It has been ten years since the puck last dropped at the Toyota Center for Houston Aeros hockey. Rumors have swelled in the years that have passed since those Aeros moved to Iowa that hockey will make a return to Houston. Whether it’s as a relocation or an expansion franchise, the 4th-largest and most culturally diverse city in the United States seems to be a prime spot for ice hockey to take root.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time the past few weeks taking in hockey at Houston’s Maple Leaf Pub. With the Stanley Cup Playoffs underway, the joint has become a hotbed for hockey fans in Houston. Folks in just about every sweater make their way to the Maple Leaf – Rangers, Devils, Kraken, Avalanche, and obviously Stars. Each fan has their own loyalties but there was one clear consensus in talking to them in passing. They want the NHL to plant their flag in Houston.
As mentioned above, Houston is no stranger to hockey rumors. The most recent batch of rumors kicked off with hockey insider John Buccigross’ tweet. As is usually the case with these tweets, all it takes is one for both excitement and skepticism to run rampant. I’d look at the most recent round of rumors with hope. However, dose your hopes with a grain of salt as well – there are still barriers to entry for the NHL in Houston.
Why Isn’t There Houston Hockey?
To address the rumors of the NHL making their way to Southeast Texas, we do have to talk about why the top league in the sport of hockey isn’t already in Bayou City. For starters, Texas obviously does not possess the ideal climate for any Winter sport – let alone ice hockey. This has prevented the culture of hockey from being too deeply ingrained in Houston. Of course with the international culture of the city and the number of residents from elsewhere, this shouldn’t be a difficult factor to overcome.
Back in 2017, Rockets Owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted the above statement. While not shutting the door on the possibility of a future NHL franchise being able to play on home ice at the Toyota Center, it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence. Though the NHL could look to put an ice hockey arena elsewhere, finding a home arena also presents a clear challenge.
Finally, the NHL itself put a bit of a damper on the most recent batch of rumors. With two expansion franchises, the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the Seattle Kraken, both added in 2017 the NHL feels no pressure to move forward in expanding. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said as much when addressing the rumors.
A final barrier to the NHL’s entry to Houston could be the current NHL team calling Texas home. The Dallas Stars have placed a greater emphasis in recent years on representing Texas Hockey. That branding would not appear to be accidental with the NHL to Houston rumors coinciding with this branding pivot. An NHL team in Houston would be a ready-made rival for the Stars, but that team would also invalidate the Dallas claim as the flagship of Texas Hockey.
Reasons to Hope
In spite of the forces working against the NHL coming to Houston, I do think the city getting a franchise is more of a question of “when?” than “if?”. As mentioned above, Houston is the 4th-largest city in the United States by population. This makes the city the largest to not have an NHL franchise.
The NHL has also made it clear that in spite of the lack of desire to continue expanding in the wake of Vegas and Seattle, Houston is at the top of the list. However, should expansion not occur anytime soon, relocation is still a strong possibility.
The best hope for relocation lies in the ongoing trials and tribulations of the Arizona Coyotes. The ‘yotes have called the Phoenix area home since 1996 but arena issues have created a frosty relationship with the city. Eyes in Houston will certainly be turned towards a public vote for a new hockey arena in Tempe. After the city of Glendale terminated its relationship with the Coyotes, Arizona’s NHL franchise moved into Arizona State University’s Mullett Arena.
While the arena may be perfect for the college game, 4,600 seats aren’t enough for a permanent home for an NHL franchise. Should the vote for a new arena in Tempe not go the Coyotes’ way, relocation to Houston could be a very real possibility.
Houstonians’ hunger for hockey will remain unsatisfied until the NHL comes to the city. For now, they’ll settle for hockey on the big screen. In the meantime, hope springs eternal as the residents of Houston remain confident that a team will take the ice in Southeast Texas. After all, hockey in Houston feels like it is only a matter of time.
What hypothetical Houston hockey team name best suits the city? Would you honor tradition with the Aeros name or choose something else? We’d love to hear from you on Twitter at Pokatok_Fest.