SPORTS

NHL to Utah? Ryan Smith asks NHL to begin expansion process for Utah franchise

Jan 24, 2024, 8:33 AM | Updated: Feb 2, 2024, 10:42 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith’s Smith Entertainment Group — parent company of the Utah Jazz, Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals — has formally asked the National Hockey League to begin the expansion process with the goal of bringing a franchise to the Beehive State.

The group said Utah could immediately welcome an NHL team, using the Delta Center as an interim home arena.

“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,” said Ryan Smith, chairman of Smith Entertainment Group and governor of the Utah Jazz. “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.”

Led by Ryan and Ashley Smith, SEG said it has been in discussions with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman since 2022. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed on June 3, 2023, at the Stanley Cup Final that the league was in touch with Ryan Smith and he had expressed his interest in bringing an NHL team to Salt Lake City.

The NHL Board of Governors would make the final decision regarding expansion. In 2018, the board announced the league’s 32nd team, now known as the Seattle Kraken, with the team’s owners paying a $650 million expansion fee. Two years before that, Bill Foley and his group paid $500 million to bring the NHL to Las Vegas with the Golden Knights.

Ryan Smith reportedly met with Bettman in May 2023. Elliotte Friedman, hockey insider for SportsNet Canada, said Smith was rumored to have been interested in purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins when that team was for sale.

“Obviously, that didn’t happen,” Friedman said, “but I was told to keep his name on my radar, because he’s interested in the NHL — and the NHL is very interested in him.”

Later Wednesday, the NHL released the following statement:

“The NHL appreciates the interest expressed by Smith Entertainment Group to bring NHL hockey to Utah. 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 our discussions.”

Hockey in a new arena?

SEG said an NHL franchise could join the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center, which has hosted the LA Kings’ “Frozen Fury” preseason game since 2018. However, the group said an NHL team could begin play “in the next several years upon the completion of a new, state-of-the-art hockey arena.” The location of that arena has not been determined, according to SEG.

“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.”

Teams warm up during an NHL exhibition game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Seating capacity is reduced to the size of the rink, as seen near the goals. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Along with welcoming an NHL team, a new, purpose-built arena couldn’t come at a better time as the state prepares for the 2034 Winter Games, according to Fraser Bullock, chair 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,” Bullock said. “And bringing professional hockey to Utah will further help cement Utah’s place as a premier destination for winter sports. 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.”

The Delta Center opened in 1991 and was renovated in 2017. It hosted the 1993 and 2023 NBA All-Star weekends, two NBA Finals, and the 1999 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, as well as figure skating and short track speed skating events at the 2002 Winter Games.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall previously hinted at a possible “successor” to the Delta Center during her 2023 State of the City address, which could be located downtown or elsewhere in the city. That came a little more than a week after the Larry H. Miller Company announced it would move the Salt Lake Bees out of Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City to a new stadium it is building in Daybreak in South Jordan.

Another group, Big League Utah, is working to bring a Major League Baseball team to Salt Lake City as well. This past week, executives with the Oakland A’s visited Utah as that ballclub searches for a temporary home before moving to Las Vegas.

Professional hockey history in Utah

Utah’s first professional hockey team dates back to 1969, with the debut of the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, which played until 1994. The next year, the International Hockey League’s Denver Grizzlies became the Utah Grizzlies and won the Turner Cup Championship in the 1995-96 season.

Today, the Grizzlies are the East Coast Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.

“Utah has a long history with hockey, the strongest economy in the nation, a passionate sports fanbase, and the youngest and most active population. 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,” said Gov. Spencer Cox. “With the Olympic bid underway, our long-standing reputation as one of the greatest winter sports capitals in the world, and with the proven leadership of Ryan and Ashley Smith and SEG in our community, I am extremely optimistic about the future of Utah.”

The Utah Senate unanimously backed a resolution supporting SEG’s NHL bid on Jan. 29. Later that day, Cox and other state leaders met virtually with the NHL and Bettman.

“It was a very productive meeting,” said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who spoke exclusively to KSL TV afterward. 

“Ryan and Ashley have done well in telling Utah’s story to the NHL. And it was great to hear (the NHL) acknowledge that they know that Utah is on the map and they’re very interested,” McCay said. “But for the most part, it was us trying to tell the story of why Utah would be a great home for the NHL.”

McCay said it’s still not known if the NHL is expanding or will make Utah the home of an existing franchise – that is if they decide to come here.  

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NHL to Utah? Ryan Smith asks NHL to begin expansion process for Utah franchise