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Coyotes heading to Salt Lake City

Featured image credit: Delta Center

The National Hockey League’s long-suffering Arizona Coyotes are set to move to Salt Lake City after the League’s Board of Governors approved a reported $1.2bn (£964.5m/€1.13bn) deal that will see the sale of the franchise to Smith Entertainment Group (SEG), which owns the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

The announcement yesterday (Thursday) came on the back of mounting speculation that the Coyotes would be on the move, with the team having seen multiple efforts to develop a new arena rebuffed since the relocation to Arizona in 1996 from Winnipeg, Canada.

The NHL has approved the establishment of a franchise beginning with the 2024-25 season in Utah, that will be owned and controlled by SEG, which is led by Ryan and Ashley Smith.

In addition, the League approved a plan that renders the Coyotes franchise inactive, with a right to reactivate if owner Alex Meruelo has fully constructed a new, state-of-the-art facility appropriate for an NHL team within five years.

Effective at closing, the approved transactions will result in the Coyotes’ franchise transferring the totality of its existing hockey assets – including its full reserve list, roster of players and draft picks and its hockey operations department – to the Utah franchise.

“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. “We are also delighted to welcome Ashley and Ryan Smith to the NHL family and know they will be great stewards of the game in Utah. We thank them for working so collaboratively with the League to resolve a complex situation in this unprecedented and beneficial way.

“The NHL’s belief in Arizona has never wavered. We thank Alex Meruelo for his commitment to the franchise and Arizona, and we fully support his ongoing efforts to secure a new home in the desert for the Coyotes. We also want to acknowledge the loyal hockey fans of Arizona, who have supported their team with dedication for nearly three decades while growing the game.”

Delta Center the stage, for now

Utah’s NHL team will begin play at Delta Center in Salt Lake City, which is also home to the Jazz, with its new stewards already starting a process calling for fans to place $100 per seat deposits for season tickets. However, efforts have been taking place to deliver a new arena that would be suitable for an NHL team.

Indeed, in January SEG, which also owns Delta Center, formally requested that the NHL initiate an expansion process with the purpose of launching a professional ice hockey franchise in the state of Utah.

SEG said it would be able to immediately welcome an NHL team to Utah as Delta Center could serve as an interim home for the franchise. SEG also owns Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake and National Women’s Soccer League outfit, the Utah Royals.

SEG has been in discussions with Bettman since early 2022 about the potential expansion of the league into Utah. Back in January, it was stated that the team would either join the Jazz at Delta Center on a temporary basis or begin play in the next several years upon the completion of a new “state-of-the-art” arena.

Delta Center has hosted five NHL games since 2018 as part of the Los Angeles Kings’ ‘Frozen Fury’ pre-season exhibition series.

Yesterday’s announcement comes with Salt Lake City having emerged as the frontrunner to host the Winter Olympics in 2034, and Utah Governor Spencer Cox has said the addition of an NHL franchise will further enhance the state’s winter sports credentials. A new NHL arena could be used to host events during the Games.

Ryan and Ashley Smith said yesterday: “This is a transformative day for our state and our fans. Our intention had always been to pursue an expansion team. Commissioner Bettman conceived and proposed an ingenious plan that would allow us to acquire an NHL franchise while also helping to address and remedy an immediate need of the NHL.

“When he approached us and asked us for help resolving this situation, we made the bold decision to introduce a new franchise in Utah, fully understanding that we are stepping up to do something in a time frame and way that has never been done before in professional sports under these circumstances.

“We are committed to building a Stanley Cup contending team and are thrilled to welcome incredible players, coaches, staff, and their families to Utah. Today is a great day for Utah, for hockey, and for building a legacy that will have a lasting impact for generations to come.”

Meruelo targeting arena deal

The Associated Press reports that the deal has been structured so that Meruelo will receive $1bn, with $200m going to league owners as a relocation fee. This fee will be used to help the NHL facilitate a new arena in Arizona to reestablish a team in the state. Meruelo reportedly plans to pay back the $1bn once an expansion team is approved.

He said: “I agree with commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League, 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.

“But this is not the end for NHL hockey in Arizona. I have negotiated the right to reactivate the team within the next five years, and have retained ownership of the beloved Coyotes name, brand and logo. I remain committed to this community and to building a first-class sports arena and entertainment district without seeking financial support from the public.”

The Coyotes last week reiterated its commitment to building a new arena in Phoenix amid reports that the League was considering relocating the franchise to Salt Lake City. Earlier this month, the Coyotes detailed plans to purchase 110 acres of state-owned land in the City of Phoenix with the intention of building a sports and entertainment district that would be anchored by a 17,000-seat arena.

Following the release of a public land auction notice from the Arizona State Land Department, the Coyotes announced their commitment to win the auction and develop the land into an “unrivalled” sports, lifestyle and entertainment district without taxpayer funding. The team is working with Gensler and AECOM Hunt on the plans, with the auction due to take place on June 27.

Voters in the city of Tempe, Arizona last year rejected the development of a $2.1bn arena and entertainment district for the Coyotes, placing the long-term future of the franchise in doubt once again. The 46-acre project would have included a 16,000-capacity arena designed by Manica Architecture.

The team has been playing at Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat facility in Tempe that is home of Arizona State University’s ice hockey team, the Sun Devils. It played what turned out to be an emotional final game at the venue on Wednesday.

The Coyotes previously played at the 17,000-capacity Gila River Arena in Glendale but the team’s lease deal expired following the 2021-22 season.

Meruelo told The Burns & Gambo Show yesterday: “I am fully focused and committed to buying that land June 27. My goal is to do what has to be done from day one – to build the Coyotes a facility, an arena that they can call their house, their home. That is what I want to do, what I’ve been thinking from day one. That’s what I think is the most important part of the Coyotes future and for the fans.”