This is Ryan Smith’s new ‘Plan A’ for Utah’s NHL arena

Team owner Ryan Smith plans to renovate Delta Center, not build new arena, to host his NHL team.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) People walk on the ice after a press conference announcing a new National Hockey League team owned by Smith Entertainment Group at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2024.

The Delta Center may be hockey’s home for good.

Rather than building a new arena to host his yet-to-be-named NHL team, owner Ryan Smith said Friday he will instead pursue massive reconstructive changes to the Delta Center to make the Utah Jazz arena more hockey friendly.

The Smith Entertainment Group leader said his team is pushing reconstruction plans for the downtown arena that would allow approximately 17,500 seats in a hockey configuration. The Delta Center currently hosts 18,300 fans for basketball.

“We have Plan A, B and C. But there’s only Plan A,” Smith said of his desire to renovate the arena.

Those construction plans would be implemented over multiple summers, the offseason for both NBA and NHL play. Smith said that he believes the stadium will be able to host 16,000 attendees by the time the NHL team plays its first game in October, though approximately 4,000 of those seats will have obstructed views.

The team plans to undergo minor construction this summer — for example, building the hockey teams’ locker rooms. The rest of the reconstruction would wait until future offseasons, and critically, the approval of the city’s tax increase.

SB272, the bill passed by the Utah Legislature this winter and signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox in March, allows Salt Lake City to raise its sales tax by 0.5% to raise funds for the “construction or remodel of a qualified stadium” along with “construction, demolition, modification, or realignment of infrastructure or structures within the project area.” The tax hike would, in the estimation of the Legislature, raise $54 million per year that would go towards repaying bond on the project; over 20 years, it’s a total that sums to over $1 billion.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) SEG owner Ryan Smith, center, laughs as he looks at NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during a press conference announcing a new National Hockey League team owned by Smith Entertainment Group at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2024.

That hike, though, still requires the city council’s approval. First discussions on the increase took place at an April 16 meeting, and the final vote will likely take place in July.

“I’ve been assured by a number of the political leaders that we’ll have no arena drama, and based on where we came from, I’d prefer no arena drama,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, referencing the set of circumstances that pushed the NHL to force Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo to give up his team.

If that tax hike doesn’t pass, Bettman told ESPN700 on Friday that he’s seen a second set of arena plans. “There are a couple of sets of plans which I’ve seen. One is obviously a renovation and a resizing and configuring of this building. And the other is ... a new building,” he said. “But either way, I’m comfortable. There’ll be an arena, major-league standard, 17,000 people for hockey.”

A new arena would likely be built south of Salt Lake City.

The list of attendees at Friday’s news conference indicated political support for the downtown option is high: Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apostle Ronald Rasband, University of Utah President Taylor Randall. Critically, seven of the Salt Lake City council attended, along with several members of the Utah Legislature.

Earlier indications this year from Smith were that the team would seek to build a new stadium that hosts both Utah’s NBA and NHL teams. On Feb. 27, Smith tweeted a rendering of a new arena, which looks very different from the Delta Center, at the center of a downtown entertainment district.

So why was downtown renovation Smith’s current preferred option, the one they’re prioritizing with Bettman and company?

Smith acknowledged that building a new arena further south was his first option.

“It’s pretty easy to build on a blank piece of land down south,” he said. “That was where my head went. SEG does a lot better on 100 acres and 5,000 housing units than it does on two city blocks. I’m only BYU educated, but I get that part.”

But Smith said legislative leaders intervened to keep the Jazz and NHL team downtown.

“Our elected officials,” Smith said, turning to address those in attendance Friday. “I know you guys get dragged every way possible, you guys literally stopped us in the middle of the process and said ‘These both have to be downtown, so go figure out what you have to do.’” The Delta Center remodel plans were the result.

Then, why renovation over construction downtown?

“We really aren’t in a position downtown to just find a lot of land to stage and build a new arena,” Smith said. “You see how hard it is for the (LDS) Church to rebuild what they’re doing, how much land that takes up.”

Smith instead envisioned spending a significant portion of the approved development money on the other aspects of the plan: the entertainment district and plaza outside of the Delta Center. He said the goal is to get housing near the arena for the hockey team’s players to live, along with a substantial public plaza that can act as a medals plaza during the Olympics.

One fear is that construction to accommodate hockey could impact Delta Center’s basketball experience, considered one of the best in the NBA. Before the season ended, Jazz head coach Will Hardy spoke about how he prefers the steep slope of seats in the Delta Center’s current construction.

“The way that our arena is set up with how close the fans are to the court, I always enjoy watching our players interact with the fans. I think that’s pretty unique to our setup.”

Smith and others, though, said that maintaining or improving the arena’s basketball experience was possible.

“We have a lot of work to do so that we can have an arena where we can be proud to host hockey, with the best sightlines and the biggest crowds,” Cox said.