‘No arena drama’: Utah owners, Bettman detail plans for NHL venue

Gary Bettman, left, NHL commissioner, and Ryan Smith, co-founder and chairman of Smith Entertainment Group, speak during a news conference to celebrate the awarding of a new NHL team to Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and new Utah NHL owners Ryan and Ashley Smith took to the podium Friday to talk about the franchise heading to Salt Lake City.

It was announced Thursday that Utah will take over the Arizona Coyotes’ hockey operations with the new team heading to the Beehive State. The Coyotes franchise is now inactive, and to become active again will have a five-year window to create a suitable venue for the team to play out of in Arizona.

The issue of the Coyotes’ arena was a major factor for the team’s transition to inactivity, having played out of the 4,600-capacity Mullett Arena for the past two seasons.

Speaking of arenas, the first question asked at Friday’s availability addressed just that, with Ryan Smith being asked what the plans are for the franchise’s new home.

“When we originally started looking at this process the idea was, I’m just going to be honest, just to build a new arena,” Smith said. “President [Stuart] Adams, speaker [Mike] Shultz, governors, mayors, we all came together and just said: ‘What would it take to be downtown and stay downtown?'”

But, after looking at the landscape a bit more, Smith altered his outlook, opting to begin the organization’s tenure at the Delta Center, which is the current home of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

To make the arena hockey friendly, the Smiths looked at ways to optimize the viewing experience for fans and the transition between ice and hardwood.

“I received last week a plan that gets us to about 17,000, 17,500 here inside this arena that does not compromise our incredible basketball experience. I was challenged by both commissioners to look at it differently,” Ryan Smith said. “We’ve been incredibly creative with how we’ve looked at it, we have one of the best basketball arenas on the planet, nothing should change, but we’re using new technology … to be able to turn from hockey to basketball and back and forth.

“I think it’ll be an improvement on the arena. It’ll be an improvement of fan experience.”

Bettman echoed Smith’s sentiment and was relieved to hear the clarity regarding the team’s venue proposals.

“I’ve seen the plans that, in relatively short order, the next couple years progressively, we’ll get (the Delta Center) to 17,000,” Bettman said. “I’ve been assured by a number of the local leaders that we’ll have no arena drama, and based on where we came from, I’d prefer no arena drama.”

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Before inquiries about the venue and other aspects of the new franchise, Bettman took a moment in his opening remarks to explain how thrilled the league is to be in Utah and how grateful he and the league are for new ownership’s efforts in making a deal, on such short notice, possible.

“The NHL in Utah, what a great ring that has to it,” Bettman said. “We, the NHL, are thrilled to be here in Utah and frankly I’m delighted to welcome Utah to the NHL.”

“We had an issue and we needed, on very short order under difficult circumstances, to have the Coyotes become inactive,” Bettman remarked. “We know getting a team up and running under normal circumstances, getting an expansion team up and running with years to plan is hard enough, but what Ryan and Ashley are doing with their organization is extraordinary. …

“We, as a league, are grateful, not just to be here, but that we together have been able to craft a solution that brings a new team to Salt Lake City, but just as importantly fixes an issue the league had and are actually making our league and our game stronger. So for that I am grateful.”

Ryan Smith has high hopes for this new team, and with interest for the hockey buzzing around the city and state, he believes tickets will be sold and heads will be in the arena.

“We want as much demand as we can get … I told the players, we’ll get everyone there the first year it’s your job to keep them there.”

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