Ryan Smith has some hockey roots. He played roller hockey growing up and can skate a little bit. He used to watch the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, a minor league hockey team from 1969-94, and wear Los Angeles Kings gear during the Wayne Gretzky era of 1988-96.

But that isn’t why he and his wife, Ashley, are bringing the NHL to Utah.

Smith said the NHL has piqued his interest more in recent years, making him say, “You know what? I would bet on hockey (flourishing) for sure. Like, everyone knows playoff hockey, live hockey, there’s not another sporting event like it.”

The Smiths own the Utah Jazz of the NBA, and Smith Entertainment Group owns Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer with David Blitzer, who has equity in several sports franchises and is managing partner of the New Jersey Devils.

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“He’s like, ‘My favorite place in the world is up against the glass in New Jersey. Of any sporting event, anything, that’s my happy spot,’” Smith said. “And I’m like, ‘Wow.’ And we’ve talked through that.”

Smith said he has talked with the NHL about an expansion team for probably two years. Then an opportunity presented itself -- not an expansion, not a relocation, but something unique.

The Arizona Coyotes spent two seasons playing at Mullett Arena, a 4,600-seat facility intended to be a temporary home until they built a permanent one. The situation remains uncertain, and a new arena is years away, at best.

And so, the NHL Board of Governors voted Thursday to establish a team in Utah. The Smiths purchased the contracts of Arizona executives, coaches and players. The team will play in Salt Lake City at Delta Center, home of the Jazz since 1991-92.

Utah is coming to the National Hockey League

The Arizona franchise became inactive. Arizona owner Alex Meruelo can reactivate it if he builds a suitable arena within five years.

“I think we look at it and say, ‘Hey, look, we can be helpful,’” Smith said. “I think there’s ways where expansion would be much easier and much better. I think there’s also ways that this is much better. There’s infrastructure built. There’s a roster. There are assets. So, look, we can all talk about what the better option is five years from now, but Utah’s ready for a team. Let’s go.”

Smith touched on key topics in an interview:

The market

Utah has a hockey history. The Golden Eagles played in the Western Hockey League from 1969-74, Central Hockey League from 1974-84 and International Hockey League from 1984-94. Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, featuring NHL players. The original Utah Grizzlies played in the IHL from 1995-2001 and American Hockey League from 2001-05. The current Utah Grizzlies have played in the ECHL since 2005-06.

When the original Grizzlies won the Turner Cup in 1996, they drew 17,381 fans to Delta Center for the fourth and final game against the Orlando Solar Bears. That was a minor league record at the time. Salt Lake City has hosted seven NHL preseason games since 1998, including five at Delta Center. The Jazz continued to draw well this season even though they finished 12th in the Western Conference.

“The one thing I do know about Utah is, people show up,” Smith said. “We just had the NCAA Tournament here for basketball, and the entire arena was full. It’s just different. It’s just different here. I mean, [the Jazz have] 291 straight sellout games at the Delta Center. I think every concert that’s come into town has sold out. It’s just what we do. We show up. I have a lot of faith in the people of Utah.”

New owner Ryan Smith talks on new franchise in Utah

Smith said Utah plans to build community rinks, the way the Vegas Golden Knights did after joining the NHL in 2017-18 and the Seattle Kraken did after joining the League in 2021-22.

“One hundred percent,” Smith said. “Actually, that’s probably some of the most exciting parts of this for me, because I just know it’s going to work, and I know people are going to want that.

“Everyone I know from a team standpoint has played team hockey, youth hockey. … They’re not only playing a sport, but they’re learning all the life lessons, and that’s why everyone I meet is like, ‘I played hockey growing up.’ They, like, evangelize about it. And you know, I mean, no offense, but you don’t see that with a lot of other sports.”

The arena

Delta Center was built for basketball and seats 18,306 for NBA games. It will need to be renovated for NHL games in the short term.

“It’s probably the tightest bowl in the NBA,” Smith said. “It’s an envy of the NBA for basketball. Right now, we’ve got 12,000 perfect seats (for hockey) that kind of come in where the sight lines are beautiful and another 6,000 where we can go have fun with who we bring in and how we do that, because it’s a little more compromised from a viewing standpoint.

“But you know, I was just looking at the plans to be able to get to [about 17,500] on hockey without ruining the slope and having to really, like, extract the bowl using new technology that’s available both from seating and the way that we can turn from basketball to hockey, which is super exciting.”

NHL Now on the approval of a franchise in Utah

Smith said he has spoken to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver about doing something different.

“We want to actually use our arena and really spend time creating the best dual-sport arena that exists out there, because we want to keep people as close as we possibly can or as vertical as we possibly can to watch both games,” Smith said. “… How do we maintain that while making it really cool and innovative for hockey? And it’s super fun and challenging, but we’re going to do it.”

The brand

Smith said “Utah” will be on the front of the jerseys next season. The team will take its time to determine its name, logos and colors.

“It will 100 percent be ‘Utah,’ and then it will be ‘Utah Something,’ obviously,” he said. “I don’t think given this timeline that we’re going to have time -- or nor should we rush with everything else that’s going on -- to go force what that is in the next three months.”

Smith said the NHL team has contracted with Doubleday & Cartwright, an independent creative studio that has worked on brand identity with pro sports teams and companies like Apple and Nike.

“They’ve done so many of these identities,” he said. “They’re the best on the planet. They’re there to go run that process. I’m not going to rush them. Like, it’s really important that we’re not saying, ‘Hey, this has to be ready by the fall, especially when it’s going to be ‘Utah Something.’

“So, 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. You get 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.”

How long will that take?

“Look, I don’t think it’s a 24-month process,” he said. “It’s a placeholder, but it’s kind of not a placeholder, because we’re going to be ‘Utah’ either way, right? We have the first part of the name. We don’t have the last.”

The team

Smith was unable to speak to executives, coaches and players before the deal closed.

“I wish I could be calling everyone every minute, working on it,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s just not in the cards. … It’s kind of like you’re sitting on the fence watching, and I also I think there’s a season to be played.”

Smith said the first priority now is to set up everyone in Utah and “make sure that they have a great experience.” Nothing like this has happened there since the Jazz moved from New Orleans in 1979.

“There’s a good roster and a lot of young talent, and we’ve got to onboard those people into Smith Entertainment Group and show them what that means and what that’s like,” he said. “I think that’s a good opportunity for us. [We need to] introduce them to the state of Utah and also bring the community together to receive them, and that’s what we want to do.

“I mean, I think they’ve been in a spot where it’s been a little tricky, and I think we have a chance as a community to show this is a moment. We haven’t had a team come here since 1979 of this scale. This is a ‘Where were you when this happened?’ moment.”

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