Utah lawmakers welcome the NHL but say they want to ‘protect the taxpayer dollar’

A joint resolution expressing support for an NHL team in Utah passed unanimously.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Jose Sharks defenseman Matt Benning (5) and Los Angeles Kings left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) get mixed up in a brawl along with San Jose Sharks Kyle Burroughs (4) and Los Angeles Kings left wing Kevin Fiala (22), in Hockey action between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, at the Delta Center, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

As Gov. Spencer Cox and two state lawmakers met with National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday, one NHL insider reported that the league’s move into Utah was “starting to feel inevitable.”

How a new arena might be financed, however, is less certain.

Utah’s elected officials have been eager to show their support for NHL and Major League Baseball expansion early in this legislative session. But lawmakers have started to draw lines when it comes to funding.

“We’ll protect the taxpayer dollar,” Senate President J. Stuart Adams said Monday. “But we’ll find a way to make it work.”

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, has said he plans to sponsor legislation to create a public-private partnership — which would include some amount of public funding — to create a specific land use authority to help fund the Major League Baseball stadium proposed along North Temple on Salt Lake City’s west side. Other Legislature-created “authorities” have been allowed to issue bonds that are then repaid by keeping a portion of the tax revenue generated by the project area.

Jazz owner Ryan Smith has said he plans to build a new arena for his hockey team should the NHL award him one. Smith recently told ESPN that the Delta Center could host an NHL team as early as next year. The downtown SLC arena has featured several NHL exhibition games over the years.

“We’ve done this before,” Adams said when asked about bringing hockey to Utah. “We’ve done the Delta Center, we’ve built the stadium for hockey, we’re building [at] the Point of the Mountain, we’ve got an inland port. … We have done hard things like this before to attract businesses and athletic events. We know how to do this, and we’ll get into the details later but fully. I know that we can handle it no matter what it is.”

Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, also offered her support.

“We’re open to any combination of tools in the toolbox and I think the state plays a role as far as state investments, building infrastructure and helping communities,” she said. “I know there’s already bills being assigned or being worked on as far as MLB. I’m not sure what the NHL conversation is, but I think we should be having those conversations and considering the different options.”

On Monday morning, Sen. Daniel McCay put forth a joint resolution, SJR12, in support of bringing an NHL team to Utah. The resolution is co-sponsored by Rep. Jon Hawkins. It passed the Senate unanimously.

Just before this year’s legislative session began, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, and Rep. Ryan D. Wilcox, R-Ogden, put forth a joint resolution supporting an MLB team coming to Utah.

McCay said “resolutions like these serve an important function” for people who are looking to do business with the state or trying to bring their businesses here.

“I think these resolutions do a great job of telling people that Utah is open for business and that we’re available for talks, for conversations, for things that bring economic progress and growth to the state.

Cox, Adams and House Speaker Mike Schultz met with the NHL commissioner on Monday afternoon.

“Utah has the foundation of being the next major sports and entertainment destination in the United States,” Cox, Adams and Schultz said in a joint statement after the meeting. “With the fastest growing economy, youngest population in the country and a long history as a premier winter sports destination, Utah is excited about the prospect of being the new home to an NHL franchise.”

Tribune reporter Emily Anderson Stern contributed to this story.