Bettman, Smith family talk NHL franchise in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sat onstage at Delta Center on Friday with Ryan and Ashley Smith, the owners of Utah’s new NHL team. There were NHL logos on the outside of the arena and “NHL IN UTAH” signs inside. Thousands of seats surrounded a fresh sheet of ice.

Ryan Smith didn’t know how many fans had made deposits for season tickets, because the number had climbed so rapidly since the NHL Board of Governors voted to establish a new franchise in Utah little more than 24 hours before.

“Where are we at?” he asked.

The updated figure was about 22,700.

“OK,” he said. “That’s good.”

That drew laughter from the audience at the press conference, which included Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Utah Jazz executive Danny Ainge and other dignitaries.

Yeah, that’s good -- so good Utah will have to figure out how to accommodate demand. Delta Center was built for basketball. It will start next season with 16,200 for hockey, with 12,000 unobstructed seats. Over the next couple of years, it will be renovated to host 17,500 for hockey.

“We might have to offer partial season-ticket packages and some of that, but that’s exciting,” Ryan Smith said. “I told the players, ‘We’ll get everyone there the first year. It’s your job to keep them there.’”

Bettman said the NHL is thrilled.

“To hear that there are deposits for over 22,000 season tickets is gratifying, don’t you think?” he said. “It’s a great problem to have.”


This all happened because the NHL had a difficult problem to solve. It has been a complex, unprecedented process, and it came together quickly. There is still a lot of work to do in little time, but one thing is clear: Utah has great passion and potential.

The NHL didn’t want to relocate the Arizona Coyotes. The Smiths really wanted an NHL expansion team. But the Coyotes were in their second season at Mullett Arena, a 4,600-seat rink intended to be a temporary home, and a new arena was still years away, at best. Meanwhile, the Smiths had no guarantees.

“I don’t know when expansion would have been,” Ryan Smith said. “I don’t know if it would have been at all.”

Smith Entertainment Group released a letter Jan. 24 requesting the NHL start an expansion process to bring a team to Utah. Bettman said that’s when the Smiths convinced the NHL they were serious and when thoughts started percolating in his head.

Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and others came up with a plan and introduced it to the NHL Board of Governors Executive Committee. This wouldn’t be a relocation or an expansion. The Arizona franchise would be inactive, and owner Alex Meruelo would have the right to reactivate it if he built a new NHL arena within five years. The NHL would establish a new team in Utah, which would acquire Arizona’s hockey assets.

“I said, ‘We’re going to talk to you about something, and you’re probably going to think we’re crazy. So digest it, and I’ll explain it again, and then if you think we’re crazy, we’ll drop it,’” he said. “And while they didn’t think we were crazy, they were skeptical that it could be done, and I think everybody was skeptical that we could pull it all together.”


Somehow, they did.

Bettman said the first time he talked to Meruelo about the idea was March 6. Meruelo said no. It took him about two weeks to agree. Once he agreed, everyone had to nail down the details.

Ryan Smith said he didn’t know for sure this was going to happen until Tuesday night. The Board of Governors unanimously approved the plan Thursday afternoon, but because of the hybrid transaction, the lawyers had to craft documents that had never been done before. Bettman said the papers weren’t signed until 2 a.m. ET on Friday.

“Really in the space of about a month, the unimaginable has been accomplished, and that’s a testament to the two of you,” Bettman said, sitting next to the Smiths.

There is still an unimaginable amount to be accomplished -- from moving the players and hockey operations people, to coming up with a name and logo, to renovating the arena, to winning. 

“This is a tight, tight term, but when these things come along, you don’t blink,” Ryan Smith said. “You just do it. We’ll figure it out. We’ve got amazing people.”

Cox, the governor, said: “This is not the finish line; this is the starting line. We have a lot of work to do so that we can have an arena where we can be proud to host hockey -- have the best sightlines, have just the biggest crowds -- and where we can bring a Stanley Cup, right? That’s going to happen.”

You never know.

“We want to bring a championship,” Ashley Smith said, drawing cheers. “We want to bring the Stanley Cup to Utah.”

For more information about NHL in Utah, click here.