Is Houston the favorite for expansion?

By
Updated: November 17, 2017

3:07 PM ET

Hello, and welcome to the Weekly Reader, which will run every Friday and collect news and views from around the hockey world on the week’s biggest stories. Seen something worth highlighting here? Hit me at greg.wyshynski@espn.com, or do the same if you have suggestions for the column going forward. Enjoy!

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?

If the answer to either of those is “yes,” then we move to phase two of the test. “The most important elements are market, arena and ownership,” said Bettman in 2014. For the NHL, that’s the holy trinity when it comes to testing a market. Several cities have passed with ease — Minnesota, Nashville — while others had to convince the league that they had the right answers, like Las Vegas did with its pre-expansion ticket drive.

Seattle failed the test while Vegas was passing it. At a time when the NHL wanted desperately to expand to the Pacific Northwest for both demographic and geographic reasons, Seattle couldn’t get its act together on an arena deal and none of the three ownership groups sniffing around the $500 million expansion fee could ante up without a clear path to a new building. These conditions are changing, as I’ll note in a bit, but during the last round of expansion, it flunked.

Which brings us to the new belle of the ball: Houston, Texas.

So does it pass The Bettman Test?

Ownership: Passes.

Tilman Fertitta sparked this whole new round of NHL expansion and relocation fervor when he purchased the NBA’s Houston Rockets and the Toyota Center for $2.2 billion in September. “I would put an NHL team here tomorrow,” said Fertitta, the sole owner of Landry’s, Inc., one of the largest restaurant corporations in the United States. (And the star of “Billion Dollar Buyer” on CNBC, which is “Shark Tank” if “Shark Tank” had one shark who only wanted to buy products in the hospitality industry.)

Katie Strang of The Athletic reported this week that Fertitta actually met with Bettman and the NHL for a question-and-answer session recently, so there’s clearly smoke here. Fertitta has the passion — and, more important, the finances — to bring an NHL team to Houston.

Arena: Passes, and not only because Toyota Center is still relatively new (it was built in 2003) and seats 17,500 for hockey. (And unlike a certain arena in Brooklyn, was actually built with hockey as a consideration.)

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    Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is known for his sharp Twitter wit and his prowess at the poker table. The two-time Olympic champion talks about racking up wins (and losses), his Italian heritage and if poker is in his plans for retirement.

  • For years, the NHL was hesitant to explore Houston as a viable option because Rockets and arena owner Les Alexander didn’t have a desire to bring a hockey team into the arena. “I would love to see one in Houston, but we can’t get into that building,” said Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs in 2015.

    Alexander is out of the picture. The doors are now open.

    (One other factor to consider: Synergy. In Fertitta, the NHL would have a hat-trick owner who controls the arena, the NBA team and the NHL team. The NHL likes that.)

    Market: Passes. The NHL has had interest in Houston for years, and that side-eyeing has certainly intensified as its market has exploded: The city is now the fourth most populous in the United States behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Combine the energy industry with low taxes and demographic shifts to a more diverse populace and … well, God bless Texas, we’ve got ourselves a boom town.

    But we also have ourselves a hockey town. Houston’s history with the sport tracks back to 1972, as different incarnations of the Houston Aeroes have called it home. It’s a city that has seen Gordie Howe skate. It’s a city that has an actual hockey heritage. Along with, you know, gallons of corporate dollars to go with those gallons of oil.

    Of course, ultimately, this all comes back to Phase One of The Bettman Test: Is there a team for Houston to acquire? There’s no question the NHL needs another one out west to balance the conferences, as much as Bettman protests that it’s not mandatory. There’s also no question that a few franchises — the Arizona Coyotes, the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Islanders and, yes, even the Calgary Flames — are worth watching because of their various ownership and arena quandaries. But nothing is imminent on those fronts.

    Seattle remains a target, and its viability has gotten a boost by an NHL-ready Key Arena refurbishment that’ll be done by 2020. Quebec City remains a backdoor relocation spot for a struggling franchise, having passed two-thirds of The Bettman Test — but, frankly, the NHL is focused on creating new fans, and so Seattle and Houston are sexier from a market perspective.

    Is Houston now the front-runner to become the next NHL city?

    At this point, you’d have to say yes. It now aces The Bettman Test like no other market does.

    Connor McDavid is toast

    The Connor McDavid Toaster, part of a charity effort from Canadian Tire, is one of those things you never realized you needed until you actually see it. Also, whoever wrote the line, “It’s the best thing since sliced bread … and it’s for sliced bread” deserves a nominal raise.

    If nothing else, if a coach ever claims that McDavid needs more jam in his game, he can now throw a facially branded piece of jelly-covered toast at his face.

    Radko Gudas, again

    Here are some ways not to react to the five-minute major for slashing and the game misconduct earned by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas on Thursday night:

    1. Claiming that Gudas was stumbling around like a newborn fawn and the only way he could regain his balance was to drop his stick across the neck of Mathieu Perreault.

    2. Complaining that the referees only opted to give him a game misconduct after they heard the fans boo and watched the replay on the Jumbotron, even if this was totally the right call. Who cares? The call was correct. Hoping for a statute of limitations on a referee’s decision so as to earn a lesser penalty … the only way this could be more Philly is if someone drenched it wit wiz and they discussed it on WIP.

    3. Making sure to note that Gudas is a talented and capable defenseman as a way to defend his reputation. Sure, of course he is. That’s why these semi-frequent circus acts that get him suspended, and take that caliber of player out of the lineup for several games, are even more lamentable.

    Here are some ways to actually react to the five-minute major for slashing and the game misconduct earned by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas on Thursday night:

    1. Figuring out how the department of player safety will build on the six-game suspension it gave him a year ago for interference against Boston Bruins forward Austin Czarnik.

    2. Trying not to giggle when Perreault tells the media that he escaped significant injury because Gudas “got me in the meaty part of my neck.”

    3. Even if Perreault is wrong and this was some sort of accident, it’s still a classic case of a player being unable to control his own stick and having it lead to an injurious play. Which is to say that, no matter the intention, Gudas — who has been offered an in-person hearing with Player Safety — needs to sit out. Maybe not for 20 games like Jeff O’Neill is asking for, but a healthy chunk.

    How one becomes the 100,000,000th ECHL fan

    The ECHL is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season, and as luck would have it this is also the season when the 100 millionth regular-season fan to attend an ECHL game would be honored.

    On Nov. 11, at the Kalamazoo Wings game against the Adirondack Thunder at Wings Event Center, it was revealed that a dude named Kyle McGhan was Fan No. 100,000,000 for the ECHL. He was given a personalized jersey with a 100,000,000 nameplate, and a special league pass that enables him to attend any ECHL game during the 2017-18 regular season, including the All-Star Game.

    All of this got us thinking: How, exactly, does one become the 100 millionth regular-season fan to attend an ECHL game? We reached out to McGhan to find out.

    Turns out that this wasn’t like when a milestone customer goes through the checkout at the supermarket and balloons start falling. McGhan was notified of his achievement earlier in the day on Nov. 11, having bought the tickets a few days prior because he was worried that the game might sell out.

    “It was a great honor getting the jersey because it’s customized with the 100,000,000 on the back, and I’ve never had a custom jersey,” said told ESPN. “I wore it to the next game the following night.”

    OK, the $100,000,000 question for Fan No. 100,000,000: How has life changed since the ECHL bestowed this honor upon him?

    “A lot of people recognize me more now since the honor, from being on the local news that night to the radio stations the following days and the team and league website,” he said. “I’ve became more in contact with the team front office and personnel, too, so that’s pretty special.”

    Happy anniversary, ECHL. Without you, we would have had 100 percent less Greenville Grrrowl and Jacksonville Lizard Kings in our lives.

    Jersey Foul of the week

    Rare is the time when I’m frankly left speechless at the sight of an NHL Jersey Foul. But in full disclosure: This Dion Phaneuf vs. Auston Matthews-as-maybe-a-New-York-Ranger-I-guess disasterpiece is truly flabbergasting.

    Brandon Dubinsky vs. Hockey Gossip

    The site 25Stanley.com is a French-language hockey news operation that also traffics in the reporting on the personal lives of players. Sometimes that coverage includes original, paparazzi-style photographs.

    Brandon Dubinsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets noticed one of the site’s shutterbugs trying to take his photo while he was out on the town, so he raised his middle finger to the camera. When 25Stanley.com snarked about it on Twitter, Dubinsky shot back:

    To which the site responded:

    Which is weird, because Dubinsky is a former member of the New York Rangers. So, like, he’d know.

    Anyway, the conversation between the gossip site and the Blue Jacket was soon overtaken by fans tweeting dozens of photos showing Dubinsky being gracious, just to underscore his point.

    Hey, good on Dubinsky: While we’re fans of 25Stanley.com, it has about as much to do with a fan asking players for a photo as a 7-year-old looking for a post-practice signed puck has in common with those autograph hounds at the All-Star Game airport.

    Puck headlines

    Canada is weird, Part 1: a youth player is suspended because of a typo on a game report, and Hockey Montreal refuses to correct the record and remedy the situation. [CBC]

    Canada is weird, Part 2: Former NHL enforcer Troy Crowder, running for political office in Sudbury, Ontario, was the subject of political attack ads that focused on his legendary fights with the late Bob Probert. [CBC]

    Craig Custance with a scary story about Detroit Red Wings broadcaster Ken Daniels’ late son, his opioid addiction and predatory treatment centers. [The Athletic]

    The bad hockey card Hall of Fame, Class of 2017. How was that Warren Young Penguins card not already enshrined?! [Puck Junk]

    Good review of the 4 Nations Cup here. [Ice Garden]

    Doc Emrick is a treasure. [Reddit]

    Behold, the annual Pucks and Paws event, where people race their dogs on ice.

    Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

    On the Surrey Knights junior hockey team and their 84-game losing streak. [Globe Mail]

    In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

    This look at the heroes and zeroes of 3-on-3 hockey, by yours truly, featured some really revelatory stuff about those who star in overtime (Jeff Carter and Johnny Gaudreau) and those who don’t (Filip Forsberg and Zach Parise).

    Article source: http://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/21444728/nhl-wyshynski-weekly-reader-how-houston-became-frontrunner-land-expansion-team