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Utah Senate throws support behind effort to land NHL team

State Senate passes resolution supporting hockey, Gov. Spencer Cox talks with NHL commissioner

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Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, wearing his hockey jersey and holding a special hockey puck, on Utah Senate floor.

Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, wearing his hockey jersey and holding a special hockey puck, speaks in the Senate 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

Utah Sen. Dan McCay hauled his old hockey kit out of the closet and donned the gear on the Senate floor Monday morning to pitch his colleagues on supporting a resolution declaring Utah as “the ideal place for a National Hockey League franchise.”

McCay’s proposal earned unanimous support, drawing smiles from Ryan and Ashley Smith, who were on the dais with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

Utah hockey fervor, which has been simmering for a few years now, rose to a full boil last week when the Smith Entertainment Group, led by the Smiths, announced it had made a formal request to the NHL to begin expansion proceedings that could lead to a franchise coming to Utah.

McCay, a GOP senator from Riverton and self-proclaimed lifetime hockey player and fan, said he was hopeful he and his fellow hockey devotees won’t have to wait much longer for a hometown team and that the resolution was a message to both the people of the state and NHL officials.

“We want to tell them how excited we are for the option to continue our great story of hockey,” McCay said.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith talks with Senate President Stuart Adams.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith talks with 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

Just a couple hours after SJR12 flew through the Senate, McCay and legislative leaders joined Gov. Spencer Cox on a virtual meeting with NHL officials but little could be gleaned about the substance of the conversation from a joint statement released later on Monday.

“Today, Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President J. Stuart Adams and House Speaker Mike Schultz met with National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman,” the statement reads. “Utah has the foundation of being the next major sports and entertainment destination in the United States. With the fastest growing economy, youngest population in the country and a long history as a premier winter sports destination, Utah is excited about the prospect of being the new home to an NHL franchise.”

But McCay told KSL-TV the tone of the call was “very positive”.

“Right now we’re in the very early exploration stage with the NHL,” McCay said. “They’re looking at Utah and they’re looking at other markets ... we’re talking major markets. For Utah to be in the conversation just says a lot about the economic environment and the people we have here in the state of Utah.”

Houston, Atlanta and Quebec are among the cities that, in addition to Salt Lake City, have been mentioned as being interested in an NHL expansion team.

McCay also noted the Smiths’ pitch to the NHL resonated with league officials.

“It’s amazing to see how well Ryan and Ashley have done in telling Utah’s story to the NHL,” McCay said. “And it was great to hear them acknowledge they know Utah is on the map and they’re very interested.”

A recent story on NHL.com noted Bettman’s tenure as the longest serving NHL commissioner, 31 years on Feb. 1, and noted his success has been bolstered by fostering bold expansion moves that have proven to be a boon to the league.

“Against all odds, Bettman was willing to stake his reputation on the success of such debatable expansion venues as Las Vegas, Seattle and Nashville,” the report reads. “In each case they have become ‘hot’ hockey towns, selling out every game on their schedule.”

Following SEG’s announcement last Wednesday, Ryan Smith appeared on ESPN’s “The Pat McAfee Show” to stump for Utah and said he likes the state’s chances to get a team.

“If you look at the momentum of Utah, we’ve got to put something in front of (NHL league officials) that’s pretty tough for them to turn down and I think we’ve done that,” Smith said. “We’ve got the youngest demographic in the country, the fastest-growing state, we’re in the process of (securing) the Olympics, which is massive, for 2034. We’ve got a top five tech ecosystem, we’ve sold out 251 straight Jazz games. It’s going to be successful. If you take a step back and look at that momentum ... it’s pretty compelling from our standpoint. And our ownership group is lined up and ready to go.”

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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Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, center, and his wife Ashley Smith, left, exit the Capitol with Mike Maughan after attending the Senate as as the SJR12 resolution on bringing an NHL hockey franchise to Utah was voted on at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Paving the way for a new Utah professional sports venue is at the heart of a legislative effort by Rep. John Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, who is also the Utah House sponsor of the NHL resolution.

Hawkins has opened a separate bill file he said will be aiming to create the opportunity for sports and entertainment groups to work with local jurisdictions to create special “entertainment zones” that would allow tax increment financing options in specified areas around both new and existing sports venues. Tax increment financing can be structured in various ways but generally uses future gains on real estate values to help subsidize improvements.

Hawkins said the proposal, which is still being drafted, would be generic enough to be available in any area of the state and will not be crafted for any particular sports league.

“This opens the opportunity to open dialogue with different professional sports leagues whether it’s hockey, baseball or whatever,” Hawkins said. “It will allow those groups to work with their local community to create an entertainment district around those stadiums.”

While SEG is on the hunt for an NHL franchise, the Larry H. Miller Company is leading an effort to bring a Major League Baseball franchise to Utah and has also begun construction on a new ballpark in South Jordan, slated to become the new home of the Los Angeles Angels’ Triple A affiliate Salt Lake Bees. There is also a chance that the Oakland A’s, now set for a move to Las Vegas but waiting for a new stadium to be constructed there, could make Utah their interim home during the process.

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Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and his wife Ashley Smith pose for photos with Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, in the Senate 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