While the much ballyhooed effort to draw Major League Baseball to Utah is still a dream about a field, the ice is ready for skating in Salt Lake City and bringing an NHL franchise to the capital city took a huge step toward reality Wednesday.

Jazz owner Ryan Smith’s Smith Entertainment Group announced it has formally requested the National Hockey League “initiate an expansion process with the ultimate purpose of bringing an NHL franchise to Utah.” In its request, SEG also underscored the immediate ability to welcome an NHL team to Utah, using the Delta Center as an interim home arena for an NHL franchise.

“SEG envisions a near future where the NHL will thrive in Utah, and we are 100% focused on making this happen as soon as possible,” Smith, chairman of Smith Entertainment Group and governor of the Utah Jazz, said in a statement. “We are passionate about sports and entertainment in the state and are committed to providing premium sports and entertainment experiences for the people of Utah and visitors from around the world. We are ready to welcome the NHL and are confident that the time and attention being spent by all parties will bring one of the most exciting and dynamic leagues in the world to our community on a permanent basis.”

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‘Utah is ripe for it’: Jazz owner Ryan Smith on bringing NHL to the Beehive State

Conjecture has been swirling for the last two years about Smith’s interest in adding an NHL team to Utah’s pro sports portfolio, continuing and elevating the state’s ties to professional hockey that track back to 1969 with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, who played until 1994. In 1996, the Utah Grizzlies won the International Hockey League championship and have since become the East Coast Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.

While the ultimate decision to add a new franchise to the 32-team NHL lies with the league’s Board of Governors, Smith and his SEG team have been in ongoing discussions with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

During an appearance on a Canadian hockey podcast last year, Smith said he believes hockey is “mesmerizing a lot of people right now, the growth of it,” and he sees a potential for a Salt Lake City team to emulate the high success of the league’s latest expansion efforts in Seattle and Las Vegas. The Vegas Golden Knights, founded in 2017, won their first Stanley Cup last year, defeating the Florida Panthers 4-1 in the best-of-seven championship series. The Seattle Kraken made a deep playoff run in 2023 to wrap up just their second season on the ice. Both teams have already built valuations north of $1 billion.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a well-known sports superfan, has thrown his support behind the local efforts to secure an MLB franchise and is equally bullish on bringing hockey’s top tier to the Beehive State.

“Utah has a long history with hockey, the strongest economy in the nation, a passionate sports fanbase, and the youngest and most active population,” Cox said in a press release. “These factors make Utah ripe for the expansion of our sports and entertainment community. We couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to welcome the NHL.”

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SEG, the 3-year-old sports and entertainment group that operates as the parent company of the Utah Jazz, Delta Center, Real Salt Lake, Utah Royals and other holdings, also clarified that while a new NHL team could hit the ice at the Delta Center immediately, the longer range plan is to build a new, hockey-dedicated venue.

“All eyes are on Utah for the recent and rapid evolution of our sports landscape, especially with the Utah Royals back this spring and Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid underway,” Smith said. “There is so much momentum happening at the state level around global sports and sports infrastructure.

“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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While the idea of co-locating a new NHL team with the Utah Jazz in some new, pro sports megacomplex has been raised by pundits, a source familiar with the process told the Deseret News that, when it comes to venues, “nothing is changing with the Utah Jazz.”

With the prospect of another Winter Games headed to Salt Lake City looking like a near lock, adding a brand new, purpose-built hockey arena to the state’s already robust list of winter sports venues couldn’t come at a better time, according to Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games.

“With the Olympics all but certain to return to Utah, a new, state-of-the-art, hockey-specific arena would be a huge contribution to our ability to host a world-class Games, including the women’s and men’s gold medal hockey games. And bringing professional hockey to Utah will further help cement Utah’s place as a premier destination for winter sports,” Bullock said in a press release.

“The Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games is excited to work with SEG on the Olympics and what that will mean for sports and entertainment in Utah long term.”

After the SEG announcement went public Wednesday morning, the NHL posted a thank you to its X, formerly Twitter, account.

“The NHL appreciates the interest expressed by Smith Entertainment Group to bring NHL hockey to Utah,” the tweet reads. “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.

“Utah is a promising market, and we look forward to continuing discussions.”

When asked about future expansion at the NHL’s board of governors meetings in New York last October, Bettman left the door open to possibilities and wasn’t shy about name-checking a number of markets, according to a report from Forbes.

“We have continuous expressions of interest from places like Houston, Atlanta, Quebec City, Salt Lake City, but expansion isn’t on the agenda,” he told reporters on Oct. 4. “If something were to progress along where you say, ‘Well, this could be ready to go,’ then I’ll bring it to the owners and we’ll discuss it. But we’re not in a mode where I’m saying, ‘OK, if you’re interested in expansion, submit your applications and we’ll evaluate them,’ like we’ve done previously. We’re not there.”

SEG’s expansion entreaty aiming to open a new pathway to bringing the NHL to Utah, but it’s not clear that other possibilities, like acquiring the struggling Arizona Coyotes, are off the table.

After voters in Tempe rejected a ballot proposal to subsidize a new arena for the team last May, Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo announced in August his intent to purchase a property in Mesa that could accommodate a new hockey venue as part of a more expansive, multiuse buildout.

In December, reports surfaced that the team was close to “finalizing the purchase” of land in Phoenix as a site for the $2.1 billion complex. According to Arizona Sports, the project is expected to include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 300,000 square feet of upscale retail, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater.

The Coyotes currently play at Arizona State University’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, which is less than a third the size of the NHL’s next-smallest venue.