How the NHL moved the Arizona Coyotes to Salt Lake City

Watch as the Arizona Coyotes and the entire staff come to the ice to salute their crowd and take a team photo to finish the season in the Mullett Arena.

It was March 28, 2023, when — following an NBA Board of Governors meeting — Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith dined with Gary Bettman in New York City.

Just 387 days later, Smith owns an NHL team.

Most dinners don’t lead to marriage so quickly. But circumstances brought the two together faster than either believed possible. Smith’s interest created excitement the moment people across the NHL learned about it. He co-founded Qualtrics, which creates customer and employee experience feedback software, in 2002 with brother Jared and father Scott.

It was a huge success. With wife Ashley, he formed Smith Entertainment Group, which bought the NBA’s Utah Jazz in December 2020 for almost $1.7 billion. Thirteen months later, he invested in MLS’s Real Salt Lake. His partner in that acquisition was David Blitzer, co-owner of the New Jersey Devils and now a member of the NHL’s powerful Executive Committee.

That someone with his resume eyed hockey intrigued not only the NHL, but also the NHLPA and others around the sport. When Smith publicly revealed his interest, his passion was hard to ignore. Momentum grew in his favour, and it wasn’t too long before this became a question of “when,” not “if.” 

Smith made it clear his preference was for an expansion team. Just like Qualtrics, he wanted to start something fresh. There was no need to rush. (Salt Lake City, bidding for the 2034 Winter Olympics, was named “preferred partner” by the International Olympic Committee, making it even more likely Salt Lake City is the choice. A decision is expected this summer.) 

This allowed the NHL time to survey the expansion landscape to see if Utah would enter alone or if any other options made sense. With Vegas and Seattle already among the league’s largest revenue generators, why not see what else was out there?

Six weeks after their dinner date, a $2.1-billion development proposed by the Arizona Coyotes was clobbered by voters in Tempe. The plan, which included a new arena, was to stabilize the team’s future in the state. The Coyotes were confident in victory, and defeat was incredibly disappointing.

The organization pivoted, eventually targeting the piece of land it will attempt to purchase at auction on June 27. But: “Things were never the same (after that Tempe loss),” one governor said last weekend. “The league really lost faith.”

Bettman has fought for the Arizona market harder than a momma bear fights for her cubs. But opposition was growing and options were shrinking. Owners and players complained publicly and privately about how ridiculous a look this became for a professional league. At Board of Governors meetings in October and December, Bettman indicated clarity would come in early 2024.

During NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh’s “fall tour” of teams, players were told that if there was no long-term solution by Jan. 1 the Coyotes could move. There definitely were occasions over the past few months that rumours intensified about relocation. But it came in stops and starts, dying down and then heating up. 

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Whatever he was saying privately, Bettman kept calm publicly. At All-Star, as Walsh ripped the situation, Bettman didn’t fire back, simply saying, “(Coyotes owner) Alex Meruelo as recently as last week told me he was certain that he was going to get this done. … I’m both hopeful and reasonably confident he is going to do what he says.”

Meruelo is a fighter. He’s not popular, to say the least, but he’s no pushover. Part of his motivation is to prove that he can get done what so many predict to be impossible — a long-term arena solution. Bettman also knew that if he forcibly extracted Meruelo from the Coyotes, there would be a fight. He did not want a prolonged court battle. This simply couldn’t be a Roman Reigns/Cody Rhodes slobberknocker. Diplomacy was critical.

But Bettman needed a backup plan. An ironclad relocation option. The commissioner kept in contact with Smith, and gauged his interest in the Coyotes. It wasn’t Smith’s ideal desire — at first.

“If the Coyotes weren’t on the rise, with a lot of good young players and prospects, I’m not sure this happens,” one owner said this week.

“That’s fair,” another executive added. “If this was a rebuilding team, or a team headed into one, I don’t know if it works.”

The NHL got queasier as it became clear the auction would be scheduled for late June. There were too many variables. What if Meruelo lost? Even if he won, the earliest the new arena would be ready was fall 2027. Three more years in Mullett Arena appealed to no one — especially the Coyotes players.

In March, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly wanted to know if Smith was in. He said yes. The NHL had its backup plan. Then, they met with Meruelo and President/CEO Xavier Gutierrez, telling them, “It’s time.” The NHL made it clear Meruelo would have the opportunity to win the auction and build a new arena, but this itineration of the Coyotes was done.

The last month/six weeks were a roller coaster. Officially, the Coyotes will be sold directly from Meruelo to Smith, but the two have never spoken. The league brokered the sale, with Meruelo getting $1 billion and the NHL a $200-million relocation fee. Everyone targeted April 18 and 19, after the Coyotes’ final game, but before the playoffs. (The announcement is expected Thursday afternoon, with a media conference in Utah on Friday.)

Under a gag order, Meruelo has yet to publicly discuss the sale, but he received a five-year exclusive window to prove he can build an arena to bring back the Coyotes. It starts with winning the auction on June 27. Full payment must follow 30 days later. He keeps the intellectual property and the business operations. He also asked for — and apparently received — observer status on the Board of Governors, even though he’s no longer an owner of a team. Some sources have indicated that if he accomplishes everything asked of him, he gets Coyotes 2.0, as long as he returns the $1 billion. On Thursday the league confirmed Meruelo is still approved as an NHL owner and does not need any new clearance.

There are some guardrails — timelines he must reach. Bettman told Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron that Meruelo’s ownership of the now-inactive team is not transferable. (Apparently, there are limits to the percentages he can offer to any minority partners in the team and/or a new arena.)

It is believed, however, Meruelo was surprisingly emotional about selling the Coyotes’ hockey operations, and on Thursday made that very clear to his peers. 

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One of the challenges over the past month was that, as talks with Smith (through the league) hit rough patches — these negotiations always do — Meruelo reached out to other prospective buyers on his own, only to be reminded he couldn’t sell the team without Board approval. And if Bettman didn’t support whatever Meruelo tried, he wasn’t getting Board approval.

It’s also very clear from watching Wednesday’s finale that Meruelo is extremely unpopular among Arizona’s fans. How on Earth does he change that? And if he can’t, how on Earth can he succeed in trying again?

The NHL will be back in Arizona. Count on it. Whether it is Meruelo, or someone else, Bettman believes this market is too important to abandon. “If you build it they will come.” Next time, it will be built in the proper place. 

As for Smith, he wanted things done as quickly as possible, because naturally there is a lot of work to do. But he also had to be firm: He wasn’t signing any agreement he was uncomfortable with. He is thrilled to join the NHL, but unwilling to accept anything he considered unfair to do so.

According to multiple sources, after a lot of work, everyone got there on Wednesday.

So, where do we go from here? Players have an end-of-season party scheduled for Las Vegas this weekend. Assuming approval arrives as expected, it’s believed Smith is planning to meet with them Thursday after it’s announced. The way this unfolded shell-shocked the current Coyotes. They were warned two weeks ago that relocation was a reality, but it didn’t sink in, largely because the team continued to push the “Win the Auction, Set Up Our Future” narrative. Because those players signed to play in Arizona and wanted to stay there, they wished to believe that outcome.

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It led to some real hard feelings among current staff and players — about who knew, who told them the truth and who lied to them. As they left Vancouver for Edmonton last week, head coach Andre Tourigny exploded during a phone call, demanding answers for his staff and players.

Smith is ready for this challenge. He’s going to tell them that the underfunded days are over. That they’re in it to win it. He’s confident in his ability to prove this is a great thing for them. A proper relocation of players and personnel is of high importance, as is the opportunity to visit Utah as early as next week.

GM Bill Armstrong and Tourigny will be kept. It is possible Utah will add to hockey operations, but how exactly that will work is unknown at this time.

Smith is committed to upgrading Delta Centre, which currently is not perfect for hockey. He undoubtedly will discuss this on Friday, but it is possible he considers a massive multi-phase renovation of the current facility. That’s on the table. Whether total reno or new arena somewhere down the road, he’s going all-in. Practice facility plans and upgrades are on the radar, too.

The name? There were multiple reports after the official announcement that the team may not have anything official in time for 2024-25. Utah knows it’s got to get this right, and will take time to do so. Just shows you how rushed everything was.

There’s a lot of work to do. But Smith wants this challenge, and he eagerly starts it on Thursday.

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