If the turnout for meeting Utah’s new National Hockey League team Wednesday is any indication of local interest in hockey, Salt Lake City could become a thriving market for another big league franchise. And not only are fans wildly enthusiastic about the club, coaches and players for the former Arizona Coyotes say they are all in as well.

More than 12,400 people poured into the Delta Center — hundreds if not thousands more gathered on the concourse and outside — for a raucous celebration of the arrival of the yet-to-be-named Utah hockey club. Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy and stars Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson greeted the players before they took the stage for introductions. Many fans sported the jerseys of their favorite NHL teams and rocked the arena like it was a Jazz playoff game, a roar the players said they’re hoping to hear when the inaugural season starts in the fall.

“We are so looking forward to this being the loudest building in the NHL,” general manager Bill Armstrong told the crowd between deafening chants of “Utah, Utah, Utah” and the rhythmic “Let’s go, Utah.”

Earlier in the day, hundreds of youth hockey players and their parents met the team at Signature Aviation Airport in Salt Lake City. The young skaters donned their team sweaters and held signs sporting messages such as “I skipped school to be here,” “I play goalie too” and even “actually, Salt Lake DOESN’T suck,” referring to the infamous arena-wide chant at the Coyotes’ final game before relocating to the Beehive State.

Players and coaches said they were overwhelmed with emotion at the scene. Armstrong said he had a tear in his eye.

Thousands of fans prove Utah is a hockey state at NHL team intro event

There’s another Bear in town

“It will be my seventh year in the NHL and I said to my wife I think it’s my best day in the NHL so far,” the Utah hockey club’s head coach André Tourigny said at a press conference before the festivities.

Tourigny, who goes by the nickname “Bear,” is 89-131-26 in three years as coach of the Coyotes. The team has improved each of those years but failed to make the playoffs this past season for the 11th time in the past 12 years. Prior to taking over the Coyotes in 2021, he was an assistant with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche. He coached Team Canada to a gold medal in the 2023 World Championships.

General Manager Bill Armstrong and Coach André Tourigny speak to the media prior to an NHL welcome party at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“We know we have a lot of work to do during the summer to get everything set, but everybody’s hands are on deck. Everybody’s all in,” Tourigny said. “We want to write out our own story and make it a wonderful story in Utah.”

Players described Tourigny as a passionate coach and a good teacher of the game. They called him an “honest” man on and off the ice and someone the entire team respects. It was also mentioned several times during the news conference that he loves riding his motorcycle.

The NHL is here. Now what?

Building a fan base

It took the Jazz several years to find their footing after moving from New Orleans in 1979. The team wasn’t good and the old Salt Palace arena was rarely full early on. Winning and a couple of Hall of Fame players changed the trajectory. Hockey, though, appears poised to take off immediately, with 29,000 people already making a deposit for season tickets in an arena that will seat about 16,000 for hockey.

“Let’s not stop,” owner Ryan Smith told the crowd. “We want to make sure every single person in Utah gets a taste of hockey.”

Winning, of course, will ensure fans keep turning out for games. And the expectations, at least initially, aren’t sky high, though the players and coaches believe they have a playoff-caliber team.

Tourigny said in a meeting with the team last week that Ryan and Ashley Smith spent 90% of the time talking about their love for Utah and how much they care about and want to empower people. “And the last 10%, they said, ‘We will win. I don’t know when, but we will win.’”

Sporting an Anaheim Ducks jersey and Ducks tattoo on his arm, Greg Smaldino, of Syracuse, Utah, and his young son were among the crowd on the plaza.

“I’ve been a fan my whole life,” he said, adding the Ducks came into existence in 1993, the year he was born, “so it’s kind of ingrained in me. My wife and I have three children, and we want to have them experience the same things. ... I’m excited for opening day and (to) see the fans show up.”

Smaldino said he doesn’t know a lot about the former Coyotes but sees them as an up-and-coming team with one of the best prospect pools in the NHL.

“Unfortunately for Arizona, fortunately for us, I think it’s about to be manifested in the next couple of years, possibly next season to at least be competitive,” he said.

On the ice

The club has stockpiled 20 picks in the first three rounds of the next three NHL drafts.

Armstrong, who was the assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues when they won the Stanley Cup in 2019, said Utah is a young but talented team that is in the fourth year of a rebuild. He said it’s not a perfect team and won’t be among the Stanley Cup favorites next season.

“What fans are going to get from this team is an exciting young team that can score goals,” he said, adding the Coyotes had six 20-goal scorers this year. “When you’re that young, there’s consistency where you can’t be great every night. But the fans are going to love the fact that we have talented players ... that give first and second efforts.”

Four-time NHL All-Star Clayton Keller, the Coyotes’ first-round draft pick in 2016, has led the team in scoring the past three seasons. The right winger led the team in goals (33) and assists (43), totaling 76 points in the 2023-24 season, and was named team MVP.

Player Michael Carcone takes photos with fans after the NHL event at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, as Utah’s NHL hockey team was introduced to fans on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“We have a great group of young guys, great staff,” he said during a media availability. “I think it’s really exciting to be here and see all the support. We’re going to play hard for them every single night.”

Left winger Lawson Crouse, whose physical play earned him the nickname “The Sheriff” among teammates and fans, said the team took pride in building the right culture in Arizona.

“We now get to bring that here. We love each other in our locker room,” he told reporters. “We’re just so proud to be here. We’re really looking forward to it.”

It takes time to learn how to win in the league, Keller said. “When everyone buys in, I think that’s when you can take some steps and reach that next level,” he said.


Crouse said the team looks forward to building something special in Utah and “making history.”

Is Salt Lake City a hockey town?

Welcome to Utah moments

Crouse and Keller said they didn’t know much about Utah before arriving in the state. Keller said he came to Salt Lake City to watch a UFC fight last summer for his birthday. Crouse said it’s his first time in the state and he was “blown away” by the mountains. Seeing some snow, he said, brought him back to his childhood in Canada.

The Smiths going to Arizona immediately after the deal was done brought a great sense of purpose and calmness to the team before the “surreal” reception in Utah, Armstrong said. “It tugs at your heart. We’re grateful for that,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a player here that’s come in to visit that isn’t emotional about the feeling they get when they see the fans here and how excited they are in Utah to have us.”

Tourigny said everything has been “amazing, first class, with a lot of enthusiasm. It made us feel home already. We already want to fight for Utah. I’m blown away right now.”

What Ryan and Ashley Smith and the NHL commissioner had to say about bringing a team to Utah
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