Jazz owner Ryan Smith on bringing an NHL team to Utah: ‘We just see hockey fitting in perfectly’

(Andy Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fresh ice at Vivint Arena ahead of the NHL Frozen Fury game on Thursday night.

It’s clear: Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith is pushing for hockey in Utah — and is confident that he’ll be able to bring a team to the state.

That’s after Smith revealed more about his plans on a podcast produced by Canadian sports channel SportsNet. On “32 Thoughts: The Podcast,” Smith spent about 45 minutes with hosts Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talking about his background, why he was interested in hockey, and more.

Why hockey?

First, Smith said that he sees the opportunity to build a “broader business” with bringing the NHL to Utah.

“From our standpoint with our group, we kind of had to ask the question, ‘Are we into basketball? Or are we actually coming into sports?’,” Smith said.

Hockey, Smith feels, is “really kind of mesmerizing a lot of people right now.” And he feels that “we just see hockey fitting in perfectly, we think the market is going to be as receptive as what you’ve seen in Seattle or Las Vegas.”

“We have what I would call the winter sports capital of the world,” Smith said. “The Olympics are coming back here,” he said — though the International Olympic Committee has not yet made that decision on Salt Lake City’s 2030 Olympic bid. “And with 7 million people coming in every year for winter sports, almost every single winter sports is headquartered right here within 20 minutes of Salt Lake City one way or another.”

How passionate are Utah fans about hockey?

Would Utahns care about hockey? Smith says his social media responses say “yes.”

“I’ve got a pretty good read on where fans are with social media, obviously, because I get blown up all the time, like ‘Bring hockey, bring hockey,’ like ‘We want it, we want it, I’m buying season tickets!,” Smith said. He also cited near-sellout crowds for the “Frozen Fury” preseason games, along with the state’s history of hosting the Utah Grizzlies and Salt Lake Golden Eagles teams.

But Smith acknowledged that, “with any new franchise or new platform that comes in, there’s definitely somewhat of an education process.” He said he hoped to grow a young hockey fanbase by establishing a hockey equivalent of Jr. Jazz, where young kids could pick up hockey as easily as they could with basketball and soccer with local franchise support.

“How cool would it be if these kids grew up with the opportunity to jump in, and hockey was an option, right?” Smith said.

On the team’s arena

Smith said that he envisioned hosting games at Vivint Arena for the time being, but acknowledged turning his eyes to a new arena.

“The arena that we have right now is able to put ice down pretty quickly,” Smith said. But he noted “some seat restrictions from where it would be optimal.” Vivint Arena’s hockey setup means that endline seats tower well over the action on the ice, while some seats elsewhere in the arena have sightline issues and difficulties seeing the corner.

Smith cited a “14,000 or 13,500″ capacity figure for possible NHL games at Vivint Arena, though capacity for the last NHL preseason game was 10,400 as the result of ongoing construction in the upper bowl.

“It’s doable, and a good incredible experience,” Smith said. “But there’s definitely, as someone who comes from the experience space, there’s a better experience.”

When asked if he sees a new all-in-one arena in the future, Smith answered. “For sure. Like, if we’re rolling in those two together? That’s no question. And whether that’s in the existing spot or a new spot — I think that’s part of it.”

Smith doesn’t anticipate having trouble finding a location for his new arena: “But the good news is, with some of the land struggles that you see in other places, I think we’re a little more set up for that for whatever reason,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there’s a whole bunch of empty land. It’s just more of this structure of our city and state, there’s a little bit more opportunity in the way that it’s kind of grown out.”

An expansion team or relocation?

Would Smith prefer an expansion team or relocating a previously existing franchise — like the embattled Arizona Coyotes? He says he’s open to either.

“Look, with the existing team and relocation, I think my message has been consistent to (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) and (deputy commissioner Bill Daly) is like, ‘Look, we’re a partner, we’re a willing partner, we’re here. We’re ready. Like, we’re here to help however we can be helpful.’”

The Coyotes’ future plans are still undecided after the city of Tempe, Ariz., turned down a stadium district plan that would have involved some public funding.

But on the other hand, Smith has been excited by the expansion Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights.

“But it’s hard to not look at Seattle and Vegas and go, ‘What an incredible job. ... Holy cow, like that’s the playbook to how to do it.’”

Team name? Team branding?

Smith said he’s received about 7,000 team name ideas — and that he has a few he likes most. But the Smith Entertainment Group hasn’t yet trademarked or decided on anything.

That being said, he said he loves the gear of the teal Seattle Kraken. “The Kraken, they’ve done a phenomenal job, and I like the way they branded it. I mean, you see their stuff everywhere, and that color scheme. Boy, it would be fun.”

On how he’d approach NHL ownership

Smith wants to bring in trusted figures in hockey to run a hypothetical club.

“My first week on the job would be just finding the smartest people I know in hockey — that I feel like would be fun to work with, who are competitive and want to win, and bring them in,” Smith said.

He cited Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper and NHL great Wayne Gretzky as NHL personnel he has good relationships with.

But while he’ll go to established personnel for on-ice decisions, he says the sport shouldn’t be afraid to innovate — and that he’d be a leader in that in ownership meetings.

“I believe that in all sports that we need to really be our own activists in a way and disrupt ourselves,” Smith said. I think we’ve seen it with baseball on the pitch clock. Personally, I think it was way too late. They should have done it earlier. I think you’re seeing it the NBA where we’ve done a play-in tournament.”

“If we ... say hey, what would be the best experience?” Smith asked. “I mean, there’s a line of the integrity of the game. But there’s a lot of sacred cows in a way that really aren’t that sacred. With all of the different hockey leagues and junior hockey leagues and everything else, there’s a lot you can try.”

Smith also said he supports the NBA testing the idea of a midseason tournament, too.

“We’re talking about a midseason tournament to make the regular season games matter more. Because it’s similar about 82 games is a lot. How do you incentivize it?” Smith asked. “I love the idea that we’re just testing it.”

On the future of local television

Smith also got into another topic that will be of high interest to local basketball fans: his approach to the changing local sports television landscape. What will the Jazz do — and how would he handle the similar NHL TV needs?

“Right now, we’re producing jazz games to 40% of our market,” Smith said — a figure far below what Jazz have publicly acknowledged. “Well, I’ve stood up publicly and said, ‘That’s not gonna fly this next year.’ Like, we’re going wall to wall in the state. Three million people, everyone’s gonna have access. If you’ve got rabbit ears on your television, you’re gonna be able to watch the games. That’s super important to me.”

That means a free, over-the-air broadcast for Jazz games. Jazz officials have been reluctant to release a timeline on when they’ll announce their plans for Jazz games next year after their previous channel, AT&T SportsNet, decided to shut down this year.

That would mean less revenue for the Jazz and Smith, but the team’s owner says it’s not his priority.

“We’ll figure out how to offset the revenue contract for that another way. But our players and our coaches and the other team, they’re working way too hard to not have their games be viewed by the masses,” Smith said.

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