Why the Coyotes’ uncertain Arizona future is linked to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith

Apr 10, 2024, 9:37 AM | Updated: 5:33 pm

The Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday were directly connected to a potential move to Salt Lake City after reports indicated there have been talks about the franchise’s sale and relocation to a group led by Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith.

Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro reported last week that Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo had spoken to multiple potential buyers for the franchise — in the state and outside of Arizona. Now, Gambadoro adds there are three options on the table for the Coyotes, all of which include no longer playing on the only viable ice in Arizona at Mullett Arena.

Meanwhile, Smith has made more noise about hockey coming to the Delta Center soon. He bumped the volume on that noise this week.

Gambadoro and Seravalli have said a sale could happen as soon as the regular season ends.

Here’s why the Coyotes might be pressed up against the clock and why the franchise could be forced to move to Utah before it gets to a June 27 auction for potential arena land in Phoenix.

Many entities do not want the Arizona Coyotes in the Phoenix area

To begin this calendar year, Mesa openly threw its name into potential landing spots, but the Coyotes instead targeted state land in northeast Phoenix that will be sold at auction.

Tempe’s city council, of course, pushed hard for the Coyotes to land a former dump site to build on before it was squashed in a May 2023 public vote. But the citizens of Tempe aren’t the only ones who have stood in the way of the Coyotes.

Here’s the summary of which cities, entities and groups in the Valley have opposed the Coyotes along their path during Meruelo’s ownership alone:

Glendale and the Coyotes’ former home arena, Desert Diamond Arena: The group kicked the NHL franchise out of its home arena after a run of missed payments — the Coyotes eventually made those up, but the damage was done. It led the Coyotes to post up at Arizona State Univesity’s Mullett Arena for the past two seasons. Since, Glendale has made sure to mention record profits from the arena with the Coyotes no longer there.

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport: The international airport operated by the City of Phoenix Aviation Department pushed back against a pro-Tempe city council plan to welcome the franchise to a plot of land that required remediation along the Salt River. The airport cited noise levels, zoning and a past agreement between the two cities regarding flight paths as being problematic.

Tempe voters: The public didn’t agree with the city council’s support of a new arena, voting down the Coyotes’ development plans and sending them searching for a new home.

The city of Scottsdale’s mayor, David Ortega: He publicly stated why he is against the potential entertainment district development, calling it “not feasible, or welcome.” Ortega added he did due diligence to make sure his city would not be involved in helping set up the tract of land that has no utilities and will need massive traffic improvements for such an arena.

What about Phoenix?: The city sued Tempe over aviation-related concerns when the Coyotes were trying to land that plot of land. Now, it’s unclear where the city stands simply because it’s so early in the process. Until the Coyotes both win an auction and begin larger discussions about what and how they will build on it — and pay for it — the city council and mayor will likely be in a holding pattern. The city of Phoenix did not respond to KTAR and Arizona Sports when asked for comment about whether it supported the plan that the Coyotes released last Thursday when the auction date for the land was set.

There is still no defined endpoint for an arena to be built

It’s true that when the Coyotes lost out on the Tempe land, there was presumed to be more time to get an arena done by fall of 2027 as CEO and president Xavier Gutierrez has promised. The land in Tempe required remediation, a process that would take some time. Another tract of land wouldn’t require that process.

But much of that time has been eaten away by inaction. It was presumed the Coyotes could settle on a location by the beginning of 2024. December 2023 reports indicated the team had sights set on the Phoenix land.

Gutierrez told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo on Jan. 5 that they were on the “precipice” of announcing a location.

That precipice didn’t come until three months later on April 4, when Gambadoro reported on the Coyotes’ owner speaking with potential buyers about a sale. Later that day, the Arizona State Land Department listed the plot of land will be up for auction on June 27, meeting a 10-week waiting period.

That date resets the timeline but does not bring finality. While the Coyotes are steadfast that they can win that auction, that is uncertainty nonetheless. And more time to provide doubt that first came about in Ortega’s letter.

The neighboring mayor already spoke with the state land department to ensure the city of Phoenix would take on utilities and push traffic away from Scottsdale, which is across the street from the tract of land. Phoenix leaders will certainly hear out Ortega, as well as their own constituents, before deciding to support or oppose a project. There is no guarantee Phoenix officials would not push back against any potentially negative impact from the project.

If the Coyotes win the auction and Phoenix is supportive, Gutierrez has said shovels could not go into the ground until the second quarter of 2025. That is assuming hiccups in planning utilities and any necessary rezoning don’t get in the way.

Relatedly, the Coyotes have an agreement to stay at Mullett Arena through 2024-25 with an option year in 2025-26. But even if ASU is happy to extend that for one more year to get to a Phoenix arena open date, it would mark five whole seasons playing at an arena about the third of the size of others in the NHL.

Would the NHL want that?

Gary Bettman and NHLPA haven’t exactly expressed recent confidence in the Coyotes

The failed Tempe vote, political pushback in different stages of this story and missed soft deadlines for the Coyotes to buy land for a new arena likely are weighing on Bettman. The salty relationship between the team and the NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh does not help matters, either.

“We have a team in Arizona that doesn’t seem interested in having conversation with the union who represents the players that play on that team,” Walsh told reporters at an All-Star Weekend event, expressing disappointment in owner Meruelo and Gutierrez for not working with the players’ union since Walsh took over in spring 2023.

Also at All-Star weekend, Bettman’s address to reporters didn’t bleed with confidence.

“Alex Meruelo as recently as last week told me he was certain he was going to get this done,” Bettman said. “I don’t make it a practice of contradicting owners unless I have hard facts of the contrary and I’m both hopeful that and reasonably … reasonably confident that he’s going to do what he says.”

Again, that was in February.

It also can’t be confidence-building to the league office that Meruelo sought out potential buyers at any point since he took control of the team in 2019 — whether Bettman knew or not.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith is activated in the hockey conversation

Smith has been open about interest in a hockey arena, saying in January that the NBA club’s Delta Center is set up to host an NHL team immediately. The NHL expressed optimism about potential expansion in Utah during that time.

But Smith’s aggression this week is standing out.

Smith went to the public asking for a survey about potential team names. Arizona Sports’ sister station, KSL Sports, announced a series of interviews with Smith regarding his NHL plans, and he has spoken with The Athletic about Utah’s hockey prospects this week, too. He addressed the thought of him actively poaching the Coyotes.

“People who know me know I’m pretty direct. If that were the intention, I would just come out and say that,” Smith says when asked if it appears he is targeting the Coyotes. “We’re not about trying to mess with anybody else’s world. I know what it’s like to be in a partnership like we are in the NBA. There is a way to go about it.”

Nonetheless, it’s worth wondering if the NHL could potentially make that option for him if it is fed up with Arizona’s franchise.


Why would Smith eye an existing team over an expansion club?

For one, why not pay the price of a franchise for existing systems rather than an expansion fee?

The Vegas Golden Knights ($500 million expansion fee) and Seattle Kraken ($650 million) paid handsomely to join the NHL from scratch.

Meruelo, according to Gambadoro, was seeking beyond $1 billion for the team. Is the price difference worth the cost of starting from scratch with technologies, systems, a roster, a coaching staff and more? Seravalli reported a relocation fee could bump the total cost on Smith’s end to $1.2 billion.

But here’s what it comes with: An intriguing hockey product already with promising young players in Clayton Keller and Matias Maccelli, a head coach who has created a culture and a general manager who has preached patience to build a swath of draft capital in the future.

General manager Bill Armstrong has withheld flipping a switch to trade draft picks for players to make the next leap. That is still on the table.

Avoiding the expansion could be more appealing and a quicker flip for hockey in Utah to happen in the 2024-25 season.

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