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Salt Lake seizes its moment with the NHL team on the road

SALT LAKE CITY — To casual sports fans and those outside northern Utah, it may seem as if an NHL team has fallen into Salt Lake City’s lap in the space of two weeks.

But local organizers say the Arizona Coyotes’ move to Utah is the culmination of a yearslong effort to attract professional hockey and other top sports to the fast-growing capital.

The move announced Thursday marks a coming-of-age moment for Salt Lake City as a pro sports hub in the Mountain West, giving the midsize market its second major professional sports franchise in the 45 years since it welcomed the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

Now it remains to be seen whether the city can generate the same enthusiasm for hockey as it has for basketball — and whether it can provide the stability needed for a team that has moved from place to place in recent years, observers say.

Utah already has plans for a new hockey-specific stadium that could also serve as a major venue for the 2034 Winter Olympics, which the International Olympic Committee is expected to make official this summer. In the meantime, the team will share the Delta Center with the Jazz.

Salt Lake City is also aggressively pursuing an MLB expansion team – which would be home to three of the “Big Four” American leagues – with advanced plans calling for a new baseball stadium. And Utah billionaire Ryan Smith, owner of the Jazz, men’s and women’s professional soccer teams Real Salt Lake and the Utah Royals, and now the new hockey team, has applied to work with the city to share some of to transform the city center into a sports and sports club. entertainment district.

Together, these efforts expand Salt Lake City’s footprint in the sports world and give the famed winter sports destination an opportunity to prove it can support multiple professional teams year-round.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called the Coyotes’ move a “defining moment” in the city’s trajectory that she said unlocks new growth potential. State and municipal leaders have been vocal about leveraging the local love of sports to move the city forward. That strategy has proven successful in other midsize cities, including Las Vegas, which is home to NFL and NHL teams and has an MLB team on the way.

When given the opportunity to host major sporting events, from the 2002 Winter Olympics to last year’s NBA All-Star Game, Salt Lake City has not failed to deliver, said Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of Utah Sports Commission. While the NHL transfer may seem sudden, he said it was made possible by the trust Utah has given industry leaders over the past decades.

“It didn’t fall into our laps,” Robbins said. “What you see is that there is a lot of momentum around what we have been working towards for a long time.”

While several other U.S. and Canadian cities vie for an NHL team, Salt Lake City quickly provided the Coyotes with a “soft landing spot” after years of tumult, said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California.

The Coyotes have bounced between stadiums, most recently in a 5,000-seat arena. Plans for a new hockey stadium may have lured them to Utah, but Carter warned they could end up without a permanent home again if that doesn’t work out, or if Smith’s company can’t generate enough media revenue, ticket sales and sponsorships to last its lifespan of the team.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he wanted to place the Coyotes with trusted owners in a location where they could be “immediately successful.”

“We’ve focused on the fact that this is the kind of owners we want, and this is the kind of community we want to be a part of,” Bettman said Friday.

Hockey fans outside the Beehive State have also wondered whether the moderate metropolis — home to just over 200,000 residents — can sustain a professional team.

Including the suburbs, the greater Salt Lake Valley has a population of nearly 1.26 million and a light rail system that can bring suburbanites within steps of the downtown stadium. Jazz fans have packed the Delta Center for decades, even in the losing years, but time will tell if the basketball bandwagon translates into similar hockey hype.

Early data appears promising for Smith, who said Friday that the team had already collected 22,700 season ticket subscriptions — more than quadrupling the seating capacity in the Coyotes’ current stadium and nearly twice the current capacity of the Delta Center for hockey.

The sport has taken off locally since Salt Lake City began hosting Frozen Fury, an exhibition game before the NHL season, in 2021, Robbins said. The valley is now home to 17 ice rinks, a youth hockey program and a minor league team that set a new average attendance record this season.

For former NHL player Ken Sabourin, who played part of his career in the minors in Salt Lake City, it was “a great place to play” with a big crowd. While he thinks the local infrastructure is in place, he worries that the Coyotes, who are ranked second in their division, aren’t strong enough to captivate their new community.

“It’s a good hockey market; it’s a good sports market,” said the player-turned-analyst. “I think they have the fans. It’s about whether they come out or not.”

photo NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman looks on during a news conference Friday, April 19, 2024, in Salt Lake City about the Arizona Coyotes franchise’s move to Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
photo FILE – Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner (90) makes a save against Los Angeles Kings center Gabriel Vilardi (13) during the first period of an NHL hockey preseason game on Sept. 30, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Hockey has taken off locally since Salt Lake City began hosting Frozen Fury, an NHL preseason exhibition game, in 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
photo The hockey rink at the Delta Center will have new NHL logos on Friday, April 19, 2024 in Salt Lake City. The NHL team that moves from Arizona to Salt Lake City will initially be known as Utah. New owner Ryan Smith says the name will start with Utah and he doesn’t want to rush the process of rebranding the franchise if it moves. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
photo Julie Brian, center, of Layton, Utah, celebrates as the Ogden Mustangs score against the Utah Outliers during the Mountain Division Championship game on Wednesday, April 17, 2024 in West Valley City, Utah. It may seem like an NHL team just fell into Salt Lake City’s lap. But local organizers say the Arizona Coyotes’ move to Utah is the culmination of a years-long effort to attract professional hockey and other top sports to the capital. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
photo NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, left, and Ryan Smith, co-founder and chairman of Smith Entertainment Group, speak during a news conference Friday, April 19, 2024, in Salt Lake City about the relocation of the Arizona Coyotes franchise to Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
photo FILE – Signs celebrating Utah’s award of a new NHL team are displayed at the Delta Center, Friday, April 19, 2024, in Salt Lake City. It may seem like an NHL team just fell into Salt Lake City’s lap. But local organizers say the Arizona Coyotes’ move to Utah is the culmination of a years-long effort to attract professional hockey and other top sports to the capital. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
photo FILE – Workers put up signs to celebrate the awarding of a new NHL team to Utah at the Delta Center on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Salt Lake City. It may seem like an NHL team just fell into Salt Lake City’s lap. But local organizers say the Arizona Coyotes’ move to Utah is the culmination of a years-long effort to attract professional hockey and other top sports to the capital. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
photo FILE – Workers put up signs to celebrate the awarding of a new NHL team to Utah at the Delta Center on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Salt Lake City. It may seem like an NHL team just fell into Salt Lake City’s lap. But local organizers say the Arizona Coyotes’ move to Utah is the culmination of a years-long effort to attract professional hockey and other top sports to the capital. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
photo The hockey rink at the Delta Center will have new NHL logos on Friday, April 19, 2024 in Salt Lake City. The NHL team that moves from Arizona to Salt Lake City will initially be known as Utah. New owner Ryan Smith says the name will start with Utah and he doesn’t want to rush the process of rebranding the franchise if it moves. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)