ARIZONA COYOTES

Utah Jazz owners want next NHL expansion team, request process to begin

Jan 24, 2024, 11:55 AM

Utah Jazz arena...

General elevated view of the playing court prior to the game between the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz on October 19, 2018 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

The owners of the NBA’s Utah Jazz said Wednesday they have the immediate ability to bring an NHL team to Salt Lake City and requested the initiation of an expansion process.

The Smith Entertainment Group said in a news release it would use the Jazz’s arena as an interim home for an NHL franchise. SEG CEO Ryan Smith said the company is “100% focused on making this happen as soon as possible.”

Talks between Smith and the league have been going on since 2022. The NHL said in a statement it appreciates the interest.

“During conversations over the course of the past two years, we have been impressed by Ryan and Ashley Smith’s commitment to their community and their passion and vision for Utah, not only as a hockey market but as a preeminent sports and entertainment destination,” the league said in a statement. “Utah is a promising market, and we look forward to continuing our discussions.”

The announcement comes past the midway point of the hockey season and with remaining uncertainty about the future of the Arizona Coyotes, who are playing a second season in 5,000-seat Mullett Arena on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. League and NHLPA leaders said last year they would like a resolution sooner than later about a long-term future for the Coyotes in the Phoenix area.

The Coyotes declined to comment on the Salt Lake City release. They have been adamant about remaining in Arizona despite a failed arena vote in Tempe last year.

President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez said in June the team had identified six potential sites for a privately funded arena. The Coyotes announced in August that owner Alex Meruelo executed a letter of intent to buy a piece of land for a potential arena in Mesa, Arizona.

After a series of questions about the Coyotes at the league’s pre-Stanley Cup Final news conference in June, deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed conversations with Smith and his interest in bringing the NHL to Salt Lake City.

Daly also said the league has been consistent in saying that expansion wasn’t at the top of its priority list. The NHL has 32 teams, same as the NFL and two more than the NBA and Major League Baseball. It added the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017 and the Seattle Kraken in 2021.

“You look at market, you look at ownership, you look at arena and you look at does it make the league stronger,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “And I think it’s fair to say that the last two expansions, Vegas and Seattle, have made the league stronger.”

Bettman called Arizona a terrific and growing market, adding that the team has been “a little bit of a victim of circumstance.” The Coyotes have undergone a series of ownership changes and played in different arenas around the area — most recently in Glendale before moving to Tempe.

“We’re in a better position to resist moving than maybe we were 20 or 30 years ago,” Bettman said June 3. “We want to make sure we explore all options at this stage of where we are before we would consider having to relocate a club, and I’m hopeful we won’t have to.”

Five NHL exhibition games had been held at the Delta Center, the home of the Jazz, since 2018. SEG said the location for a potential new arena designed for hockey is yet to be determined.

Utah governor Spencer Cox said the state’s history with hockey, strong economy, passionate sports fans and young and active population make it ripe for the addition of another team, while Salt Lake City bids for the 2034 Winter Olympics.

“With the Olympic bid underway, our long-standing reputation as one of the greatest winter sports capitals in the world, and with the proven leadership of Ryan and Ashley Smith and SEG in our community, I am extremely optimistic about the future of Utah,” Cox said in a statement.

Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Olympics, the second with NHL players. The ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies currently play in West Valley City in the suburbs.

“There is so much momentum happening at the state level around global sports and sports infrastructure,” Smith said. “While Delta Center is ready to serve as an interim solution for an NHL team, Utah will need a new arena designed for professional and Olympic hockey.”

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