Here’s what Grizzlies fans think about the NHL potentially coming to Utah

Ticket costs and fan support are the main challenges fans see when it comes to Utah supporting an NHL team.

(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.

West Valley City • With three seconds remaining in the second period, Utah Grizzlies forward Brett Stapley broke the tie with what ended up being the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory Saturday over the Wheeling Nailers. The 8,291 fans at the Maverik Center roared in celebration on a night that also marked coach and general manager Ryan Kinasewich’s 100th win with the franchise.

The scene has become commonplace lately, with thousands of fans heading to the Maverik Center in increasing numbers over the last 10 games. A team official said the Maverik Center has averaged nearly 7,200 fans in that span. Kinasewich thinks it’s a combination of being out in the community and themed nights like Superhero Night or Fight Cancer Night.

But historically, the Grizzlies have struggled to garner fan support, longtime fan Dan Noonan said.

“Tonight’s good attendance,” Noonan said in between periods. “It’s not always like that.”

The Grizzlies historically struggling to get fans out to games is what makes Noonan skeptical that an NHL team arriving to Utah would work.

“I was concerned that we could fill a stadium,” Noonan said. “An NHL team is going to need regular season ticket holders and a lot more butts in the seats.”

Other than the Arizona Coyotes, most NHL teams were averaging more than 16,000 fans as of Jan. 1. The Montreal Canadiens averaged 21,081. In the West, the Las Vegas Golden Knights averaged 18,115 and the Colorado Avalanche averaged 18,085.

Several key figures in the state — from lawmakers to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith — have made it clear they desperately want a major league hockey team in Salt Lake City. Smith formally submitted a bid to the NHL last month, and the state Legislature earlier this month passed SJR 12, a joint resolution supporting an NHL franchise.

Grizzlies fans who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune generally say they’d support an NHL franchise in the state. But they have some concerns.

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

“I think that it’s great for the city,” said Dre Pasi, a Grizzlies fan since 1995. “I think Salt Lake and Utah can support it. I think they’ll do really good. For me, it’ll price me out of hockey, so I don’t love it.”

Pasi goes to practically every Grizzlies home game and has been a season ticket holder in the past. But a huge reason she can go to that many games is the affordable price. Single game tickets at the Maverik Center range from $17 to $41, per Ticketmaster.

The closest NHL team to Utah is the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Single game tickets for those games tend to be as low as around $50 and can eclipse $1,000, per AXS.

Jordan Woodcox has two sons who he brought to Saturday’s game. He said he tries to make it to a Grizzlies game once a year, and brings his sons because his father brought him to games growing up.

Woodcox said he’d be inclined to attend more hockey games if Utah had an NHL team, but ticket prices could keep him away.

“Where I barely make it here once a year for the Grizzlies, I think cost would be a big factor,” Woodcox said.

There are definitely fans who will support an NHL team no matter what, and would even keep attending Grizzlies games.

Ron Kidman, a season ticket holder for the last five years, said he loves the family atmosphere among fans and likes to watch hockey players fight. He said if an NHL arrives, he’d gladly attend Grizzlies games as well as major league games.

“You have to spread your love for the sport,” Kidman said. “If you’re not supporting a team, you’re not supporting the sport, how is it going to survive?”

Jen Killpack said “hockey is life,” and she’d rather pay a little more to see her local NHL team than what it costs to travel to cities like Seattle and Las Vegas to catch a game.

“We love hockey,” Killpack said. “I don’t give a s--- how much hockey costs. Hockey is hockey.”

Some fans worried that if the NHL expanded to Utah, the Grizzlies would leave the market. An NHL spokesperson told The Tribune there is “no rule prohibiting an ECHL team from existing in the same market as an NHL team.” The Grizzlies compete in the ECHL, which is two levels below the NHL.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans pound the glass while Utah's Jordon Stone and Rapid City's Brandon Yeamans fight as the Utah Grizzlies host the Rapid City Rush, ECHL hockey at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

Liz Cheney, who is involved with the Growlin’ Grizzlies Booster Club, also had concerns about ticket prices for NHL games. But her larger concern is losing any potential momentum the Grizzlies have with their current fan base. While she thinks there is potential for an NHL team to succeed, she wants more people to know about the minor league team that already exists in the market.

“My biggest thing is, if they bring in the NHL, people are going to be like, ‘Yes! The NHL!’ and are going to want to come,” Cheney said. “But I feel like we need to be actually marketing this, what we have now, to show them what the NHL could possibly bring, if that makes sense.

“I feel like you’re going to lose a lot of diehard fans. I’m sure we’ll bring in a lot of great things for Salt Lake, but you’re gonna lose the people who are here, who have been fans for years because of that.”

Cities vying for major sports franchises to expand in their markets often hire market research firms to investigate the viability of a franchise moving to a certain place. Victus Advisors, a Park City-based firm, has done that kind of work in the past. Walter Franco, principal at Victus Advisors, said one of the biggest questions when it comes to an NHL team coming to Utah is how to scale up Utah Grizzlies fandom in a market that is not known for having a history and culture of hockey.

“The difficulty here in Utah now, specifically the Grizzlies, is that they’ve kind of had to take a back seat to the other professional franchises, typically the Jazz and RSL, and then to some extent Utah and BYU football, which are kind of their own pro sports divisions, in a sense,” Franco said.

Other questions Franco said the NHL might look to answer when considering Utah are how much corporate money will be available for a new hockey franchise when it has to compete with the Jazz, Real Salt Lake and potentially a future MLB team; and if a new team would be adding to or subtracting from the pool of television rights money.

The timeline for the NHL’s expansion plans is unclear. And if it came to Utah at all, it’s possible both the Grizzlies and the new team would share the market, at least for a time.

But Pasi, like many fans, is skeptical.

“I just don’t see in Utah that that would work,” Pasi said. “I think it’s one or the other.”

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