Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith unveil bid to build new arena, bring NHL team to Utah

The Smith Entertainment Group has long expressed interest in bringing major league hockey to the state. On Wednesday, SEG formally submitted its bid.

(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.

For about a year now, Smith Entertainment Group and the National Hockey League have been publicly flirting with one another — with Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith stating his desire for hockey in Utah, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledging the interest.

On Wednesday, Smith officially proposed.

SEG has formally requested the NHL “initiate an expansion process” that would bring another hockey franchise to Utah. That proposal includes plans to build a new arena in Utah.

The Smith group has had conversations with NHL leadership over the last few months that have recently accelerated the process. Still, it’s not clear if or when the NHL would choose to come to Utah — the decision on whether to expand the league is ultimately made by the 32 NHL owners. SEG’s public announcement Wednesday, though, shows the group is confident in earning a team.

In particular, the group says that it would be immediately able to host an NHL team in Salt Lake City, using the Delta Center before building a new arena that would be “designed for professional and Olympic hockey.”

“SEG envisions a near future where the NHL will thrive in Utah, and we are 100% focused on making this happen as soon as possible,” Smith said in a statement. “We are passionate about sports and entertainment in the state and are committed to providing premium sports and entertainment experiences for the people of Utah and visitors from around the world. We are ready to welcome the NHL and are confident that the time and attention being spent by all parties will bring one of the most exciting and dynamic leagues in the world to our community on a permanent basis.”

The NHL responded with their own supportive statement later Wednesday morning.

“The NHL appreciates the interest expressed by Smith Entertainment Group to bring NHL hockey to Utah. During conversations over the course of the past two years, we have been impressed by Ryan and Ashley Smith’s commitment to their community and their passion and vision for Utah, not only as a hockey market, but as a preeminent sports and entertainment destination. Utah is a promising market, and we look forward to continuing our discussions.”

In its bid for the team, the Smith group touts Utah’s Olympic history and future likely status as host of the 2034 Olympic Games as key reasons to bring professional hockey to the area. Utah’s relatively strong economy, young population, and reputation for passionate sports fans are also noted as attractive points.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Youth hockey teams practice on the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval, Nov. 16, 2021.

“With the Olympic bid underway, our long-standing reputation as one of the greatest winter sports capitals in the world, and with the proven leadership of Ryan and Ashley Smith and SEG in our community, I am extremely optimistic about the future of Utah,” Gov. Spencer Cox said in the statement.

SEG officials say they’re open to either an expansion franchise or being a landing spot for a relocated one. The Arizona Coyotes have recently struggled with finding an arena to play in, currently hosting its home games at the 5,000-seat Mullett Arena on the campus of Arizona State University. But Bettman, reports say, has been focused on trying to keep the Coyotes in the Phoenix area.

Meanwhile, a potential arena for an Atlanta-based expansion team is progressing “ahead full speed with the design moving quickly and interviews for builders taking place,” according to ESPN’s Kevin Weekes. Other potential expansion cities mentioned by Bettman include Quebec City and Houston.

The first public word of Smith’s interest in the NHL came in 2021, when Canada’s SportsNet reported that Smith had been an interested bidder in the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins. It wasn’t until last March that Smith had dinner with Bettman, following an NBA Board of Governors meeting in New York City.

After that meeting was reported, though, Smith publicly became vocal about his desire to bring a hockey team to Utah. In April, Smith said the pursuit of a local NHL team was “in motion.” In June, he went on SportsNet’s 32 Thoughts hockey podcast to promote the idea of the league’s either expansion or move to Utah.

“Hockey,” Smith said then, 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.”

But in which building? West Valley City’s Maverik Center wasn’t ever seriously considered. The Delta Center was primarily designed around basketball play, with its capacity shrinking to around 14,000 in a hockey configuration. Sightlines and lighting there are subpar for the NHL.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Kings fans celebrate the Kings' 4-3 preseason win in overtime against the San Jose Sharks at the Delta Center, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

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

Last year, Smith Entertainment Group officials enquired about putting an arena at The Point, the land development replacing the old Utah State Prison at the point of the mountain area in Draper.

“The question essentially from that group was, ‘Is this a possibility, could this work here?’” Point co-chair Lowry Snow said in a meeting with The Tribune editorial board in December. “We said there is a process that everyone has to go through that would like to develop or offer development on this piece,” Snow said. “If you feel like that this is a project that you’d like The Point to consider ... you can proceed with that process.”

Such a new arena would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s unclear how such an arena would be funded, or whether taxpayers would be asked to support the effort.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City has pushed to be the home of any new arena. About 80 officials and executives from Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, and the Smith Entertainment Group visited Milwaukee in September, touring the site of that city’s “Deer District” development around its new arena, Fiserv Forum.

Salt Lake City Olympic bid officials plan on taking advantage of Smith’s new arena, should it come to fruition.

“With the Olympics all but certain to return to Utah, a new, state-of-the-art, hockey-specific arena would be a huge contribution to our ability to host a world-class Games, including the Women’s and Men’s gold medal hockey games. And bringing professional hockey to Utah will further help cement Utah’s place as a premier destination for winter sports. The Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games is excited to work with SEG on the Olympics and what that will mean for sports and entertainment in Utah long term.”

SEG owns the Utah Jazz, the Delta Center, and has made minority investments in Real Salt Lake and the Utah Royals.