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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Utah’s Long-Term Hockey Dream Is a Short-Term Logistical Nightmare

  • Ryan Smith now faces a lengthy to-do list to prepare for the next NHL season.
  • Alex Meruelo now has a defined, five-year window to develop a Phoenix-area arena.
Jazz owner Ryan Smith
Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The worst-kept secret in pro sports is no longer a secret. Now comes the hard part for Utah.

As has been increasingly expected for more than a week and capping a period of rising turbulence, the NHL is shifting the Coyotes to Salt Lake City beginning with the 2024–25 season. The league’s Board of Governors unanimously approved on Thursday a complex, two-stage transaction in which Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo will return the franchise back to the league for $1 billion. The NHL is then reselling the Coyotes to Ryan Smith (above), owner of the NBA’s Jazz and co-owner of two pro soccer teams in Utah, for $1.2 billion, with the difference split among other NHL team owners.

“As everyone knows, Utah is a vibrant and thriving state, and we are thrilled to be a part of it,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

The move, designed in part to avoid a continued stay for the Coyotes at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, now sets in motion an extensive amount of preparations required for Smith to host NHL games starting this fall in Salt Lake City. Among the outstanding elements to be completed before training camp begins in September:

  • Delta Center upgrades: The home of the Jazz was not designed for hockey, and renovations are required. Specific work will include improving sightlines at the 32-year-old venue and the installation of infrastructure to support a full-time presence of hockey, which carries a rather different set of equipment and arena management needs than basketball. 
  • Team name: Meruelo is retaining the rights to the Coyotes brand as part of the larger deal with the NHL. Smith previously canvassed fans on X for ideas on a new name, and now a team rebranding—in most other situations a deeply considered, multiyear effort—will happen in a matter of weeks. 
  • Practice facility: Like most other NHL teams, the plan for the relocation will involve identifying and preparing a separate practice facility for the franchise. That venue could be used not only for training camp but also in-season workouts, particularly when the Jazz or other events occupy the Delta Center. 
  • Ticket sales: The Jazz have sold out nearly 300 consecutive games, dating back to 2017, and Smith has spoken frequently of Salt Lake City’s ability to support pro sports at a level exceeding its No. 27 ranking among U.S. media markets. But an operation to support this critical revenue source for the NHL franchise will need to be set up immediately. 

“There’s so much work to do,” Smith said Wednesday at the CAA World Congress of Sports, organized by Sports Business Journal. “You name it, we’ve got to do it. There’s nothing we don’t have to go do. We’ll find a way. If everyone’s in, we’ll find a way. We’ve done harder stuff.”

Back in Phoenix

Meruelo is keeping not only the Coyotes name but also the rest of the team’s intellectual property tied to the market, such as the Kachina jerseys, and the Arizona franchise is now rendered “inactive,” as opposed to nonexistent. He also gets a defined, five-year window to make a long-elusive arena project in the Phoenix market happen. If he succeeds, the Coyotes will be reborn as an expansion team. 

The next key step in that process will be a June 27 land auction, where he intends to secure a 110-acre parcel of state-owned land in north Phoenix, initially appraised at $68.5 million.

“I agree with [Bettman and the NHL] that it is simply unfair to continue to have our players, coaches, hockey front office, and the NHL teams they compete against, spend several more years playing in an arena that is not suited for NHL hockey,” Meruelo said. “But this is not the end for NHL hockey in Arizona.”

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