MONTREAL — Commissioner Gary Bettman would neither confirm nor deny that he met with Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta regarding his desire to bring an NHL team to the Honda Center.
“I don’t think my calendar is something for the public domain,” said Bettman after a business luncheon in Montreal on Friday. He said another NHL expansion team “isn’t something we’re going to run off and do” until the League is done “digesting and assimilating” the first-year Vegas Golden Knights.
Fertitta tweeted this week that he’s “very interested” in bringing the NHL to Houston but that “we are in the very early stage of evaluating what opportunities may exist.”
— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) November 16, 2017
Bettman didn’t deny the market, No. 4 in population in the United States, was tantalizing. “If there is in fact genuine interest from Houston, under the appropriate circumstances, we might be in a position to take a look at it,” he said. “That doesn’t sound specific. I don’t like speculating about things that may or may not happen.”
Here’s what is happening for the NHL: Markets like Houston, Seattle and Quebec City have all expressed significant interest in landing a franchise through expansion or relocation. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames are both pressuring their local municipalities for new city arenas; the Carolina Hurricanes have a muddled ownership situation and the worst attendance in the NHL (11,352 through eight home dates); the Arizona Coyotes are still the Arizona Coyotes.
What Houston presents is not just potential fertile ground for a new NHL city, but leverage in the ongoing negotiations in the established ones.
“We believe in all of the places that we have franchises now. We think all of our markets are capable of supporting clubs. We’re not looking to threaten markets. But there is an inevitability that when a club can’t for some reason get a new facility, ownership has to know what options it has,” said Bettman. “It’s great to know there are a lot of places that want franchises that don’t [have them]. We’re not running around actively soliciting interest. Our preference is to leave all the franchises where they are.”
Bettman said the Flames have broken off talks with the city regarding a new arena “because they thought it was futile,” and discussions between the two are nonexistent. The Senators want to build a new arena in LeBreton Flats, a large undeveloped site just west of Parliament Hill, after playing the past 21 years in suburban Kanata.
“The Senators knew that the useful life of the Canadian Tire Centre is nearing its end. A downtown arena is vital to the future of that franchise,” said Bettman.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, don’t have any solid prospects at the moment as far as a new building. “They’re pursuing a new building and have a number of options,” said Bettman.
Of course, “options” can mean a lot of things these days in the NHL. It could mean another expansion team going to a market that yearns for hockey. Or it could mean a struggling franchise moving to a place that has a new arena, eager ownership and a hockey pedigree like Quebec City, which was the runner-up to Las Vegas in the last round of expansion.
Bettman reiterated again that the arena built by Quebec for a potential NHL team doesn’t necessarily mean the NHL is headed there. “The city and the province chose to build the building. At every step of the process, we told them we’re not promising you a team. If you build the building, you have to do it with the understanding that you’ll never get a team. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get a team. It means we made no commitment, whatsoever,” he said.
The Quebec Nordiques left for Colorado in 1995 because they didn’t generate enough revenue, partially due to their then-outdated arena. That their fans are still waiting for another NHL team 22 years later was not lost on Bettman, given the current arena battles in other cities.
“You do see what happens when a market loses a team because there isn’t an adequate facility or the prospect of an adequate facility, that it’s very, very hard to get one back,” he said.