Houston’s NHL bid changes relocation, expansion landscape

Kyle Bukauskas and Chris Johnston examine the possibility of an NHL franchise in Houston following Gary Bettman's words on the subject.

Earlier this year Tilman Fertitta bought the NBA’s Houston Rockets and the Toyota Center for a cool $2.2 billion.

And now that he has the Rockets and the arena, Fertitta’s next task is securing more guaranteed dates for the Toyota Center. The best solution: 45 dates of NHL action. That’s 41 regular season and four pre-season games per year. Fertitta has been transparent about his desire to land an NHL team for his arena.

It’s quite a turnaround from the position of previous Rockets owner, Les Alexander, who was unhappy after being used as leverage in the 1990s by then Oilers owner Peter Pocklington to secure a better arena deal in Edmonton. There was talk Pocklington might sell to Alexander and see the Oilers move to Houston. When that didn’t happen, Alexander suddenly decided he no longer wanted a hockey team in Houston competing with his basketball club.

Fertitta has been doing his NHL due diligence. During a recent meeting with the league, I’m told Fertitta asked more questions than the league did. He wanted to understand why NHL hockey hadn’t been part of the Houston landscape before, and what, if any, interest there was in having his city part of the league’s future. He came prepared and he came to listen. To be clear: Fertitta didn’t arrive at the meeting with a cheque book and pen in hand. There’s no indication he received the answers he was hoping for, although his tweet late in the day Thursday was what you might expect to hear from someone who wants to be remain respectful of the process.

Tilman wants to do this right. But make no mistake, the fact Fertitta now controls a building that is NHL hockey-ready changes the expansion and relocation landscape for the league.

The NHL has publicly stated there are no plans for expansion at this point. And like last time, when they are ready to expand again it will be a public process to elicit as much interest as possible.

So if expansion isn’t on the immediate horizon, what about relocation? That will occur only under the most adverse of circumstances.

The NHL has maintained it doesn’t want to relocate teams and would only do so after every local option had been exhausted. Just look at the pains (including legal fees) the NHL has endured to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix/Glendale. But the league is now on record saying the Coyotes need a new arena, or rather, a better location for their next arena. That was the message Gary Bettman gave local government officials earlier this year before Andrew Barroway took 100 per cent control of the club and the team endured its disastrous first two months of the season on the ice.

How much patience can Coyotes ownership and the league continue to have in the Arizona market before they start to look at Houston as a potential new home?

And look at the state of things in Carolina. Owner Peter Karmanos is still looking to sell with the hope of keeping the Hurricanes in Raleigh. But the club plays in an arena owned by North Carolina State University, and while there is a long-term lease in place, the relationship between the club and NC State can hardly be described as harmonious.

And in that same vein, talks between the City of Calgary and the Flames are at a standstill. No, let’s rephrase that: talks between the City of Calgary and the Flames are nonexistent. With that, Calgary will have to be put into the relocation mix as well. There is little doubt that Flames majority owner Murray Edwards is bitterly disappointed, even angry, about the events of the past year with the demise of the Calgary Next proposal and the lack of flexibility in the city’s funding proposal for the East Village Arena. There are those close to Edwards saying he might entertain moving the team. It is certainly not his desire.

While the Flames are refusing to even entertain questions about arena discussions, what I can tell you is that those familiar with the Flames’ situation say they will stay at the Saddledome as long as they can “sustain it.” And with recent public claims that the team is now a revenue sharing recipient and no longer a provider, the Flames are not as profitable as they once were.

These are men certainly not in the business of losing money and their goal is to optimize their investment. At a certain point, without a new arena in Calgary, relocation will become a real option. Over the past 24 hours I can tell you Calgary’s name has been added to the list of teams facing possible relocation. It’s not something fans in Calgary want to hear, let alone consider.

But with a market the size of Houston publicly and warmly opening its arms, it is an option that is not going to go away anytime soon.

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