In Ryan Smith’s NHL dream, the puck stops in Salt Lake City

The Utah Jazz owner lays out his vision for bringing hockey to Utah.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith on the sidelines of his teams NBA basketball game in Salt Lake City Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.

It does not require a lot of imagination to picture Ryan Smith as a roller hockey player.

Three hours before his Utah Jazz host the Boston Celtics at the Delta Center, Smith is inside the team’s practice facility wearing a turquoise hoodie, white pants and white sneakers — without socks. He completes his signature, laid-back ensemble by placing a backwards black ballcap on his head.

Smith, 45, is the antithesis of the stodgy old conservative owner of a professional sports franchise in North America. And so it comes as no surprise that he dabbled in roller hockey in the early 1990s, while he was a 16-year-old working for an internet startup in Utah.

“The older gentlemen in the company would rent out a roller rink because there was no ice,” says Smith. “And we would play roller hockey.”

For almost two years, the group would get together for a weekly 10 p.m. hockey game. Smith describes himself as a “reckless” roller hockey forward who had a penchant for scoring goals.

“I was one of the younger ones, so I could go faster than everybody else,” Smith says with a laugh. “It was so much fun, but I also got hurt.”

He remembers crashing heavily into the end boards one night, where he says his knee “exploded.” But the most painful hockey-related injury Smith sustained actually occurred on the ice. On one occasion, the roller hockey group was able to secure a rink for a pickup game.

“Somebody left the bench door open and I got checked into it,” Smith says. “I ended up with two broken ribs.”

Smith’s passion for basketball is well documented. Growing up, he played in the Junior Jazz youth basketball program. He’s played pickup basketball into his 40s. Qualtrics — the software company he launched — designed its entrance and main lobby to resemble the hardwood of an NBA court.

But if you poke deep enough, you will also discover Smith’s genuine affection for hockey. In addition to his brief roller hockey career, Smith grew up going to IHL games with his family featuring the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. He wore black and silver Los Angeles Kings gear around Utah during his adolescence.

“It was pop culture at the time,” Smith says. “It was the Gretzky era.”

Smith even has some of the biggest names in hockey in his phone.

“One of my favorites is Jon Cooper,” explains Smith. “He’s like Ted Lasso.”

Smith is so fond of the Tampa Bay Lightning bench boss’s approach to coaching that he connected him directly to 36-year-old Jazz head coach Will Hardy for some advice on how to motivate NBA athletes.

“I like his detail in leadership. So any time you can get coaches to communicate, it’s pretty awesome,” says Smith. “They text each other, and it’s a cool mentorship.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans try to get photos of a scrum as the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Knights meet in a preseason game at Vivint Arena on Sept. 30, 2021.

Connecting his NBA coach to Cooper is a microcosm of what Smith wants to accomplish in Salt Lake City: He wants to marry the NBA and NHL worlds. Smith is hellbent on bringing the NHL to his city and using the blueprint of his wildly successful basketball team to launch hockey into a different stratosphere. Earlier this week, Smith publicly displayed his passion for the idea by using his social media channels to post a link to an online survey asking fans to submit their preferred name for an NHL team in Salt Lake City.

“Hockey has always been huge here,” says Smith. “It just hasn’t been elevated to the NHL level.”

One of the most unique hockey souvenirs in Salt Lake City is hidden behind a Shop Vac hanging on the wall inside a utility room in the Maverik Center.

Back in February 2002, this space served as the dressing room for Team Canada as they celebrated their first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years. To mark the occasion, players were handed Sharpies and signed their names onto the walls inside the room.

Today, however, Steve Yzerman’s autograph can be seen only if you pull one of the three Shop Vacs hanging on the wall to the side.

The echoes of that moment might be hard to find, but hockey is alive and well inside the Maverik Center.

The Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL play their home games in this facility, which was originally built to host the men’s hockey tournament for the 2002 Olympic Games. Attendance has soared in recent weeks, as the Grizzlies have eclipsed 8,500 in five separate home games since January.

There is certainly a buzz around hockey in this city, but the Grizzlies are not concerned with Smith’s aggressive pursuit to bring an NHL team into the market.

“It’s great for hockey in Utah, period. We think there is room for us regardless,” says Grizzlies CEO Kevin Bruder. “We’d have to make some modifications because we won’t be the only hockey game in town anymore.”

Bruder is hoping that fans won’t simply abandon the rich history of minor league hockey in Salt Lake City if the NHL rolls in. When the Jazz first relocated to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in 1979, they did not automatically ascend to the status of the most prestigious professional team in town. That distinction belonged to the Golden Eagles of the Central Hockey League. And in their shared home of the old Salt Palace, the Golden Eagles often outdrew the Jazz at the box office.

“It was hard to get a ticket for hockey. And they were giving away tickets to the Jazz,” says Marty Phelps, who has attended pro hockey games in Salt Lake City since 1969.

Adds Nate Barton, who worked as an usher at the Salt Palace in 1980, “When I ushered to the Jazz, we could go sit in the first couple of rows. The hockey team easily outdrew the Jazz.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 1986 Salt Lake Golden Eagles hockey team.

What doomed the Golden Eagles, ironically, was a shift to the Delta Center in 1991. That venue was built as a basketball-specific arena, which created poor sight lines for hockey. By March 1994, with attendance dwindling to just 4,600 fans per night in the cavernous 19,000-seat Delta Center, the franchise was sold and relocated to Michigan.

A couple of years later, the Grizzlies filled the hockey void, eventually moving into the Maverik Center. A fun tradition started in the mid 1990s, as hockey fans would toss fresh fish — often a trout — onto the ice after the team scored their first goal in the playoffs.

“It was their way of feeding the Grizzlies,” laughs Bruder.

The tradition was halted just after the COVID-19 pandemic, as club officials cited safety concerns. (Some fans were bringing frozen fish into the arena, which presented a dangerous throwing hazard.)

But if the NHL does make its way to Salt Lake City, there is a good chance some fans will toss fish onto the ice after the team scores its first-ever goal on home ice as an homage to the colorful history of this market.

“That’s been a great tradition here and they’ll figure out something for that first game,” says Roger Orn, a longtime hockey fan who estimates he’s watched more than 1,200 live pro games in Salt Lake City. “Tossing a fish would be great. And you know they’re just waiting for an opportunity.”

When and where that first NHL game takes place in Salt Lake City is up for debate. But since the Maverik Center was built with hockey in mind and can comfortably seat about 10,000 fans, Bruder says they would be eager to host NHL games as a short-term solution.

“Absolutely. This was built for hockey,” says Bruder. “If they asked us to host some games, we’d be more than happy to.”

But when Smith publicly signaled in January that Salt Lake City is ready to host NHL games as early as next season, he was thinking of the Delta Center as the venue of choice.

“We are interested. We are ready, and we’re a partner,” says Smith. “The arena is done. We think we have a solution. And that’s my message to the NHL.”

Ryan Smith does not shy away from a direct question.

As he is aggressively pushing for an NHL franchise for Salt Lake City, Smith is keenly aware the Coyotes have a tumultuous situation occurring in Arizona. And if they cannot sort out their arena issues in that market, they could become fodder for immediate relocation. At the general managers meetings in Florida last month, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly indicated it might be too late to relocate the Coyotes franchise for the start of the 2024-25 NHL season.

“Probably not. I don’t believe so,” Daly said when asked directly if there was enough time to move the team.

But when the NHL relocated the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg in the spring of 2011, there were similar denials from league officials in the weeks leading up to the sale of the team. On May 20, 2011, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman denied a published report that stated the Thrashers were bound for Winnipeg. Eleven days later, however, Bettman attended a news conference in Winnipeg to confirm the sale of the Thrashers and a relocation to their new Canadian home.

Smith does not want his pursuit of an NHL team to come off as though he’s poaching the Coyotes from afar.

“People who know me know I’m pretty direct. If that were the intention, I would just come out and say that,” Smith says when asked if it appears he is targeting the Coyotes. “We’re not about trying to mess with anybody else’s world. I know what it’s like to be in a partnership like we are in the NBA. There is a way to go about it.”

Smith maintains an open line of dialogue with NHL officials, but he’s mindful not to step over any lines.

(Ryan Smith via X) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith posted this rendering of the proposed downtown sports and entertainment district on X on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

“I don’t want to get involved with how they deliver a team. We’re showing that we’re ready and that’s what we’re putting forward,” says Smith. “We talk to them frequently. They know our interest. They see what’s going on. They see the value, and they’re intrigued.”

Smith’s vision for the NHL in Salt Lake City — whether it’s inheriting the Coyotes or landing an expansion franchise — is quite straightforward.

The team would initially play out of the Delta Center. While the extremely steep curvature of the arena bowl is more conducive to basketball than hockey, at least 11,000 fans can comfortably watch a hockey game inside Delta Center with its current configuration. Team officials say they are aggressively pursuing solutions to add as many new seats as possible for future NHL games.

This would only be a stopgap measure. The eventual plan for Salt Lake City is to move into a state-of-the-art arena that would serve as the anchor point in the downtown core for a region that is experiencing a population boom. Smith grabs his tablet and excitedly points to a map of the Wasatch Front, a narrow corridor that contains the most populous stretch in Utah, and is protected by the Wasatch Mountain Range to the east.

“This used to be farmland when I was growing up,” Smith says, tapping on the screen to an area just south of Salt Lake City. “Now it’s wall to wall and growing rapidly.”

The region is affectionately nicknamed “Silicon Slopes,” a nod to an exploding tech industry that has made Utah the fastest-growing state in America, according to the 2020 census.

Utah also was the top-ranking state in America in a recent study that analyzed various categories including economy, infrastructure and fiscal stability.

The financial clout in Salt Lake City is evident by the fact the Jazz boast about being inside the top seven teams in the NBA in attracting corporate sponsorships — despite being one of the smallest markets in the league. The Jazz have also sold out 289 straight NBA games.

And so city officials believe the environment is perfect to greenlight a project to bring the NHL to Salt Lake City while building a downtown arena that will be funded by a mix of private and public money. Earlier this month, the Utah State Senate advanced a plan to fund an NHL arena and a “sports and entertainment” district downtown, which includes a sales tax increase of up to 0.5 percent in Salt Lake City.

“We’re eager. We are able to leverage two or three times private money with taxpayer money,” says Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Smith rattles off a series of statistics that paint Utah in a shining light. He mentions a robust tech ecosystem that is enhanced by more than 200,000 college students living within a stone’s throw of Salt Lake City. He speaks glowingly about the proximity of the airport to the downtown core and the ski hills. He challenges people to name a city that provides a better balance between work and play in North America. “You have a way of life, and you have wellness,” explains Smith. “But you’re also not living in the woods. There are jobs and industry.”

It’s as if Smith, and the rest of Salt Lake City, are willing to share their well-hidden municipal gem with the rest of North America if it means it will land them an NHL franchise.

One of the most breathtaking views of downtown Salt Lake City is from the observation deck at the conference center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There are the snowcapped mountains and the city skyline, and … the cranes.

“I judge a city by a number of cranes,” says Smith. “And our skyline is full of cranes.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns some of the largest buildings in the downtown core, recently voiced its support for the idea of bringing an NHL franchise and a new downtown arena to Salt Lake City.

“We’re pleased with the potential this has to refresh and revitalize downtown Salt Lake City while presenting a safe and family-friendly gathering place for generations to come,” the statement read.

While that endorsement for an NHL club is important, there is a concerted effort toward a separation of church and skate in Salt Lake City. As NHL fans suddenly focus on Salt Lake City, Mendenhall wants people to understand her city is not a community with rigid, traditional values.

“Whatever people think of Salt Lake City and Utah, if they don’t live here or they don’t come here, they probably have misconceptions,” Mendenhall says. “Salt Lake is a blue dot in a red state. We are a different political animal here. We’re a safe space for people. We celebrate diversity, and we have a kick-ass Pride parade.”

Mendenhall has never even tried sipping a “dirty soda” — a quirky concoction of Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper mixed with a combination of syrups, dairy products, coffee creamer and other flavorings. Dirty sodas have become a G-rated local phenomenon that was likely fueled by the large population of Latter-day Saints seeking an alternative to alcoholic beverages.

As Mendenhall likes to point out: “We make great beer in Salt Lake.”

Concession lineups for beer at Jazz and Grizzlies games are just as long as you would see in other venues in North America. Salt Lake City is a forward-thinking, beer-guzzling community like many other major hubs in North America.

Smith sits on the social justice committee with the NBA and wants to bring that same forward-thinking passion and energy to the NHL.

In their first two years of owning the Jazz, Smith and his wife, Ashley, pledged to provide a full-ride college scholarship to Utah high school students from an underrepresented background for every Jazz victory. The Smith family helped fund an expansion for a program called Encircle, which houses family and youth resource centers aimed at providing a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“You have to use the platform to impact people. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Smith says. “How do we impact people and how do we change lives?”

Smith wants the rest of North America to realize that while Salt Lake City is relatively new to the NHL conversation — not having been rumored to be an interested city as long as Houston, Quebec City or Atlanta — they are a viable candidate to host a franchise. His city may have the polar opposite reputation of the reigning Stanley Cup champions in Las Vegas, but Smith believes Salt Lake City can enjoy the same type of instant success in the NHL.

“This isn’t an overnight thing here. We’ve thought about this for a long time. Nobody would have thought Vegas and hockey went together,” says Smith. “But the people I’ve met here who grew up playing hockey, they are the biggest evangelists of any sport I’ve seen. They want to go share the message of hockey to everyone. We can work with that. It’s really cool.”

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.