The NHL in Salt Lake City makes perfect sense to these Utah hockey pros

“The whole city’s been excited,” about the Arizona Coyotes’ move to the Beehive State.

(Rick Scuteri | AP) Los Angeles Kings center Trevor Lewis skates away from Arizona Coyotes defenseman J.J. Moser (90) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. Lewis, a Salt Lake City native, is excited about the Coyotes' reported move to his home state.

Trevor Lewis has fashioned a 16-year NHL career as a checking grinder and a penalty-killer who has won two Stanley Cup championships with his current team, the Los Angeles Kings.

Lewis also is from Salt Lake City, and Utah’s capital is much more than his birthplace. The longtime forward keeps significant ties there, with an offseason home in a suburb and with extended family nearby. It is a place where he brought the Stanley Cup in 2012, when the Kings won for the first time.

And if he can squeeze out a 17th season, the 37-year-old would become the first Salt Lake City native to play a regular-season game in his hometown, given the likelihood that the Arizona Coyotes will relocate there after this season.

“I never thought I’d be able to play an NHL game in Salt Lake City,” said Lewis, currently the only Utahn on an NHL roster. “I think that’s a pretty cool thing.”

Billionaire owner Ryan Smith is close to fulfilling his long-held wish to add the NHL to a sports portfolio that includes his ownership of the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake. The NHL is brokering the deal to settle its longstanding Arizona problem and move the Coyotes — with the lingering possibility that current Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo or another group can secure land for a new permanent arena and a re-entry into the Phoenix market.

As the relocation seems probable, Lewis has empathy for the fans in the greater Phoenix area. He has played numerous road games there against the Coyotes, including the franchise’s peak moment, when it lost to the Kings in the Western Conference Final in 2012.

“I’m sure it’s tough for the real fans there (in Arizona),” Lewis said. “Players and staff get kind of get uprooted and moved. I think once they realize how good it’s going to be there, I think everyone will be happy.”

And while the metro population of 1.3 million will make Salt Lake City among the NHL’s smallest markets, there seems to be enthusiasm about Salt Lake’s potential, in part because its burgeoning tech sector has attracted many new residents.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls and texts, just how people are excited about a team coming there finally,” Lewis said. “I think, from the get-go, they’re going to have a lot of support. … I think the city will be very supportive of a team. Once people start going to hockey games, too, it’s only going to grow from there.”

Steve Konowalchuk has an equally rosy forecast. An associate head coach with the American Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles, Konowalchuk was the first Utah native to play in the NHL. He is one of five from the state to appear in a game (according to the website hockey-reference), a list that includes Lewis, Dylan Olsen, Daniel Brickley and goalie Richard Bachman, now the goalie coach for the AHL’s Iowa Wild.

“They’re going to have a ton of excitement, especially at first,” said Konowalchuk, who played in 790 games with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche from 1992-2006. “I think the Avalanche probably help, too, being so close to them the last (28) years since they got there to bring even more NHL exposure. The NHL is very accessible now all the time, anywhere in the country. I think that’ll help. And, obviously, the city’s grown and the way they followed the (minor-league) Golden Eagles all those years and the Grizzlies now, there’s definitely a die-hard group of fans there that are going to be very excited to support the team.

“And then from anywhere, it doesn’t matter what sport, what team. It’s what happens in the next three, four, five years of the product and entertainment that they put on the ice. But I certainly think it’s the right area, right time, for a team to go in there and succeed.”

Konowalchuk would know. He and his older brother, Brian, were born in Salt Lake City and lived there until ages 15 and 16, respectively. Their father, Wally, was from the town of Lac La Biche, Alberta, just north of Edmonton, and injected his love of hockey into his sons. Back then, there were only three ice rinks in Utah’s largest city — one being the beloved Hygeia Iceland — and he and his wife did whatever they could to get their boys ice time. And if they weren’t at those facilities, Steve and Brian would find their way as 10- and 11-year-olds into a men’s league. Wayne Thomas, a head coach of the International Hockey League’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles, was kind enough to let them skate and shoot pucks at the old Salt Palace after home games.

Growing up, Konowalchuk idolized Joe Mullen — the Hockey Hall of Fame winger — as well as Golden Eagles standouts Paul Skidmore and Doug Palazzari. “It was awesome watching those guys growing up,” Konowalchuk said. He said folks simply enjoyed good entertainment and pro hockey, even if it wasn’t the NHL. But while he played on Utah-based travel teams, he knew he would have to leave the state to realize his dream.

“It was purely, for the most part, recreational,” Konowalchuk said, recalling the local scene then. “My dad was a little bit — well, probably a lot of people thought he was nuts and he probably was a little bit nuts as much as he loved the game and would do what he could to give us a chance to keep up with the rest of the country. The minor hockey at the time was more recreational and it was really hard to get the chance to get out of there.”

Years later, Lewis was a first-round selection of the Kings in 2006 out of the United States Hockey League. He’d go on to play one season in the Ontario Hockey League. But a large part of his hockey background started in Utah before he linked up with the Pikes Peak Miners, who were based in Colorado Springs as part of the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League.

“When I was young, there wasn’t a whole lot,” Lewis said. “There weren’t too many rinks.”

It is different now. Lewis said there was a significant grassroots impact after the 2002 Olympics in Utah. Anecdotally, Lewis said over the last decade he has seen more players come up through the junior and college ranks, with some moving into the pro game. USA Hockey annually tracks participation at all levels, and Utah enjoyed a bump after the Olympics, with a recorded jump from 2,236 players in 2001-02 to 3,182 in 2002-03. As of 2022-23, Utah had 4,041 registered players.

The presence of an NHL club could boost the state, similar to what the Golden Knights have done for Nevada. Since Vegas entered the league in the 2017-18 season, Nevada has jumped from 1,592 registered players to 4,975, as of the latest USA Hockey participation report.

“It’s harder for me to get ice time in the summer (in Utah), which means there’s a lot more people skating,” said Lewis, who played some games with the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies during the NHL lockout in 2012. “You can just see the growth. There’s junior teams there now, too. It’s gotten very competitive. I think when Vegas came in the league, there started to become a lot more hockey fans. A lot of people became Vegas Golden Knights fans, just because it was the closest team.”

Now there likely will be one in their backyard. And it is something Lewis didn’t dream of as a youth. An improbable reality lies ahead.

“There’s a lot of people there,” he said. “A lot of sports fans too. Utah has been waiting for something like this to come along. I think it’s going to be well-supported. A lot of people are going to be excited about going to the hockey games, for sure.

“Did I ever think growing up that there would be a team in Salt Lake? No, I didn’t at all. This owner, he seems like a smart guy. He was very adamant about getting a team. I think ever since the talk about it, the whole city’s been excited about it. I think it’ll be cool.”

The Coyotes will be re-branded with a new name and temporarily will play at Delta Center, which has housed the Jazz since 1991 and was built with a basketball-focused seating arrangement. But even with obstructed seats, Delta Center has hosted hockey before, as the Kings have played exhibition contests against the Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks since 2021. Last fall, Lewis experienced the atmosphere first-hand.

“It’s cool,” Lewis said. “It’s loud. It’s preseason, but they always sell out. That’s why I think it’ll do well, too. Everyone’s excited to go to those games just to see NHL hockey. And I think it’s only going to grow, from when the fans start going to (then) realizing how fun the sport is. They’ll be able to get behind the team pretty quick.”

And there could be a lasting impact. Now a resident of Seattle, Konowalchuk has seen new rinks built since the Kraken landed. He recalled how minor hockey “took off and went crazy” in Denver after the Avalanche relocated there from Quebec City. Salt Lake City could experience the same.

“It’ll be exciting to see Salt Lake hockey take another step,” he said. “I know it’s grown since I left, but I think there’s definitely another step that can be had there, and the NHL will bring that for sure. That’ll be fun.”

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.