NHL board approves relocation of Arizona Coyotes to Utah

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joins the Hockey Central to detail why he thought Salt Lake City was appropriate target for a relocation, why Smith Group is a good fit as the owner, and the future of the NHL in Arizona

After two seasons of uncertainty in location limbo, the Arizona Coyotes are officially relocating to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The NHL announced the move Thursday, following an emotional final game at Mullett Arena on Wednesday night.

The move, which has been an open secret for a week, was officially approved by the NHL Board of Governors after a vote on Thursday afternoon.

“The NHL’s belief in Arizona has never wavered,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “We thank Alex Meruelo for his commitment to the franchise and Arizona, and we fully support his ongoing efforts to secure a new home in the desert for the Coyotes. We also want to acknowledge the loyal hockey fans of Arizona who have supported their team with dedication for nearly three decades while growing the game.”

The team will be purchased by Ryan and Ashley Smith in a $1.2-billion deal brokered by the league. The Smiths are owners of Smith Entertainment Group, whose portfolio includes the NBA’s Utah Jazz and MLS’s Real Salt Lake.

“We expressed our interest publicly with the NHL,” Ryan Smith told The Associated Press. “It’s probably been two years where we’ve said, ‘Hey, look, we really believe Utah can be an incredible hockey town.’ You look at all the demographics, we were just talking about the Olympics and you think about the Olympics coming back. It all kind of made sense.”

Meruelo will retain the Coyotes’ name, logo and trademark, so the Smiths’ group will have to rename the team.

“We’ll start with Utah on the jersey and we’ll figure out the logo and everything else, and what it is that we are, but that’s a one-way door,” Smith said. “You’ve got to do it once. And with this timeline, I think both the league feels better and we feel better to just run the process and then we’ll drop it when we drop it.”

The transaction will see the new Utah hockey franchise purchase the “existing hockey assets — including its full reserve list, roster of players and draft picks and its hockey operations department” from the Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes will then be considered inactive, with a five-year window granted for owner Meruelo to build an arena and reactivate the Arizona franchise.

The Utah hockey team will share the Delta Center with the Jazz until a new rink is built. That project is in the early stages of development ahead of Salt Lake City likely hosting the 2034 Winter Olympics.

“As everyone knows, Utah is a vibrant and thriving state, and we are thrilled to be a part of it,” Bettman said. “We are also delighted to welcome Ashley and Ryan Smith to the NHL family and know they will be great stewards of the game in Utah. We thank them for working so collaboratively with the league to resolve a complex situation in this unprecedented and beneficial way.”

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman previously reported that the players were informed of the move ahead of a game against the Oilers in Edmonton last Friday. The Coyotes closed the season with wins in three of their final four games, including a 5-2 victory on home ice on Wednesday, as rumours of the move swirled.

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The Coyotes have been in turmoil since the conclusion of the 2021-22 season, when the City of Glendale opted not to renew its contract with the team to play at Gila River Arena. Voters then rejected, in early 2023, a proposed entertainment district that would have included an arena in Tempe.

The Coyotes have been playing at Mullett Arena, a rink with a capacity of 4,600 for NHL games on the campus of Arizona State University, for the past two seasons.

Meruelo is expected to enter an auction for a piece of land in North Phoenix, on the border of Scottsdale, in order to privately develop and fund a new arena. That auction is scheduled for June 27 but Friedman reported that while the initial hope was to see how it will play out, the league and its other owners had two concerns: the possibility of losing the auction and that the timeline to develop and build the arena would keep the Coyotes in Mullett Arena for three more seasons.

Thus, negotiations with the Smiths began and the Coyotes are now heading to the mountains of Utah.

“I agree with commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League, that it is simply unfair to continue to have our players, coaches, hockey front office, and the NHL teams they compete against, spend several more years playing in an arena that is not suited for NHL hockey,” Meruelo said in a statement. “But this is not the end for NHL hockey in Arizona. I have negotiated the right to reactivate the team within the next five years, and have retained ownership of the beloved Coyotes name, brand and logo. I remain committed to this community and to building a first-class sports arena and entertainment district without seeking financial support from the public.”

Meruelo also retains ownership of the Tucson Roadrunners, the franchise’s AHL affiliate, and hopes to move them to Mullett Arena, the Coyotes’ temporary home shared with Arizona State University the past two seasons.

Hockey fans weren’t the only ones sorry to see the Coyotes leave. The Arizona Diamondbacks issued a joint statement from managing general partner Ken Kendrick and president, CEO and general partner Derrick Hall:

“The entire Diamondbacks organization is disappointed in the now official news of our NHL team being relocated out of state. We firmly believe that we deserve and can support teams from each of the major sports and are troubled that a solution could not be found for all parties involved. We are sad for all sports fans and all who care so deeply about our community.”

–with files from The Associated Press

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