Salt Lake City officials drafted — but never sent — letter to NHL commissioner seeking Coyotes move

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith has his sights on pro hockey, but hasn’t committed to putting a team in Utah’s capital city.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives her State of the City Address at Woodbine Food Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. City officials are interested in bringing an NHL franchise to Utah's capital.

Salt Lake City leaders want the NHL in Utah’s capital.

According to records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, city officials drafted a proposed letter from Mayor Erin Mendenhall to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in May, hoping to sell the league on moving a team to Salt Lake City.

The letter, however, was never sent.

“After circling up with our partners in this effort, they don’t think it will be helpful to ‘lobby’ the commissioner and may have unintended negative consequences,” Rachel Otto, Mendenhall’s chief of staff, advised in an email obtained by The Tribune. “It sounds like their efforts are going really well and they will pull us in when they are ready/we are needed.”

The unsent letter is another sign that Salt Lake City has been working to attract major league franchises beyond the NBA’s Utah Jazz — and wants them inside the city’s boundaries.

But as Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith continue to express their interest in bringing an NHL team to Utah, all options appear to be on the table.

Asked late last month whether he would look to potentially building a new arena in Salt Lake City’s downtown or another city farther south, Ryan Smith said: “The good news in Utah, I think there’s a lot of optionality. You know, our fan base is growing everywhere. So I think we try to focus on getting the franchise first and then it’s figuring out what the best options are.”

Letter drafted, nixed

Salt Lake City’s drafted letter came in response to the Arizona Coyotes’ failed stadium development vote in Tempe in May. That vote killed a plan that would have led to the construction of a $2.1 billion stadium and entertainment district in the city, $1.9 billion of which would have been privately funded by the team’s owners.

In the wake of the vote, the mayor of Hartford and the governor of Connecticut released a public letter in an effort to lure the Coyotes out of Arizona.

Mendenhall’s staff drafted a similar letter.

“It’s often said that Utah has the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” it begins. “Well, our ice is pretty good, too.

“...I write today to express Salt Lake City’s emphatic interest in welcoming a[n] NHL franchise to Utah’s capital city whether due to relocation or through league expansion. ... We have long been home to the Utah Jazz and support team owners Ryan and Ashley Smith in their desire to bring another professional sports franchise to Salt Lake City.”

(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.

Mendenhall cited the city’s support of the Frozen Fury NHL preseason games and noted she was “confident Salt Lake City will once again welcome the world for a future Winter Olympic Games in either 2030 or 2034.” She also included notes on the city’s “nearly unparalleled quality of life,” the “strongest economy in the nation,” the “newly constructed international airport [that] serves nearly every NHL market with direct flights,” and said that the city’s downtown population was set to double in the next three years.

Mendenhall’s chief of staff ultimately advised to nix the letter.

“I’ve given this some thought and I don’t think we should go this route right now,” Otto wrote on May 21 after “circling up with our partners in this effort.”

Smith was not named in Otto’s letter but has made his desire for an NHL franchise known.

“I’m in close communication with Gary Bettman, and they know our intent,” he said last month. “Timing is everything. And I’m not saying that’s going to be — it could be months, it could be years. But I think that there’s a lot of mutual respect.”

Where will Utah’s arena be?

In 2022, city officials met with Minneapolis-based construction company Mortenson in an effort to bring Major League Baseball to the Power District on the city’s west side; the Big League Utah coalition led by the Larry H. Miller Group of Cos. publicly revealed plans for the same in April.

“If there’s any discussion about a big project happening in the state,” Mendenhall told The Tribune in April, “then I want it to be in Salt Lake City — a big, catalytic investment project like that.”

If an NHL team came to Utah, though, there is a real question about where that team — and potentially the Utah Jazz — would play in the future.

Smith told the Canadian-produced “32 Thoughts” podcast that the team would play its first games at the newly rechristened Delta Center. The arena has a capacity for hockey at around 14,000 right now. That would be the league’s second-smallest arena behind the current home of the Coyotes. In addition, there are sightline issues in putting an NHL rink in the building; it’s difficult to see some parts of the ice from certain seats.

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

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, on the red carpet before the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.

That’s where Smith envisions a new arena — one that could host both NBA and NHL games comfortably.

“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 said.

“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.”

In particular, the Power District is courting the MLB franchise through the Big League Utah project. Meanwhile, Draper Mayor Troy Walker publicly stated his interest in bringing “some major league sports entertainment center” to The Point, the former site of the Utah State Prison, two years ago.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Blake Apgar contributed to this story.

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