The NHL Has a Problem: No Team in Houston

Once upon a time, a consortium of wealthy men on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border thought it was a good idea to go head-to-head with the National Hockey League.

In 1972, a dozen of them formed the World Hockey Association — and in the WHA's first season, the New England Whalers (later absorbed into the NHL as the Hartford Whalers — more about that below) won the championship, for which they were awarded something called the AVCO Memorial Trophy. The league's stated mission was to bring professional hockey to mid-level markets in the United States — like New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco, all of which had WHA franchises? — and Canadian markets that had been passed up by the NHL, yet somehow one of the most obvious of these, Regina (pronounced Reh-JYE-nah, by the way), Saskatchewan, was omitted.

Yet for a while, the WHA actually prospered, expanding to 14 teams for the 1974-75 season. But soon the inevitable decline set in, with the league reverting to 12 teams in 1976-77, further contracting to eight in 1977-78, and seven in 1978-79, with the Houston Aeros dropping out in the summer of 1978. Four of the seven survivors — coincidentally, the top four finishers from the 1978-79 season — were absorbed by the NHL in a merger that had long been rumored to be inevitable. Those four teams were the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques (since 1995 the Colorado Avalanche), the Winnipeg Jets (the Phoenix Coyotes from 1996 to 2014, when they were renamed the Arizona Coyotes; today's Winnipeg Jets are the former Atlanta Thrashers, who moved to Winnipeg in 2011) and the Hartford Whalers (the Carolina Hurricanes since 1997).

Since the demise of the Aeros in 1978, America's fourth largest city has been left without a pro hockey franchise. The NHL had a chance to do something about that last week when it named its choice for a 32nd franchise (remaining with an odd number of teams indefinitely not being an option), but chose Seattle, not Houston, to be that franchise.

This is a bad decision on a number of levels. First, as previously mentioned, Houston is America's fourth largest metropolitan area, while Seattle ranks 15th. Maybe this is why the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics failed and are now the Oklahoma City Thunder. And second, a 32nd team in Houston would have allowed the NHL to correct the egregious error it made in 2013 when it realigned into seven- and eight-team divisions, when divisions that size are about as up-to-date as expressions like "Oh-bodie-oh-doh," "Twenty-three skidoo," and "Kiss me later, I'm eatin' a potato." Think of what four four-team divisions in each conference might have looked like with Houston as the 32nd team:

Eastern Conference, Metropolitan Division: Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers
Eastern Conference, Northeast Division: Bruins, Canadiens, Senators, Maple Leafs
Eastern Conference, Central Division: Sabres, Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Penguins
Eastern Conference, Southeast Division: Hurricanes, Panthers, Lightning, Capitals

Western Conference, Midwest Division: Blackhawks, Wild, Blues, Jets
Western Conference, Southwest Division: Coyotes, Stars, Predators, Houston
Western Conference, Northwest Division: Flames, Avalanche, Oilers, Golden Knights
Western Conference, Pacific Division: Ducks, Kings, Sharks, Canucks

Clearly, this does not work anywhere near as well with Seattle, as there is no room for Seattle in the Pacific Division.

Then there is the matter of scheduling: in a 32-team league with four four-team divisions in each conference, a simple "6-4-1" pattern is possible: each team plays their three division rivals six times - 6 X 3 = 18, the 12 teams in the other three divisions of their own conference four times — 4 X 12 = 48, and all 16 teams in the other conference once each — 1 X 16 = 16, and 18 + 48 + 16 = 82.

And if the NHL wants to expand the playoffs from the current 16 teams to 20 — something it has discussed previously, and which not for nothing would restore the traditional way of doing things from the "Original Six" era when four of the six teams, or two-thirds of the total, made the playoffs — the qualifiers in each conference can consist of the top two teams from each division (the first-place teams seeded 1 through 4 based on their records and the second-place teams 5 through 8) plus the two best third-place teams (seeded 9 and 10), with all four first-place teams plus the two best second-place teams getting a first-round bye while the bottom four seeds square off in two best-of-three mini-series (7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9), with the winners advancing to the conference quarterfinals.

Even what to name the Houston franchise would have been a no-brainer: the Houston Roughnecks, "roughneck" being Texas slang for a worker on an oil rig, conjuring up memories of the NFL's dear departed Houston Oilers — a name already taken in the NHL by the Edmonton Oilers. They even have separate "cowboy" and "roughneck" bars in Texas — and a man in cowboy garb wouldn't get caught dead in a roughneck bar, or vice-versa, since he might literally end up dead.

But it is all for naught, because as the Climax Blues Band sang 41 years ago, the NHL couldn't get it right.

Comments and Conversation

December 17, 2018

Daniel Sotir:

Houston had the IHL/AHL Houston Aeros from 1994-2013. The former Rockets owner Les Alexander ran them out in 2013 which left Houston with no Hockey team. In 2017, Tilman Fertitta bought the Rockets and expressed his interest of having an NHL team in Houston. He met with the NHL in November 2017 and met with the NHL Recently on purchasing the Arizona Coyotes & relocating them to Houston.

December 20, 2018

Eddie :

You’re an idiot.
Vegas is in the Southwest not the Northwest.
And what makes you think that your city would even support a team this team?

December 20, 2018

Chas Glazer:

I agree with Eddie that the writer of the article, Anthony Brancato is an idiot! Why? The SuperSonics “didn’t fail” in Seattle - they won an NBA Tittle and had strong fan and community support.
They were moved out of Seattle by the owners that Howard Schultz of Starbucks sold the team to. Yes they needed a new arena, but, they still were selling out the place.
The new owners had intent to move the team to OKC from the beginning.
So, get your facts straight! Plus Texas already has a hockey team in Dallas.

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