Since Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith made headlines in declaring Utah ready for another professional sports team, I’ve been investigating the possibility. Is Salt Lake City big enough for another team? Would it garner enough support? Are facilities already in place, or would completely new stadiums need to be built?
Besides Real Salt Lake and the Utah Jazz, there’s only one major professional sports contest happening in Utah this year (among the five most popular American sports): the NHL Frozen Fury game — a preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights. I attended to get a feel of the game firsthand. Here’s what I found:
• Right away, you can see some of the difficulties of putting a full-sized hockey rink in the post-renovation arena. Nearly entire sections have to be eliminated on the baselines. There’s a big gap between the seats up high and the rink itself, which means there are sightline issues from there. There are also sightline issues from the sidelines to the near side. Whereas Vivint Arena feels like one of the most intimate NBA arenas I’ve been to — and I’ve been to all of them — it feels less friendly as a hockey arena.
• To wit, I was informed by a public relations official that the capacity for Thursday’s game at Vivint Arena was just 10,400. Now, that’s in part because sections of the upper bowl are cordoned off for additional construction (more on that in an article next week). But it’s a bit small for a full-time NHL arena; it would be one of the smallest home crowds in the NHL. Still, the game’s attendance was 9,869, quite close to capacity. I don’t think that’s an inflated number, as so many attendance figures are — this was a good crowd.
• Another note, as I follow some hockey writers here for this game: apparently, it’s dark in here for a hockey arena.
It’s the normal Vivint Arena basketball lighting, I believe. But it makes sense: the lights focus on the area of the floor where a basketball court would normally be. Everywhere else doesn’t have that same spotlight.
• Vivint has gotten some upgrades, though. In particular, every board has been upgraded with increased resolution, and there are new corner video boards connecting the four big screens hanging from the center.
• Capacity might be on the smaller side, but Salt Lake’s hockey fans help make up for that. This was technically a home game for the Kings. However, it was definitely a crowd that supported the Golden Knights more. It was a sellout crowd, and a good one. Feels like half of the crowd is wearing a hockey sweater of some sort. I saw a woman with a shirt that said “Classy ‘til the puck drops” — hockey people are a good kind of people.
• Ah, chaos! A puck flew just over the Vegas goal line before being batted out of the net. The Kings celebrated, but the referees didn’t call it a goal. Instead, the Golden Knights took advantage of the celebrations and scored a goal of their own. For some reason, the call wasn’t reversed, and so it became 4-2 Golden Knights in the 2nd intermission, not 3-3. As a neutral fan, I want two things: good refereeing, and a close game. That decision avoided both of those desires.
• In the third period, there were multiple breakaways, great chances on goal, and some spectacular saves. Vegas won, 6-4. A high-scoring game that kept the fans engaged throughout. By the end, some fans gave a standing ovation.
All in all, that was a fun experience. I came away with an appreciation for Utah’s pre-existing hockey fanbase, and maybe an increased notion that we’d have enough die-hard fans, those who’d buy season tickets, to support a team in Utah.
On the other hand, I think it’ll have to be at a new arena. I think that makes sense, given that the size of a basketball court and hockey rink are so different. Vivint Arena is set up to highlight Jazz games, and that’s a good decision. Obviously, from there, it becomes a cost issue — who pays for that new arena?
NHL already has 32 teams, tied for the most in any major professional American league. Expansion may not be immediate. But perhaps Utah could work as a home for the perennially troubled Arizona Coyotes, if their new arena plans don’t work out? We shall see.
But after attending Thursday’s game, I don’t think putting an NHL team here is unimaginable.
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