Houston reportedly offered four first round picks for Jimmy Butler last season which would have almost assuredly put them significantly about the tax. Also, the nixed acquisitions of Jamychal Green and Garrett Temple should not be ignored. Houston's story about being able to dodge the tax through dumb luck or opportunity is believable for these reasons.

If there is a trade that could make the Rockets better, they have to do their due diligence this season. Sacrificing draft picks for the sole purpose of dumping money (ex: James Ennis last season) would also look really bad upon the organization.

5) Win an NBA Championship

I know - easier said than done. It's just that the Rockets are in a position to where one championship would flip the script on so many bad faith arguments surrounding their cast of characters. Whether it's Daryl Morey, Mike D'Antoni, James Harden, or Russell Westbrook, a championship can change their career narratives so quickly. One could make the case that winning a championship would do more to boost the reputation of this organization versus any other in the NBA.

The Rockets have objectively become the most disliked team in the NBA. When their names come up, pundits either groan and mock them or they tear them down with a backhanded compliments. Seldom do they ever receive unsullied praise. There's really only one way to turn that around - winning. In this league, the most powerful elixir to criticism (fair or unfair) is winning at the highest levels. Even Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks were foolishly considered fraudulent contenders by mainstream NBA media until they finally took home a Larry O'Brien in 2011.

If Houston can finally win a championship in 2020, all scripts will be flipped and we can finally have honest conversations about what they've been able to accomplish these past few years.

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