Next stop, Houston? Coyotes to move to Central Division – Chron
PHOTOS: 10 reasons Houston should have an NHL team 
GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 01: Adin Hill #31 of the Arizona Coyotes and teammates stand on the blue line during the playing of the national anthem against the St Louis Blues at Gila River Arena on December 1, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images) 
>>>Browse through the photos for a closer look at why Houston should have an NHL team ... 
1. A deep history
Houston already has a rich hockey history. As a member of the World Hockey Association from 1972-78, the Aeros were one of the most successful franchises in a league that rivaled the NHL at its zenith. The Aeros won two AVCO World Trophies during its WHA stint and was the legendary Gordie Howe’s squad for four seasons. Just as Houston is an outlier as a major city without a hockey team, the Aeros were the only WHA champions to not eventually join the NHL after the WHA folded in 1978. Gone but not forgotten, the Aeros returned twice (both at the minor league level with the IHL from 1994-2001 and the most recent AHL stint from 2001-13). Can the Aeros make another return to Houston?
2. Natural rivalry
Every sports city must have its worthy rival, and Houston has that in its neighbor to the North. A few hours up I-45 and you will find an arch nemesis for every sport. The Rangers and Astros have a heated rivalry that has been brewing in the confines of the American League West. The Dynamo and FC Dallas duke it out every year for possession of El Capitan. Although the Mavericks have been in the basement lately, the Rockets-Mavericks matchup has Western Conference implications. Heck, even the perennial Texans-Cowboys tilt has more meaning than your usual preseason game. Four or five games a season between the Stars and Houston’s NHL franchise would bode well for the blossoming intrastate rivalry. Plus, the prospects of a Houston-Dallas bullet train would only make the accessibility for all sports in both cities even easier in the future.
3. Players with Houston connections
Winnipeg Jets defenseman Tyler Myers is currently the only player in the NHL who hails from Houston. However, this could soon change as Scottsdale, Ariz. native Auston Matthews’ No. 1 overall selection in the 2016 Draft is an indication of a growing trend of NHL players developing in the South. Although Myers is the only player so far to come from Houston, he is not the only player to have a connection to the city. Joel Ward paid his minor league dues for most of three seasons before breaking in with the Nashville Predators and beginning what is so far a decade-long career in the NHL. The 2017 Norris Trophy winner for the NHL’s best defenseman transformed his game while in Houston. Brent Burns was a forward when he arrived in the Bayou City. During the 2004-05 lockout, Burns honed his craft in Houston before his star turn in the NHL. And of course Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, played with his sons Mark and Marty during his Aeros tenure from 1973-77.
4. Gordie Howe Night
Speaking of Mr. Hockey, imagine a three-headed bobblehead featuring Gordie, Mark and Marty Howe distributed at Toyota Center in honor of Gordie Howe before an annual home game against the Detroit Red Wings. Original Six teams do well to fill arenas across the league, but Detroit’s visit to town could have extra meaning. Gordie Howe finished his legendary NHL career with 801 goals and 1,049 assists while playing 1,767 games. All but 80 of those games were played over 25 seasons with the Red Wings. The Hall of Famer also added 174 goals and 334 assists during his six seasons in the WHA, four of which were with the Aeros. An Aeros-Red Wings meeting would be a perfect opportunity to honor the late Gordie Howe and celebrate hockey in Houston.
5. Toyota Center
Houston provides world-class infrastructure for hockey with the Toyota Center. The facility has proven in the past that it is adequate for hockey and holds 17,800 capacity in the ice rink format. That capacity is comparable to other NHL arenas and also places it between the venues of two Original Six franchises, the Boston Bruins (TD Garden; 17,565) and New York Rangers (Madison Square Garden; 18,006). This isn’t the only kind of infrastructure a hockey town needs, though. For postgame libations, the city has The Maple Leaf Pub, a flourishing hockey bar in Midtown that has been an oasis for hockey moonlighters since the departure of the Aeros.
6. Tilman Fertitta
With the transition of Rockets ownership and Toyota Center lease rights from Leslie Alexander to Tilman Fertitta, the city’s hockey fans have renewed optimism of the viability of an NHL team in Houston. As long as Alexander held the rights to Toyota Center, hopes of an NHL team coming to the city were dim at best. Fertitta, however, wasted little time kicking the tires on the idea. After news broke that Fertitta met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently, Fertitta issued a comment on Twitter about the possibility of bringing a club to Houston. “I’m very interested in the possibility of bringing the NHL to Houston, but it will have to be a deal that works for my organization, the City, fans of the NHL throughout the region, and the NHL Board of Governors. We are in the very early stage of evaluating what opportunities may exist but look forward to a thorough process,” he said.
7. NHL's need for expansion/relocation
The Western Conference’s Central Division needs another team. Since the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights to the Pacific Division, the Central Division has been shorthanded. There are now 31 teams in the NHL, leaving eight teams for each division except the seven in the Central. With the NHL giving Seattle permission to apply for expansion, it would make sense for Seattle to join its West Coast counterparts in the Pacific Division. In order to “even things out” the Central, which is also home to the potential-rival Dallas Stars, could use Houston. If Seattle does indeed become team No. 32, there are viable options for relocation. The Ottawa Senators, Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers are among teams frequently associated with having attendance issues. The Calgary Flames are amid a struggle with the city over negotiations for a new arena. The New York Islanders do not seem to be destined to stay in Barclays Center in Brooklyn much longer. A myriad of options are available for a team to relocate.
8. Ticket sales
Attendance numbers from Houston’s hockey past do not seem to indicate that an NHL team would have difficulty filling the building. According to the AHL, the Aeros were top 10 in attendance in the last 5 years they were in Houston. According to HockeyDB, the Aeros averaged 7,324 and 6,793 in attendance the last two seasons before the team moved to Des Moines, Iowa (2011-13). The Aeros’ heyday in relation to attendance was when the team returned with the IHL in 1994. The team averaged 11,689 and 10,287 in 1994-95 and 1995-96, respectively. During the WHA days, when hockey was a fledgling sport in Houston, attendance reached an average of 9,180 for the 1975-76 season. Granted, these numbers are a far cry from the 17,800 capacity of Toyota Center, but the numbers are reflective of minor league clubs and 11,000-plus in attendance over 20 years ago is still impressive.
9. Minor league options
A Houston NHL team could take a page from its MLB counterpart in utilizing the Gulf coast as an attractive location for a minor league affiliate. The Astros Class AA affiliate Corpus Christi Hooks have a successful operation at Whataburger Field, and perhaps an NHL team might consider putting a team at American Bank Center, currently home of the IceRays of the North American Hockey League. The proximity would give the big club an advantage in calling up replacement players on an emergency basis as well as possibly generating interest for the sport throughout the region.
10. Last but not least
Houston’s sheer size justifies the need for an NHL team. Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States. Harris County is the third most populated county in the U.S. with over 4 million people at the 2010 census. By far, it is the largest city and county without a professional hockey team in the country.
The NHL Board of Governors voted to move the Arizona Coyotes to the Central Division from the Pacific, the league announced Tuesday.
The decision corresponds with the league’s move to bring in a 32nd franchise in Seattle, which will occupy the Coyotes’ spot in the Pacific starting in the 2021-22 season.
The Coyotes’ move to the Central, further away from their geographical rivals, stirs the pot when it comes to a potential relocation to Houston. On Saturday, Hockey Night in Canada’s Nick Kypreos speculated that if “no new money” appeared for the Coyotes, “Arizona could turn into Houston.”
BRIAN T. SMITH: Tilman Fertitta's vision for hockey in Houston must dovetail with NHL's
“New money” would not seem to be a problem in Houston. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has previously expressed interest in bringing the NHL to the Bayou City.
"I would put an NHL team here tomorrow," Fertitta told the Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen in October 2017, shortly after he purchased the Rockets. "This one has got to work. But I'd love to have the other dates in the building. Do I want to see Toyota Center filled up 300 nights a year? Definitely. We'll do whatever we can do, but whatever we do has to make sense.
"Will we be aggressive? Yes. That's my nature."
Matt Wyatt is a 2015 graduate of the University of Houston, where he studied journalism and history. He joined the Chronicle as an intern in January 2015 and became a full-time employee a year later. He enjoys hunting, fishing and is a member of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association. He's an unabated NHL fan in a city that doesn't acknowledge hockey.


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