Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith has been in talks with the NHL for a while now. On Wednesday, he showed how serious he is about getting Utah a team.
The Smith Entertainment Group (SEG), parent company to the NBA’s Utah Jazz among other properties, put out a statement Wednesday saying it has “formally requested that the National Hockey League (NHL) initiate an expansion process with the ultimate purpose of bringing an NHL franchise to Utah.”
The NHL was obviously made aware that was coming and put out a release of its own:
NHL Statement on the Smith Entertainment Group: https://t.co/q5dzjaAhws pic.twitter.com/MLick3gxX3
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 24, 2024
The next step in this would be to start a process at the NHL Board of Governors level, a league source said Wednesday, which has not happened at this point.
As for why SEG felt it important to make this announcement? It’s about formalizing Utah’s interest and showing it’s backed by a concrete plan, Smith told The Athletic over the phone Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of people expressing interest in doing things, but what does that actually look like?” Smith said. “As far as operations, the Delta Center, what do plans look like for a new arena? Are you confident you can do that? We’ve had the rubber meet the road both internally as a group, financially as a group and within our community as a group.”
Smith detailed his desire for an NHL team when we first spoke back in June. And while there continues to be expressions of interest from places like Atlanta, Houston and Quebec City, this is another level as far as Utah formalizing its desire to get a team.
“We decided we were going to take that formal next step, and we’re serious,” Smith told The Athletic. “We’re absolutely serious about this.”
One of the keys in getting an NHL team is playing your cards right with commissioner Gary Bettman and avoiding missteps there. So far, it appears there’s a good relationship brewing between the parties.
“Look, we’ve been talking for a long time, as you know,” Smith said. “I think they also need to see that a lot of people show interest and for them and their constituents, which is their ownership groups. We want it out there that we’re willing, we’re ready. We know a lot of these people. I partner with (Devils owner) David Blitzer (owning an MLS team together in Salt Lake).
“I know a lot of these individuals. So to actually put pen to paper and say, ‘Hey, this is sitting here, one of the hottest markets in the world,’ it’s compelling. We want to give them something to look at that’s really hard to say no to. Hopefully, it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but it’s just ‘when.’”
The SEG release specifically mentions wanting an expansion team. No mention at all about the Arizona Coyotes, whose future remains murky depending on what happens with finding a long-term arena solution.
“The clock is ticking on Arizona, in my opinion.”
A one-on-one with @NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh on the continuing @ArizonaCoyotes arena search, an optimistic update on Olympic participation and more https://t.co/2AIDo6Icp0
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithNHL) January 24, 2024
Would Smith entertain getting a team via relocation if that’s how the NHL prefers to make it happen?
“Look, I think first and foremost, we just have been super focused in that the NHL would do really well in Utah. Really well,” Smith responded. “And I think we’ve been super respectful of that process with the NHL, and we don’t want to take anything away from any other groups or teams. We really leave that up to Gary to do what he’s going to do there (in Arizona). All we can do is put a credible foot forward.
“We’re focused on getting the NHL in Utah. We need to show that we’re available to help the league in any way we can. Expansion’s a natural process to do that, but we also respect the process that they’ve got everywhere else and want to be value added to the NHL. We want to bring way more than we take.”
If one were to read between the lines, I think SEG would prefer an expansion team, but if the NHL needs it to be a solution via relocation, that’s fine, too.
The Jazz have hosted Los Angeles Kings preseason games the past few years at Delta Center. So that NBA arena could be OK for a while if the NHL comes, but SEG is clear in wanting to build a hockey venue.
“We wouldn’t do the release for the formal (NHL expansion) application process if we weren’t confident in our ability to deliver on that,” Smith said.
Having Salt Lake City bidding to host another Winter Olympics also plays into that hockey-only venue to some extent.
The ball is now in the NHL’s court. Are NHL owners ready to embrace another round of expansion? The next step would be for Bettman to bring it up with the Board’s executive committee.
(Top photo of the Delta Center: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)