Opinion: I’ve worked in hockey for decades. An NHL club in Utah would be more popular than you think.

Done right, the NHL can not only survive, but flourish here.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Grizzlies host the Rapid City Rush, ECHL hockey at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about a National Hockey League (NHL) club coming to Salt Lake City. Some question whether an NHL team could receive the support necessary to remain viable in this market.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith is at the core of this talk and seems committed to establishing an NHL presence in Salt Lake City to join the Utah Jazz and Real Salt Lake as a third Utah-based major league sports franchise. He has publicly stated the process of bringing an NHL team to Utah “is in motion.” This could happen two ways: NHL expansion, or an existing NHL club relocating here. When the NHL next expands is undetermined. Relocation could happen very quickly.

Many believe the Arizona Coyotes could be on the verge of relocating. Since the Coyotes moved from Winnipeg in 1996, their stay in Phoenix has been unsteady in practically every way imaginable. The team has struggled at the gate and on the ice. Ownership has changed hands or attempted to change hands several times, and the team has faced crippling financial losses which, at one point, resulted in bankruptcy. The past two seasons have found the Coyotes playing in a 5,000-seat college hockey rink because the club lost its previous arena lease.

If the Coyotes were to relocate, Salt Lake is just one among several possible destinations. Utah has a rich history of minor league pro ice hockey, which began in 1969 when the Salt Lake Golden Eagles began play in the Salt Palace. The Golden Eagles enjoyed loyal fan support which sometimes outdrew the Utah Jazz in the late 70s and early 80s. Jazz owner Larry Miller bought the club from long-time owner Art Teece in 1991, moving them to the brand-new Delta Center. However, the new arena proved to be a less than ideal venue for hockey, with many obstructed-view seats. Many feel this adversely affected attendance. Miller subsequently sold the team in spring of 1994 to Detroit investors, and Salt Lake was without a pro hockey team for one season.

In 1995, the Denver Grizzlies moved to Utah and have been a stable franchise for the past 26 seasons.

The arrival of pro hockey in 1969 spurned incredible growth in Utah amateur hockey. In 1970, roughly 200 amateur players were registered in Utah, says Bob Shegrud, whose father, Weldon Shegrud, served for several years on the Salt Lake Amateur Hockey Association board. In 2022-23, Utah had 4,041 players registered in youth, high school and senior-level amateur hockey. Utah today has 16 ice sheets compared to only two in the early 1970s. Several amateur youth and adult hockey leagues operate with dozens of teams in the state. Utah is home to four competitive junior (20 years-old and under) teams and four club-level college teams. Ice time is in great demand at every rink in the state, several local ice rink managers have told me. Add to that the popularity of amateur hockey in Idaho and Wyoming, and the potential fan base for a Utah-based NHL team appears very strong.

During the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, ice hockey games were well-attended. Many were sellouts. The crowds were loud and enthusiastic for every contest. The Salt Lake games spurned more growth and interest in hockey as three new local rinks were built in anticipation of the 2002 games. Don Korth, longtime Utah Amateur Hockey board member and USA Hockey coaching education director told me that, since 2002, nearly 8,000 amateur skaters have played hockey on Utah-based teams.

The annual “Frozen Fury” pre-season NHL game has been well supported for the past several seasons at the Delta Center. Many Utahns travel to Las Vegas and Denver each hockey season to watch the Golden Knights and/or the Avalanche play. There is an active NHL fan base in Utah which is ready to grow, but it will not grow at the minor league level. Some fans point to the Utah Grizzlies drawing more than 5,000 fans per game as evidence that local support is weak. But the Grizzlies, as members of the ECHL (two rungs below the NHL) has nowhere near the resources nor marketing capabilities of an NHL franchise. Ryan Smith can change all that.

Smith has a vision for the NHL in Utah and has the resources, energy, ability and commitment to create a home for an NHL club and build a model NHL franchise the same way the Utah Jazz have been a model NBA franchise for decades. His plans may include a new arena with sightlines more conducive to hockey. Whether it’s an expansion NHL franchise or a club relocating here, Ryan Smith and Salt Lake are most certainly on the NHL’s radar as a viable destination for an NHL team.

There is a strong appetite for major league sports in Utah. Done right, the NHL can not only survive, but flourish here. There will always be doubters and naysayers when it comes to dreaming big, but I wouldn’t underestimate the number of potential NHL fans in Utah. And I certainly wouldn’t underestimate Ryan Smith.

(Photo courtesy of Dave Soutter) Dave Soutter

Dave Soutter has played ice hockey since the early 1970s, and has coached hockey locally for over 30 years cumulatively at the youth, high school and junior levels. Dave has served on boards of directors for Utah Amateur Hockey, Utah High School Hockey and Davis County Youth Hockey. He served as the USA Hockey ACE Director and ADM Director in Utah for several years. He formerly worked for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles and compiled statistics for the Golden Eagles and Utah Grizzlies. He was a scorekeeper for ice hockey during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your insight to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.