NHL players got one step closer to playing in Salt Lake City on Friday, but not in the way you think.

The progress came in the form of an announcement about the NHL’s relationship with the Olympics, rather than news about a Utah-based NHL franchise.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, International Ice Hockey Federation president Luc Tardif and NHL Players’ Association head Marty Walsh shared in a joint press conference that NHL players will once again be allowed to compete in the Olympics, at least in 2026 and 2030.

“We know how important international competition is to our players. We know how much they love and want to represent the countries from which they’re from, and we think this is a great stage for the best on best in what obviously we all believe is the best sport,” Bettman said Friday ahead of the 2024 NHL All-Stars Skills Competition in Toronto.

IIHF president Luc Tardif, left, NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh, center, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attend a news conference in Toronto, Friday Feb. 2, 2024. | Frank Gunn, The Canadian Press via The Associated Press

Tardif added that he’s hopeful NHL players will continue to participate in the Olympics after 2030.

“Why not 2034? It will be in a nice hockey place,” he said, likely referring to Salt Lake City, which is expected to host the Winter Games that year, as the Deseret News previously reported.

Salt Lake City named preferred host for 2034 Olympics
Utah Senate throws support behind effort to land NHL team

Will Utah get an NHL franchise?

Later on Friday, Bettman and Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL, met with reporters for a wider ranging press conference.

As expected, they were asked about league expansion, and Bettman discussed his recent visit with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders.

“They’re very enthused about the possibility of getting an NHL team,” he said.

Bettman noted that several other cities, including Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Kansas City, are also vying for expansion teams, but described Utah’s approach as the “most aggressive.”

“It’s fair to say the Utah expression of interest has been the most aggressive and has carried a lot of energy with it, including from governor and leaders of the legislature,” he said.

But he added that the NHL is not currently engaged in a formal expansion process.

“What’s happening is people are expressing an interest. ... We’re not envisioning what we did in prior times where we say, ‘If you want a team, here’s the date. Submit your application,’” Bettman said.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and his wife Ashley Smith are introduced by Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, as the SJR12 resolution on bringing an NHL hockey franchise to Utah is voted on at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The effort to bring an NHL franchise to Utah is being spearheaded Ryan Smith’s Smith Entertainment Group, which owns the Utah Jazz and Real Salt Lake, among other companies, as the Deseret News previously reported.

“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 said in a statement last month.

On Monday, Smith and his wife, Ashley, visited with Utah lawmakers about their NHL dreams ahead of the state Senate’s unanimous vote in favor of a resolution supporting their effort.