Houston could get an NHL team, or could just be used to extort other NHL cities for cash

If you’ve always wondered why Houston, the United States’ 10th largest media market, didn’t have an NHL franchise, this is your week. Starting last Thursday, when The Athletic (citing the ever-popular “multiple sources”) reported that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and new Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had met to talk about putting a team in the city, there’s been increased blind speculation about the possibility, to the point where the Houston Chronicle ran an entire article about what the phantom team would be called.

Most recently, the Houston Press, a newspaper that recently canceled its print edition and laid off its entire staff except for its editor-in-chief, who now works solely with freelancers, reported that now that Fertitta owns the Rockets and their arena, bringing hockey to Houston is “just a matter of when.” And lawyer-by-day-sports-journalist-by-night John Royal, citing the less-popular “it’s become my understanding,” says that the NHL isn’t considering expansion for the moment, but instead would prefer to “stabilize” one of its existing franchises by moving it to a new city:

There are numerous candidates for relocation to Houston. No. 1 on the list is the Arizona Coyotes which is begging the Phoenix-metro area to build it a new arena after failing to attract fans to the taxpayer-funded arena built for the Coyotes in Glendale and which is currently playing on a year-to-year lease. Then there are the Carolina Hurricane which have been struggling at the gate. The New York Islanders are unhappy in a new arena in Brooklyn and are seeking to move, and the Calgary Flames are threatening to move if a new arena is not built by Calgary taxpayers.

(Yes, “the Arizona Coyotes which is.” Clearly they laid off all the copy editors, too.)

All of this makes sense, sort of, though for the Islanders and Flames in particular you have to wonder whether giving up strong media markets that are hockey hotbeds in exchange for a city in the South would work as well as … well, as the Coyotes and the Hurricanes, which let’s not forget are in this predicament because they used to be the Winnipeg Jets and the Hartford Whalers. The Coyotes, in particular, couldn’t really do worse than in Arizona, where they are about to have no arena lease and have never drawn well in any case.

On the other hand, when you see all the unnamed sources involved, you have to at least ask the question: Is all this sudden Houston talk in part an NHL whisper campaign to rattle move-threat sabers in other cities? So far nobody appears to be freaking out — Fansided’s Flames blog briefly mentioned and dismissed the possibility of Calgary’s team heading south, for example, despite Sportsnet’s John Shannon insisting that “Calgary’s name has been added to the list of teams facing possible relocation” — which is good, but nobody has yet hopped on a plane to Houston or anything.

And really, even if Fertitta’s interest in a team is real — and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, though it is a bit puzzling that former owner Les Alexander figured he made more money on concerts and the like than hockey, but Fertitta calculates otherwise — it’d be dumb for the NHL not to use this as an opportunity to shake down other cities for arena cash or other concessions. Houston as an NHL city would be somewhat valuable, if only for its market size, though again, it’s only slightly larger than Phoenix and that worked out spectacularly poorly; Houston as a bogeyman to frighten other cities (along with Seattle once that city’s arena deal is finalized) could potentially be the gift that keeps on giving. Watch the blogs and sports talk radio, I guess, to see how this will all play out.