The NHL’s only Utahn thinks the state is ready for hockey’s best. Is a major league team ready for Salt Lake?

Thursday’s Frozen Fury exhibition showed Salt Lake’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to NHL expansion.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Kings fans celebrate the Kings 4-3 win in overtime against the San Jose Sharks at the Delta Center, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

The Los Angeles Kings’ Trevor Lewis — the NHL’s only Utahn — hopes Utah and the NHL will be synonymous someday soon.

But 20 years ago, there weren’t many elite youth hockey teams in the state. The teams that existed were either undermanned, untalented or both. When Lewis’ team traveled to play other youth competition, the players often found they were simply, significantly outclassed.

Then the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics rolled around, and Lewis saw the world’s best players up close and personal as a 15-year-old. Watching those games, he knew he wanted to become an NHL player. His parents knew that couldn’t happen if he stayed in Utah.

“My dad just kind of said, ‘If you want to keep going, you’re probably going to have to move away to better your competition,’” Lewis told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “And I ended up doing it.”

It meant moving in with a new family and going to a new school as a teen. It is a tale of struggle, but a storybook tale nonetheless: Lewis made the NHL, getting drafted by the Kings in the first round in 2006. He’s enjoyed a 15-year NHL career, made millions, and this year he’s returned to the Kings on a minimum deal for a 16th NHL year at age 36.

But while Lewis had to depart Utah to make his dreams come true, he’s still a Utahn through and through. During the 2012 NHL lockout, he played for the Utah Grizzlies to keep himself sharp. And during every NHL offseason, he returns to his home in Lehi, spending as much time with family as possible.

When he returns, he finds a very different hockey market than the one he left.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Kings fans celebrate after a Kings goal, in Hockey action between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, at the Delta Center, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

“Kids can stay and have that competition, get college scholarships and play junior hockey and stuff like that,” Lewis says. “Coming back in the summers now, it’s kind of harder for me to get ice time because there’s so many kids skating. It’s pretty awesome to see.”

Of course, the question of whether or not Utah is a hockey market has taken on a very different tone in the past 18 months. That’s because Jazz owner Ryan Smith has loudly proclaimed his interest in getting an NHL team in Utah — whether that be by acquiring or hosting the troubled Arizona Coyotes franchise, or by playing a part in the NHL’s nebulous possible expansion plans.

One important testing ground for that question is the annual Frozen Fury exhibition game at the Delta Center; this year, the teams involved were Lewis’ Kings and the San Jose Sharks. The game was terrific: a close contest that ended in overtime with a 4-3 Kings win, featuring fun fights in the 3rd period and a total of 17 penalties. It was everything hockey fans came to the arena to see.

The returns from a longer-term point of view, though, were a mixed bag. Still, the crowd in attendance was incredibly interested and invested in the game (Though Sharks fans with the edge in volume over their Kings counterparts.).

But the Delta Center simply isn’t an ideal NHL venue at this time. Fans sitting in certain seats struggled to see the corners, TV cameras for the game had to be propped up in the row where broadcasters typically sit. The broadcasters and scorekeepers seated near me sometimes struggled to do their jobs as a result. That wonderful rinkside seating you see at other NHL arenas, with fans pounding on the glass and all of that, simply isn’t possible at the Delta Center given the arena’s current construction.

Capacity for the event was 10,420 seats, with an enjoyably rowdy 9,126 in attendance. That’s a decrease from last season’s number, likely due to the absence of the Vegas Golden Knights, the closest NHL team to Utah.

The Delta Center would probably be the second-worst arena situation in the NHL — but the Arizona Coyotes’ current setup, playing in front of only a 4,600-capacity arena on the campus of Arizona State University, is clearly even more subpar. If the Coyotes’ latest bid to buy a spot for the team in the Phoenix area fails, Salt Lake City could be a quick and easy landing spot.

More likely at this point, though, seems to be Utah gaining a team through eventual NHL expansion. In the last month or two, commissioner Gary Bettman has been more publicly optimistic about finding an Arizona landing spot for the Coyotes. “We remain optimistic that (Coyotes) owner Alex Meruelo is going to find a solution to get a building going into the ground in the not-too-distant future,” Bettman told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun. “I know his timetable is trying in the first half of the season to get something done, so we’ll see where we are come February.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Kings Filip Zadina tries to take a shot as San Jose Sharks center Nico Sturm (7) defends, in Hockey action between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, at the Delta Center, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

With regards to expansion, Bettman mentioned Salt Lake City, but was otherwise circumspect on the topic.

“The best answer I can give you is that we have continuous expressions of interest from places like Houston, Atlanta, Quebec City, Salt Lake City, but expansion isn’t on the agenda,” Bettman said. “If something were to progress along where you say, ‘Well, this could be ready to go,’ then I’ll bring it to the owners and we’ll discuss it. But we’re not in a mode where I’m saying, ‘OK, if you’re interested in expansion, submit your applications and we’ll evaluate them,’ like we’ve done previously. We’re not there.”

That expansion process would also give time for Utah to potentially figure out a better arena situation, perhaps in conjunction with Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid. That being said, Olympic bid executives have made their pitch by saying that Salt Lake City wouldn’t require any new venues to host the Olympics, that they’d able to completely host a potential Olympics by using the same facilities from the 2002 Games.

Regardless, the idea of an NHL team in Utah isn’t as crazy as it might have seemed in Lewis’ childhood days in the 1990s and 2000s. Lewis, one of only five NHL players from Utah in league history, says he’d be “willing to do whatever” it takes to help get an NHL team here as a potential ambassador — though when he reached out to try to help, Lewis says he didn’t hear back.

Lewis remains bullish on the idea, though. “Vegas and Seattle, they’re very excited to have new hockey teams there — those two buildings are buzzing,” he said. “I think Salt Lake would be the same. I think the city would embrace the team. Hockey’s a really fun sport to go to watch live. I think the more people that they could get to see it live, they would realize how much fun it is, and it would obviously grow the game from there.”

Thursday night’s Frozen Fury festivities and fun should be a key example of that.

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