Salt Lake skyline

It’s been more than 22 years since the Olympic cauldron was extinguished at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City and the surrounding area having lived a magical time during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

That the symbolic flame long ago flickered out did little to cool hockey enthusiasm here. But who back then would have guessed it would be on an NHL rink that the next elite-game puck would be dropped in this mountain-curtained city?

On Thursday, that became a reality when the NHL Board of Governors approved a the establishing of an NHL franchise in Utah starting next season. The Arizona franchise will become inactive, with an opportunity for Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo to reactivate should he build a suitable arena within five years. 

You’ll be hard-pressed to name a more impressive hat trick than the 2002 Winter Olympics, the transplanted Arizona Coyotes arriving in 2024-25, and quite likely the 2034 Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City last November named the preferred host by the International Olympic Committee.

Dave Soutter, a Salt Lake City native who has played recreationally, coached at various levels and worked with the minor-pro Salt Lake Golden Eagles and Utah Grizzlies, fondly recalls the fabulous hockey that was played during the 17-day quadrennial multisport festival in 2002, Canada’s men’s and women’s teams each winning Olympic gold in championship games against the U.S.

Salt Lake Soutter

Lifelong Salt Lake City hockey fan Dave Soutter with some of his cherished memorabilia. The Salt Lake Golden Eagles sweaters left and right are in fact old California Golden Seals hand-me-downs, “Seals” removed and “Eagles” (the Seals’ 1972-76 Western Hockey League affiliate) stitched onto the chest. Soutter is wearing the original Golden Eagles design.

Soutter was closer to the action than most, a scorekeeper for some of the five-ring circus Olympic games played at E Center and Peaks Ice Arena in Provo, 45 miles to the south. He recalls writing lineups by hand, to complement those produced by computer, and mingling with many of the world’s best players and their coaches.

Now, 22 years later, Soutter and a great many others are eager to embrace hockey of the highest caliber again or for the first time.

“I’ve always been optimistic, I’ve always felt that [Utah] has had a pretty solid core base of hockey fans,” the 66-year-old said.

“It’s hard to quantify how many but when the (NBA’s) Utah Jazz moved to Salt Lake in 1979 (relocated from New Orleans), there were a lot of nights when the Golden Eagles outdrew basketball. There was a pretty strong base at that time. Even today, a lot of fans are simmering, under the lid, ready for hockey.

Utah Lewis

Los Angeles Kings forward Trevor Lewis with then-Utah Governor Gary Herbert following the Kings’ 2014 Stanley Cup championship win. Lewis, Steve Konowalchuk, Dylan Olsen and goalie Richard Bachman are the four NHL players all-time who list Salt Lake City as their hometown.

“I’ve always thought we could get a team but the big ‘if’ for me was that it had to be the right ownership. There was never anyone really interested in bringing the NHL to Utah until just recently when Ryan and Ashley Smith (owners of the Utah Jazz and now the Utah hockey team) started talking about it.

“People who know something about Ryan and Ashley say that they are driven. If they want to make something happen, they’ll make it happen. There’s a lot of confidence that he can make an NHL team a successful franchise. There’s definitely a buzz.”

The NHL establishing a team in Utah for the 2024-25 season will add another chapter to the rich hockey history of the state.

Fans who cheered the Golden Eagles during their three-league 1969-94 lifetime, and since 1995 the minor-pro Grizzlies, will have a new team in town, and skating into the city on hockey’s grandest stage will be the greatest players in the world.

Salt Lake City Tribune

The Oct. 10, 1969 Sports section front page of the Salt Lake Tribune, trumpeting the Western Hockey League Golden Eagles’ first game.

Utah owes its pro hockey existence to the late Dan Meyer, a self-made success in the California oil business who moved there in 1957, opened his own oil and mining consulting business and founded the Golden Eagles in June 1968.

The son of Swiss immigrants, he energetically ran virtually every facet of the team until his death at age 45 in Bloomington, Minnesota, where he was attending the NHL’s 25th All-Star Game.

Salt Lake City has played host to seven preseason NHL games since 1998 -- two at the E Center, one of the 2002 Olympic rinks; and five at the Vivint Arena (now Delta Center), most recently a 4-3 overtime win for the Los Angeles Kings against the San Jose Sharks last October.

The Kings have enjoyed their visits to Utah, playing in all seven preseason games with a 5-2 record.

Soutter spoke passionately about the area’s love of hockey in an April 6 op-ed column for the Salt Lake Tribune.

Salt Lake Delta Center 1

The Los Angeles Kings in action against the San Jose Sharks during their Oct. 5, 2023 preseason game at Delta Center in Salt Lake City.

“The arrival of pro hockey in 1969 spawned incredible growth in Utah amateur hockey,” he wrote. “In 1970, roughly 200 amateur players were registered in Utah, says Bob Shegrud, whose father, Weldon Shegrud, served for several years on the Salt Lake Amateur Hockey Association board.

“In 2022-23, Utah had 4,041 players registered in youth, high school and senior-level amateur hockey. Utah today has 16 ice sheets compared to only two in the early 1970s. Several amateur youth and adult hockey leagues operate with dozens of teams in the state.”

Soutter charted Utah’s four competitive junior teams, for players 20 years of age and under, and four club-level college teams.

“Ice time is in great demand at every rink in the state, several local ice rink managers have told me,” he wrote. “Add to that the popularity of amateur hockey in Idaho and Wyoming, and the potential fan base for a Utah-based NHL team appears very strong.”

Salt Lake Bettman 2002

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a 2002 Olympic Winter Games news conference in Salt Lake City.

In conversation, Soutter spoke of Salt Lake City’s young, mid-30s demographic “and enough corporate sponsorship that would help pave the way to making an NHL team a success.

“Lots of fans come down to see Grizzlies games from western Wyoming and southern Idaho. Drive around town and in Utah, of all places, you’ll see Detroit Red Wings and L.A. Kings stickers in car windows.

“Lots of people drive to Denver to watch Avalanche games, many go to Las Vegas. I’ve got friends here who are huge fans of the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

“There are a lot of hockey fans here and not just the people who are involved directly in playing or coaching. The whole key is Ryan and Ashley Smith because without them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The team will grow from Utah roots planted 55 years ago with the arrival of the expansion Golden Eagles of the Western Hockey League.

Salt Lake Delta Center 2

A young fan celebrates a Los Angeles Kings goal during the team’s Oct. 5, 2023 preseason game against the San Jose Sharks at Delta Center in Salt Lake City.

Coverage of that team was delightful in its earliest days. A story in the June 4, 1969, Deseret News related the tale of a 15-year-old paperboy who had convinced his parents to let him withdraw $60 from his bank account to cover most of a season ticket.

Laurie Hansen arrived at the team office to fork over three $20 bills and another $12 in quarters, dimes and nickels for his tickets, putting him in the Salt Palace on Oct. 10, 1969, for the Golden Eagles’ historic first game.

And he was a happy fan, among the 6,023 in attendance, four-game 1966 Boston Bruins forward Ted Hodgson scoring a hat trick in the home team’s 4-2 win against the San Diego Gulls.

A month before the team’s opener, the Deseret News featured Nita Meyer and Jackie Kinasewich, respectively the wives of team founder/owner/president Dan Meyer and GM/coach Ray Kinasewich.

On the front page of the newspaper’s “World of Women” section, holding a poster featuring the 1969-70 schedule, they happily reported that two teenage daughters were busy all over town putting up Golden Eagles notices while two young sons were preparing to keep statistics in the press box.

Salt Lake Sakic Deadmarsh

Team Canada’s Joe Sakic (19) eludes the check of Team USA’s Adam Deadmarsh during the gold-medal game of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games at E Center in Salt Lake City.

Ownership of the team won’t be taping posters to downtown street lights to spread the word, and the stats-keepers won’t be youngsters scribbling on pads.

The perfect ribbon on this package would have been former Deseret News paperboy Laurie Hansen sitting in Delta Center next fall, NHL hockey arriving in the state where he emptied his bank account in 1969 to become a charter season-ticket holder of the Golden Eagles.

Sadly, Hansen died in 2017 at age 62, but surely his spirit will be in the arena come October when a new day dawns for hockey in Utah.

Top photo: A drone photo of the Salt Lake City skyline with the Wasatch Range mountains on the horizon.

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