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Rockets sale an opportunity for Houston hockey?

By Paul Muth

“Slidy puck.”

That’s what I used to call it to piss off my buddies. I even bought the domain name and redirected it to my old podcast because I thought it was funny. Because it’s Houston. Who cares about hockey, am I right?

As cynical as I have become over the years to the new and unknown, I do pride myself in my ability to give [almost] everything a chance. So a year ago I finally chose an NHL team, and grabbed a pint down at the Maple Leaf pub in Midtown with a diehard Blackhawks fan.

I knew nothing about hockey, short of “put the puck in the net.” My buddy knew beforehand that I was about to pick his brain to the point of insanity, and he welcomed it enthusiastically. I was like that new girlfriend that was open and willing to try and watch his favorite sport, only he didn’t have to buy my beers, wasn’t getting laid after, and we had matching beards. And after finally giving it a fair shake, I decided that, yeah. Hockey’s pretty cool.

Problem is, Houston doesn’t have a hockey team thus making it fairly inaccessible unless you head down to the Maple Leaf. I did my best to pick a random team and follow it, but my interest waned. I didn’t have a dog in the fight, and I slowly lost interest as a result.

About a week ago, though, things got interesting.

Houston Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander blindsided the entire city and decided to put one of the only two championship winning professional teams from the city (I see you, Dynamo) up for sale. He stands to make nearly a twenty-fold profit…which is neat.

So suddenly everyone began speculating on who would be interested. Billionaire restaurateur Tillman Fertita? Former rocket and infamous finger waver Dikembe Mutumbo? Queen Bey?

The Rockets have been in great hands for 24 years now, so this is uncharted territory for an entire generation of basketball fans. The fact that Alexander is suddenly selling the team without any health issues is also worth noting. But here’s the subplot that people are only now beginning to dig into:

Alexander’s relinquishment of his Rockets’ ownership has simultaneously cracked the door open for a potential Houston NHL franchise. Suddenly, hockey sounds like a way more awesome sport.

The possibility of an NHL team in Houston has essentially been delayed by two rich dudes in a pissing contest. In 1997 the city was a finalist for an NHL expansion team, but a feud amongst Alexander and Houston Aeros owner Chuck Watson over who should be awarded the franchise led to the NHL metaphorically smiling, covertly asking the bartender for the check, and leaving as soon as they both went to the bathroom. As a result, Houston would lose their bid to what would inevitably become the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, and Nashville Predators.

At the time, Watson was Alexander’s landlord over at the Summit and wasn’t very hospitable to the Rockets. Alexander wasn’t too happy apparently, and the bad blood carried over when the Aeros suddenly became tenants in his big shiny new arena in 2003. By 2013 he had priced them out of the door and the city. Concerts, it turns out, turn more of a profit than a minor league hockey team.

Houston was now without any hockey, major or minor league.

Then, in 2014, the NHL decided it was time for another expansion. Two bids were presented, and Alexander– owner of the only NHL-ready facility in the city and content with his concert money–was not among them. Fast forward to today. Ole’ Les is cashing in his chips, which means that soon his chokehold on the Toyota Center will go with it.

Suddenly, the prospect of an NHL franchise doesn’t seem so silly. Granted, I’m very guilty of putting the cart before the horse on this notion, but bear with me and let’s take a look at the possibility.

The main reason Houston doesn’t have an NHL team is because apparently rich people don’t like to share their stuff. One solution to this would be for whoever buys the Rockets to eventually buy an NHL team after that. I understand it’s easy for me to fantasize throwing around some billionaire’s money for them, but there’s already plenty of precedent for that very notion in reality. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to envision Tillman Fertita to start with a Rockets purchase, and follow that up with an NHL team.

The other issue worth addressing would be the source of acquisition of an NHL franchise. With the current state of the Arizona Coyotes living arrangements, musings and think pieces have suggested that they would be a prime candidate for the Bayou City. But if I’ve already admitted to putting the cart before the horse, then this sort of speculation should be considered putting an unbuilt Ikea cart in front of Lil’ Sebastian.

Here’s the thing. The sale of the Rockets is going to take a while. It took Drayton McLane years to “offload” the Astros, so the prospect of the Coyotes still needing a new home by the time the deal is done seems remote. With as many publicly interested parties the Rockets have, I doubt it would take nearly as along. However Seattle and Quebec City wait in the wings salivating over an NHL franchise while Houston sports writers merely volley the idea back and forth over the net.

It’s not an insane idea though, as long as the next Rockets owner is amenable to the idea. You see, back in 2015 when everyone was wondering who would get the next NHL team, the American City Business Journals kicked out a study that suggested that Houston was the most financially viable potential site for NHL expansion. Add to that an already massive and yet still expanding market, the aforementioned NHL ready facility, topped off with a built-in rivalry with Dallas…

Sounds like Houston’s got a ton of ingredients for a new sport to show up in the Bayou City.

It’s enough to bring in a rugby team, apparently.

Is it enough to bring back some slidy puck? I can’t say the answer is yes, but at least it’s not a hard no anymore.

20160123_141050Editor’s note: Paul Muth is an Army vet who tends to talk a lot, so when his friends tell him to stop, he either writes or talks to a microphone and calls it a podcast. He writes better with a beard and looks better with a beer. Or something like that. Follow him on twitter at @abumnamedpaul

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