Houston NHL expansion team dreams delayed after Seattle files application

HOUSTON – The possibility of a National Hockey League expansion team coming to Houston took a hit last week with the announcement that Seattle will be filing an expansion application. Hockey still has a chance to come to Houston, however.

The news doesn't completely derail Houston's chance to get an NHL team because a current team that is struggling financially could relocate from another city. But the news does temporarily delay any effort by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who has recently expressed interest in a professional hockey team playing at Toyota Center, in bringing an expansion NHL team to Houston.

The league currently has 31 teams, after expanding to add the Las Vegas Golden Knights for the 2017-18 season, and the NHL appears to want to add one more expansion team.

The success of the Las Vegas team, both on and off the ice, is leading to the fast-tracking of adding that 32nd team, and Seattle now has the inside track on Houston.

Here are some things to know:

Why Seattle?

The city recently greenlighted hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate the old KeyArena, where the former NBA team the Seattle SuperSonics used to play. The NHL invited the Seattle ownership group, which includes billionaire investment banker David Bonderman and Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, to apply for expansion and to conduct a season ticket drive to gauge interest.

The expansion fee for Seattle is expected to be around $650 million, which is far more than the $500 million for the Las Vegas expansion fee.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reportedly mentioned that the addition of a Seattle team would create a rivalry with its neighbor to the north, the Vancouver Canucks.

Why not Houston?

According to ESPN.com, Bettman said last week at the winter meetings, "There is nothing going on right now with Houston." 

Fertitta has shown potential interest in bringing a team if the numbers are right for him. Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, with its diverse population and worldwide oil and gas industry employees, would still be a logical landing place, given its size and natural rivalry with Dallas. But Houston doesn't have the base of youth hockey leagues that northern cities have, and the team would compete against the Texans and Rockets for entertainment dollars.

What's the reaction in Houston?

Fertitta told KPRC2 on Tuesday, "There's different opportunities and we're kind of looking at all the different opportunities. I'm not going to make something happen if it doesn't feel right, but we're on top of it. We talk about it every day. It could happen in a year. It might not happen for five years. But I think it will happen one day. But it has to be the right opportunity."

"But the people that live in Houston and with all the transplants we have from the north and east, deserve an NHL team. We are the fourth-largest city in America and I would love to have a team here," Fertitta said. "The National Hockey League is continuing to grow. It's getting better and better. Their fan appeal is getting better and better. And I'm going to do whatever I can to get (a team) here in the next few years."

WATCH: Tilman Fertitta on NHL team to Houston

Mayor Turner said Tuesday that he would answer questions about the issue at Wednesday's City Council meeting. 

KPRC2 contacted Harris County Judge Ed Emmett for comment. His communications director, Joe Stinebaker, said Emmett didn't have a statement, but Stinebaker said he himself "would love to see the NHL come to Houston."

Reaction from hockey fans in Houston was mixed.

Which teams are relocation candidates for Houston?

Carolina Hurricanes -- Bettman said last week to ESPN.com, "The rumors that it might be moving somewhere else are absolutely incorrect, made up, fabrications, wrong, wrong, wrong. The club is not going anywhere with Mr. Dundon's purchase. ... The fact that he lives in Dallas, and that happens to be in the same state as Houston, has nothing to do with anything. He's buying the club to have it in Carolina." So it appears Carolina is off the list.

Arizona Coyotes -- The Coyotes already relocated once, moving from Winnipeg to the desert for the 1996 season. There have been rumors of the team relocating for several years and the 'Yotes are operating on a year-to-year lease in the city of Glendale. But, according to ESPN.com, Bettman said last week, "They are still working on getting a building in Arizona. And so I don't view (the Coyotes) right now as a candidate for moving." 

Florida Panthers -- The Panthers are another team that has consistently been mentioned for relocation. Playing in the Sun Belt, the Panthers had large financial losses as recently as 2014. In 2015, Broward County voted to grant the team's request for a financial grant to keep the team in South Florida, but it's long-term status remains up in the air.

Outside shots: Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders. All three cities are looking for new arenas, but odds are still slim at this time that any of these teams would relocate. 

What's next?

Seattle is the only city in contention to receive an expansion team. That could change, but there are no current plans for a team going to Houston, or going to another contender that is frequently mentioned, Quebec City.

Join the hockey conversation! More on hockey in #Houston: https://www.click2houston.com/sports/houston-nhl-expansion-team-dreams-delayed-after-seattle-files-application

Posted by KPRC2 / Click2Houston on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The ownership in Las Vegas applied for expansion in summer 2015 and then was approved by the NHL's Board of Governors in June 2016. The team then began play in fall 2017. That two-year timeline is similar to what's expected for Seattle, as the city's KeyArena renovations are reportedly expected to be finished in time for the 2020-21 season.

Fertitta will presumably remain engaged with the league in case any opportunity for relocation arises. If a franchise becomes available to relocate, it would potentially be cheaper than the cost of an expansion team fee.

For the time being, Houston hockey fans will have to take a road trip to Dallas or parts beyond to see a game in person, or settle for watching NHL hockey on TV.

Locals have faith that hockey team would succeed in Houston

Bobby Behne, 24, is a native Texan with hockey in his blood.

He’s been playing since he was 4.

“When I play on the days here, I’m probably the only person from Texas. Everyone is from the north, Canada, Minnesota,” Behne said.

The possibility of an NHL expansion team coming to Houston took a hit last week with the announcement that Seattle will...

Posted by KPRC2 / Click2Houston on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

He believes there are enough transplants from those places to not only support a professional hockey team in Houston but to make it successful.

“We talk about it every day,” Fertitta said.

Hockey is not our country’s favorite national sport, but the popularity of the NHL is growing.

“I'd like to think, if Dallas can do it, Houston can do it,” Erin Blake said.

Blake is the hockey director at the Sugar Land Ice & Sports Center. She said hockey would be successful in Houston if it were marketed and promoted correctly.

“If the NHL team that came here really got into the community and they got in and came to the local rinks and they helped coach and they ran clinics and they got the kids addicted to it and loving it, it would work,” Blake said.


About the Authors:

Award-winning journalist, adventure seeker, explorer, dog lover.