Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith hoped nobody saw him having dinner with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in New York two years ago when he first broached the idea of bringing a hockey team to Utah. Bettman handed Smith his cell number and told him to stay in touch.

“And we just talked a bunch. That’s kind of how it started,” Smith said at a news conference Friday at the Delta Center, where the basketball court had been converted to an ice rink and “NHL in Utah” flashed on the big screen.

Ryan and Ashley Smith and Bettman talked about how the deal came together as well as what’s next as Salt Lake City becomes the newest home to an NHL franchise.

Smith’s intent to land a team went public in January when Smith Entertainment Group announced it had formally requested the NHL initiate the expansion process to bring a franchise to Utah. At the same time, Bettman was trying to resolve an untenable situation in Arizona where the Coyotes were without a permanent arena and the prospects of building a new one were waning.

Things moved quickly from there. Bettman’s first conversation with Coyotes’ owner Alex Meruelo about his plan for the league to broker the sale of the team to Smith took place on March 6. Smith, who never talked to Meruelo, said he didn’t know the deal was going to materialize until this past Tuesday.

On Thursday, the National Hockey League’s Board of Governors approved the sale of the Coyotes for a reported $1.2 billion to Ryan and Ashley Smith, SEG, which owns the Jazz, Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals FC, as well as the Delta Center.

It’s official: The NHL is coming to Utah

A unique transaction

Bettman said he’s grateful they were able to craft a solution that brings a team to Salt Lake City, but just as importantly fixes an issue the league had. “Really, in the space of about a month the unimaginable has been accomplished,” he said.

The deal the NHL put together to facilitate the Coyotes move was unprecedented. Lawyers, he said. had to craft documents that had never done before because this was a “hybrid transaction.”

“We couldn’t pull out the form for expansion. We couldn’t pull out the form for relocation, because it was neither of these. It was the type of transaction that nobody had ever done before and nobody had ever done in this time frame but everybody stayed at it, especially Ryan and Ashley and his people,” Bettman said, adding the papers were signed at 2 a.m. Friday.

Meruelo maintained the rights to the Coyotes’ brand and logo with the prospect of the NHL returning to Arizona.

The commissioner said the league wanted to move the team to a place where it could be successful immediately, and Ryan and Ashley Smith have what it takes to do the job.

“What they have to accomplish between now and next fall when we start playing is nothing short of incredible. They’ve got the smarts, the energy, the talent to pull it off. And we believe that or we would have never tried to do this with them,” Bettman said.

As Smith said of the work ahead, “It’s going to get pretty gnarly.”

“We’re not going to let you guys down,” he said. “It’s going to be hard.”

The NHL is here. Now what?

Will Utah get behind hockey?

The yet-to-be-named team already appears to have strong community support. As of Friday evening, more than 21,700 people had put down $100 to reserve season tickets. Also, Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, University of Utah President Taylor Randall, BYU President Shane Reese, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy in the church were among those at the news conference.

Ryan Smith, co-founder and chairman of Smith Entertainment Group, Ashley Smith, co-founder of Smith Entertainment Group, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman laugh during their press conference at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City to announce that the NHL would be coming to Utah on Friday, April 18, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I’ve never seen so many Republicans and Democrats and religious leaders and education leaders all on the same page before. It is incredible. It’s emotional,” Smith said.

Smith met Thursday with the Arizona players who will be relocating to Utah. He said they’re excited but also worried. He said he expects they will be “blown away” by the reception they receive when they’re introduced to Salt Lake City next Wednesday at an event open to fans at the Delta Center. Smith indicated he intends to retain the team’s current general manager Bill Armstrong and coach André Tourigny. He said he told the players he’d get fans in the seats the first year and then it would be their job to keep them there.

The April 24 meet-the-team event is free and starts at 4 p.m. with activities on the Delta Center plaza. The arena doors will open at 4:30 p.m. The first 5,000 fans through the gate will receive a ticket voucher redeemable for two seats at a 2024-25 preseason NHL or Jazz game. A program 5:30 P.M. will feature remarks from Ryan and Ashley Smith, Armstrong and Tourigny, along with introductions of players on Utah’s NHL roster.

Is Salt Lake City a hockey town?

Plans for the Delta Center

Smith acknowledged his original plan was to build a hockey arena outside the downtown area but that state and local government leaders made a successful pitch for him to stay as part of a plan to revamp the city center. He intends to use “new technology” to reconfigure Delta Center seating behind the goals or baskets to go back and forth between hockey and basketball.

“I think we’ve all decided that there’s one moment here to reimagine what our downtown experience is here in Salt Lake,” Smith said, adding he’s seen a plan to get 17,500 seats in the arena that doesn’t compromise the basketball experience. “We’ve been incredibly creative with how we’ve looked at it.”


But he said it isn’t about the arena. He said it’s about having more flow, energy, activities, arts and education downtown. He said it’s about everything around the arena.

“We’ve grown fast as a state and there’s got to be a moment where we stop and say, ‘Hey, what should the downtown look like and how do we all help,” and that support has been incredible,” Smith said.

Taxpayers also will likely be called on to pitch in. Renovating the Delta Center would be part of a downtown revitalization zone under a newly passed state law that allows the city to raise sales tax .5% to help fund the project, possibly up to $1 billion. SEG submitted an application to the city to create the zone earlier this month.

Bettman said he’s seen Smith’s arena renovation plans that would accommodate hockey and basketball. “I’ve been assured by a number of the local leaders that we’ll have no arena drama,” he said, “and based on where we came from, I’d prefer no arena drama.”

What was said at Utah’s NHL press conference
The Delta Center prior to Ryan Smith, co-founder and chairman of Smith Entertainment Group, Ashley Smith, co-founder of Smith Entertainment Group, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gathering in Salt Lake City to announce that the NHL would be coming to Utah on Friday, April 18, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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