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Houston: Do we have a problem?

Could Houston ruin Seattle’s chance at an NHL franchise?

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets
Could these Houston Toyota Center seats be filled with NHL fans some day?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When it was recently announced that the Houston Rockets were about to go on the market, the natural reaction in Seattle was a question. Could one of the competing arena groups buy the Rockets and move them here? The inevitable answer was no. The NBA is very hesitant to move teams right now, particularly out of a market as rich as Houston.

But there is another facet of this news that could be cause for concern in Seattle. It is widely believed that current Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has been a significant roadblock for the NHL coming to Houston over the years. A Fansided article documents some of the history. It involves multiple failed attempts to bring the Edmonton Oilers to Houston, as well as jacking up the rent in his new arena to force the minor league Houston Aeros out of town. But it was a clause he wrote into the arena lease that is most pertinent to Seattle.

First, he raised the already above-market rent at the Toyota Center for the Aeros by an estimated 300 percent the season before the Minnesota Wild (who then owned the Aeros as their affiliate) were forced to relocate the club. He also wrote a clause in the current lease agreement for the Toyota Center that only enables an NHL club owned by him to play at the arena, effectively blocking another team from coming to town without his permission.

It seems that the NHL was unamused by the tycoon’s attempts to force its hand and award him a club; Houston has been at the bottom of the list of realistic expansion options ever since.

In the end, Alexander got his payback on Watson, as the Aeros were driven out of town and he was given full control over an arena for his beloved Rockets.

So now that Alexander is selling, could the NHL roadblock be removed? The Houston Press raises that possibility.

No ownership groups in Houston attempted to lure the NHL, which some hockey observers took as a sign of a lack of interest from the city. But that overlooks the matter that the only party in Houston in a position to bid on a team and also able to offer up an arena was Les Alexander, and Alexander had no interest in doing so. He also made clear over the years that he had no interest in sharing Toyota Center with another tenant — thus the AHL Aeros departed for Iowa despite solid fan support (the saga of the Aeros’ departure can be read here).

So if Alexander wasn’t interested in bidding on a team, and if there was no arena available for a team to play, why would any other person or groups in Houston attempt to bid for a team? But Alexander's selling the Rockets (and the lease that goes with it) opens up an NHL-ready hockey arena in Houston. And that’s something that Seattle, which the NHL seemed to favor, can’t offer, and, unlike Quebec City, Houston offers up a huge media market with many, many large corporations around to buy up luxury seats.

So a door might be opening for the NHL to go to Houston. It would depend on who buys the team, and how willing they would be to work with an NHL partner. Would they be reluctantly willing? Eager to make a deal? Would they want to own both teams?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but media sources close to the situation in Houston tell Sonics Rising that at least two interested NBA ownership groups are also determined to acquire a hockey franchise.

How might this impact Seattle in its quest to bring the NHL to town? At the very least, Houston would be unexpected competition for expansion or relocation. Were Seattle to approve and build an arena, we’ve widely assumed that our market would be the largest, most attractive to the league. We’ve also touted the potential rivalry between the Vancouver Canucks and the Seattle Whatevers as one the NHL craves.

But Houston is a bigger market and has a potential rivalry of its own with the Dallas Stars. Furthermore, what if someone like Yao Ming were part of an NHL-friendly Rockets ownership group? Ming has huge influence in China, and the league might relish a chance to televise games there.

In other words, if Houston suddenly enters the competition, we could be in for a dog fight.

One thing is certain, the City of Seattle needs to approve an arena very soon to even take part in that fight. Whether it’s KeyArena with OVG and Jerry Bruckheimer, or Sodo with Chris Hansen and a newly acquired NHL investor, this needs to get done.

Nothing is not an acceptable option.