There are two important things to remember when it comes to anything that has to do with the NHL. The first is to follow the money. The second is that when Jeremy Jacobs says something, it’s best to take it very, very seriously. And most of the time, No. 2 is invariably and inextricably connected to No. 1.
There is only one time when you should not take something Jeremy Jacobs says seriously. And that’s when he claims in a deposition that he had never heard of CTE and that the subject had never come up at any of the league’s board of governors meetings. (We know for a fact it was discussed many times, something deputy commissioner Bill Daly has confirmed.) But when it comes to anything expansion- or financial-related, Jacobs’ words carry more weight than Dustin Byfuglien.
So when Jacobs says Quebec City is “challenged” as a future NHL site, he’s actually saying, “Quebec City will never get an expansion team. The best the nice people of Quebec can expect is for their lovely city to be a landing spot for a team, preferably one already in the Eastern Conference, that needs to get out of Dodge immediately. We will use them the same way we used Winnipeg seven years ago. Like Quebec, we didn’t particularly want to go there, but it was a quick fix.”
Likewise, when Jacobs says, “Clearly the one area that is missing is Houston because that’s a great city,” what he’s actually saying is, “Hey, Tilman Fertitta, get your ducks in a row because, as of this moment, consider yourself to be auditioning to join the club.”
Jeremy Jacobs is arguably the most powerful man in hockey. He is chairman of the league’s board of governors, but more importantly, he is the de facto chairman of the all-powerful executive committee, the one that holds the most sway when it comes to deciding which cities are awarded franchises. For example, when the Seattle bid recently pitched the league, it was to the executive committee, not the board of governors. That committee recommended proceeding with Seattle’s application and will likely recommend the league add Seattle as its 32nd team when it meets in December.
Jacobs just doesn’t throw things like this out there. When he says something like that for public consumption, he does so with a direct intent and purpose. Do not be surprised if Fertitta puts together a group to go to the NHL sometime soon because he has basically been given the green light to do so.
And do not, repeat do not, get too caught up in the number of teams and matters such as proper alignment between the Eastern and Western Conferences. And that’s where No. 1 comes in. Does anyone really think the NHL is going to get worked up about having an uneven number of teams if it means accepting someone who is willing to cut a $650 million cheque in U.S. funds, has an NHL-worthy building and a market that the league thinks can provide a bump in its overall revenues? Not a chance. If the league deems Houston to be a worthy market, it will find a way to bring it into the league and worry about the logistics later.
Jacobs did say that all NHL franchises are healthy. OK, so maybe there’s another example of where we shouldn’t put too much stock into what he says. The Arizona Coyotes are always a possibility. Or at least they are as long as they play in their current arena and have an owner who perpetually has a case of the shorts. But even if the Coyotes never move, it would be folly to think the league would keep Houston out just because it creates a 33-team league – assuming Seattle joins the club first – and creates an unbalanced alignment.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s also not get too worked up about the size of TV markets, either. Why is that? Well, Houston is the 10th biggest TV market in the United States, the second largest not served by an NHL franchise. Care to know which one is bigger that does not have an NHL team? It’s Atlanta. And only two down from Houston on that list is Phoenix. The last city to receive a team was Vegas, which checks in at No. 42 on the list. In fact, there are 21 television markets in the U.S. that are bigger than Vegas.
Even though television revenues have increased multifold under Gary Bettman’s tenure as commissioner, the NHL is still largely a gate-driven league that relies heavily on ticket and merchandising revenue. So, first you need a really good building, which Houston has. Second, you need a billionaire owner who actually wants the NHL, which Houston has. And third, you have to have a market that the league thinks will support its product and has a connection to the game, which Houston also has.
Everything else is pretty much secondary. Which is exactly why, starting now, Fertitta is basically on the clock to prove he’s worthy of joining the board of governors’ annual croquet game.