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Hockey for Houston (again)?

It could happen.

It’s early, the initial talks have only been exploratory and Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have to worry about slipping on the hardwood any time soon. But I can tell you this: [Tilman] Fertitta and Co. are interested if the NHL can make its end of the bargain work. And if Houston finally gets its long delayed Big Four, it could happen much sooner than later.

“I’m very interested in the possibility of bringing the NHL to Houston,” Fertitta said Thursday in a statement. “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.”

That’s Fertitta. Straight shooter. No cookie-cutter filter.

Barely a month after he was officially introduced as the Rockets’ new owner – I’m still seeing stars from all the camera flashes – he’s met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and reiterated the obvious: Pro hockey could make serious sense in Houston.

Fertitta has discussed his potential interest in an NHL team since he officially became the Rockets owner, so this is no surprise. If you’re wondering whether this is an overly optimistic view, it’s one that is shared by actual hockey people.

Why doesn’t Seattle have an NHL franchise yet, and why is Houston probably going to get one?

Because one didn’t pass the Gary Bettman Test when it needed to, and the other very well might when it has to.

The Bettman Test has been applied to a dozen markets throughout his tenure as NHL commissioner. The first phase of the test is the most obvious one: Does the NHL plan to expand? Does the league have a need to relocate a struggling franchise to a more viable market?

Spoiler alert: Houston passes the Bettman Test with ease. That doesn’t mean we will get an NHL team, but if the opportunity arises, we will be at the front of the line. I went to some Aeros games in the 90s, and it was a lot of fun – hockey is a great sport to watch live, because the action is basically nonstop. But that was paying minor league prices in the old Compaq Center, not NHL prices at the Toyota Center. I’d have to see what kind of financial commitment it would require. How interested would you be to attend an Aeros 3.0 game?

Adios, Aeros

It was nice knowing you.

After 19 years, the Houston Aeros will be no more after this season.

The Minnesota Wild, who own the majority of the Aeros AHL franchise, were unable to reach a new lease agreement with the Toyota Center.

According to person familiar with the situation, the team [sought approval] Thursday from the AHL Board of Governors to relocate the franchise to Des Moines, Iowa starting next season.

The Iowa Wild would play at Well Fargo Arena, which holds over 15,000 for hockey. A press conference is expected on Monday in Des Moines.

According to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, the Toyota Center felt they were turning away more profitable concerts to accommodate the Aeros, who often tie up weekend dates between October and April.

The Wild and sports authority sought, but were unable to find, a suitable alternate venue for the team in Houston.

See here for background. The approval was granted, and the team will henceforth be known as the Iowa Wild. My interpretation of this is that we shouldn’t expect another franchise to seek out Houston as its home anytime soon. If the Toyota Center isn’t available, it’s probably not worth their time. Sorry about that, hockey fans. Hair Balls has more.

Is this the end of hockey in Houston again?

Looks like it.

As the Houston Chronicle first reported in January, it appears the Houston Aeros’ 19-year run in Houston is all but over.

An announcement could be coming in the next couple of weeks, basically after the Aeros’ season, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported Tuesday.

The Aeros, affliated with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, are expected to move to Des Moines, Iowa.

The reason for the move was that the team has been unable to extend its lease at Toyota Center.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority has looked into alternative venues – primarily Reliant Arena – for the minor league hockey franchise but has found none suitable.

I confess, I don’t follow the Aeros very closely – it’s been at least ten years since I’ve been to a game. I didn’t even realize they were now affiliated with an NHL team. What I do know is that if they can’t renew their lease at the Toyota Center, they may as well move. Tiffany and I were for awhile season ticket holders for the Houston Comets, and they played one year at Reliant Arena, their last year before folding. It was a truly awful venue – dingy, lots of poor sight lines, lousy or non-existent amenities, and no option to park for free on the street. Maybe it’s better now, and maybe the replacement facility that has been talked about as part of an Astrodome plan would be better – it could hardly be worse – but that would be of little help to the Aeros. So yeah, Toyota Center or bust. Good luck with that. Hair Balls, which also wrote about this last week, has more.

How cursed is Houston as a sports city?

What curse?

So another Super Bowl is history, and as you might have noticed the Houston Texans were not be playing in the game. This continues an unbroken streak of Houston football teams not making it to the Super Bowl, some in particularly heartbreaking fashion. The Astros have never won a World Series, having only won one pennant in fifty-plus years of existence. Were it not for two NBA titles by the Rockets in the 90s, the city of Houston would be completely championship-free for the major sports. You may be wondering how Houston compares to other big league sports cities in this department. I was, so I did a little research to find out. I limited myself to the last 40 years, mostly because ancient history is only of so much comfort to most fans. (For what it’s worth, Bill Simmons uses a 35-year period for assessing true wretchedness.) With that in mind, here’s what I found. Let’s start with the cities that have had nothing to celebrate in that time span.

Cleveland

Franchises – Browns (two versions, NFL); Indians (MLB); Cavaliers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

Buffalo

Franchises – Bills (NFL); Sabres (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

San Diego

Franchises – Chargers (NFL); Padres (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

Seattle

Franchises – Seahawks (NFL); Mariners (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – SuperSonics (NBA), 1979

Any discussion of cursed sports cities has to start with Cleveland. Their last title of any kind was a pre-Super Bowl NFL championship by the Browns in 1964. Since then, they’ve had The Drive, The Fumble, the relocation of their team to another city where it then went on to win a Super Bowl a few years later plus another this year, and all that is before we discuss the Indians (last World Series win 1948) or the Cavaliers. See here, here, here, and here for more. Really, there’s no question about it. No other city is in Cleveland’s class when it comes to sheer sports misery.

Buffalo is first runnerup, though I doubt anyone in Houston will offer much sympathy to them. Besides the Bills losing four consecutive Super Bowls, not to mention the Music City Miracle, the Sabres are oh-for-two in Stanley Cup finals, with the most recent loss being as controversial as it was gut-wrenching for their fans. They’re not quite in Cleveland territory, but they’re closer than anyone else. San Diego has lost two World Series, both times getting swept by teams of the ages (1984 Tigers and 1998 Yankees), and one Super Bowl, but it’s hard to think of anyone in San Diego as being cursed. Seattle managed to never win a pennant despite fielding teams that featured as many as four future Hall of Famers plus Jay Buhner; I include them here since their one title was won by a franchise that has since relocated.

And here are the teams that have won one or two titles, thus putting themselves in a similar class as Houston:

Atlanta

Franchises – Braves (MLB); Falcons (NFL); Hawks (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Braves, 1995

Phoenix

Franchises – Cardinals (NFL); Suns (NBA); Diamondbacks (MLB); Coyotes (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Diamondbacks, 2001

Kansas City

Franchises – Royals (MLB); Chiefs (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Royals, 1985

Indianapolis

Franchises – Colts (NFL); Pacers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Colts, 2007

New Orleans

Franchises – Saints (NFL); Pelicans (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Saints, 2010

Minneapolis

Franchises – Twins (MLB); Vikings (NFL); Timberwolves (NBA); Wild (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Twins, 1987 and 1991

Tampa

Franchises – Rays (MLB); Buccaneers (NFL); Lightning (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Buccaneers, 2003, and Lightning, 2004

Milwaukee

Franchises – Bucks (NBA); Brewers (MLB); Green Bay Packers (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Packers, 1997 and 2011

Houston

Franchises – Astros (MLB); Texans (NFL); Rockets (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Rockets, 1994 and 1995

Out of that group, I’d probably rank Minneapolis and Kansas City as more cursed than Houston. The Vikings are also 0-4 in Super Bowls, with several other heartbreaking playoff losses, the Twins can’t get past the Yankees, the North Stars won the Stanley Cup after relocating to Dallas, and the Timberwolves watched Kevin Garnett win two NBA titles with the Celtics. Both Kansas City teams have been poorly run for years, though the Royals are a little better these days. New Orleans would have had a decent claim to superior cursedness before their Super Bowl win; as long as Drew Brees can play at his level, they’ll have a chance. The other cities for the most part don’t inspire much sympathy. Atlanta may have the hapless Hawks and the feckless Falcons, but they also had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Indianapolis replaced Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck and rebuilt a contender after one season. Tampa and Phoenix haven’t been big league long enough to inspire real misery. No city that roots for the Packers can truly be cursed.

So, putting it all together, I’d probably rank Houston as the sixth most cursed city, following Cleveland, Buffalo, Seattle, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Your mileage may vary, but that’s how I see it. How would you rank the losers?

“America’s largest city with no pro sports teams”

This Houston Press lamentation about the city of Austin contained the following tidbit that caught my eye:

Austin is America’s largest city with no pro sports teams (though some would debate the amateur status of the Texas Longhorns).

Well, that depends on how you define “city”, and on how you define “pro”. I presume they mean a team from one of the big four leagues – MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL (*) – as Austin does have an NBA D-league team, and until 2008 had a minor league hockey team that could restart operations again. One could arguably include the Round Rock Express as well, but I think the meaning of “pro” is clear enough, so let’s not belabor this.

It’s the definition of “city” where it gets complicated. The list of US cities by population confirms the Press’ assertion: Austin comes in at #14, with a population of 790,390, and every city ahead of it has at least one pro team as defined above. In fact, the next two largest cities without pro teams are also in Texas – #16 Fort Worth (741,206) and #19 El Paso (649,121). You have to go down to #27 Louisville (597,337) to find the first non-Texas example.

The reason why I hesitate to use this as the definition is that if you keep going down this list, you find some places that sure seem like they’re a lot bigger than that. Cities like #40 Atlanta (420,003), #44 Miami (399,457), or #58 Saint Louis (319,294), for instance, sure don’t seem like they’re half or less Austin’s size. What gives with that?

The answer, of course, is that nobody cares about the municipality in which a stadium is located, as any fan of the Arlington Rangers, East Rutherford Giants, or Auburn Hills Pistons can attest. Teams may be identified with a city, but it’s the wider area that actually supports the team. Austin is only the fifth-largest urban area without a pro sports team, trailing Riverside-San Bernadino CA, Virginia Beach VA, Las Vegas NV, and Providence RI. It’s the third-largest MSA without a pro sports team, trailing Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario CA and Las Vegas-Paradise NV. More to the point, those lists give you a much better representation of the true big population centers in the US. Having Atlanta at #9 makes a lot more sense than having it at #40, barely half the size of Austin. There’s a much larger discussion in all of this about how these large metro areas are governed and how that governance could be vastly streamlined and more effective if a bunch of otherwise arbitrary boundary lines were obliterated, but that’s way beyond my scope here. Point is, making that statement about Austin is technically correct but kinda misleading. Which shouldn’t stop you from reading the story, which would be blog-worthy in its own right if I had the energy for it. Just keep this in mind when you get to that sentence.

(*) – You can include MLS if you want, but a peek at their standings tells me that they do not have a team in any city that wouldn’t already be counted in the Big Four. And in case you’re wondering, Chivas US is in Los Angeles, and Columbus OH is also the home of the NHL Blue Jackets franchise.

Are we really still looking for an NHL team?

Haven’t seen this pop up in awhile.

Fans purchased more than 17,000 tickets to watch the Aeros split the first two games of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup finals against Binghamton at Toyota Center on Friday and Saturday.

The minor league team is seemingly thriving here, on and off the ice. But because this is considered a major league city, some wonder what might be.

“We love having the Aeros,” Janis Schmees said. “They’re a great team. But if we’re able to bring in a NHL team, we’re going to jump at that opportunity.”

Schmees is the executive director of the Harris County Houston Sports Authority. That organization would be one of the driving forces behind any such venture. At the moment, she said there is no such movement afoot.

However, if the NHL were to settle in Houston with the Toyota Center as its home base, Schmees said Rockets owner Les Alexander would own the team — specific language was written in the Toyota Center lease saying as much. If another individual or group expressed a desire, another venue would have to be located or built.

Alexander, who has flirted with the possibility of NHL ownership on at least two occasions during the past decade, declined to comment.

The talk has been around for longer than that. Have we forgotten the Les AlexanderChuck Watson feuds already? Part of what made the Toyota Center saga so dramatic was the argument over who would be able to bring a major league hockey franchise to the new venue. The NHL did a lot of expansion and a few franchise moves in the 90s, which helped fuel that speculation, though things had been largely stable since then. With the Atlanta team moving to Winnipeg, I guess that’s all starting up again. I confess, I haven’t paid any attention to the Aeros lately, but it seems to me that the case against an NHL team, which is mostly that the game experience would be a lot more expensive than it is now, hasn’t changed. I doubt the likelihood of Houston emerging with an NHL franchise has changed much either, but I guess you never know.