NHL approves Coyotes' move to Utah; Arizona expected to explore expansion club

The Arizona Coyotes' Dylan Guenther skates past fans as players warm up for a game against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
The Arizona Coyotes' Dylan Guenther skates past fans as players warm up for a game against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Coyotes are taking their hockey team to Utah.

As has been expected for months, the NHL Board of Governors voted to approve the sale of the franchise's hockey assets to Ryan and Ashley Smith, owners of the NBA's Utah Jazz, and Smith Entertainment Group (SEG). The group made an official request for an expansion team for Salt Lake City in January but later ceded to the NHL's desire to relocate the Coyotes from Arizona.

The team will play in the Delta Center, currently the Jazz's home arena. However, the NHL wants renovations to make the facility more hockey-friendly — especially if the club ends up playing there permanently. A new arena was part of SEG's expansion team proposal, and it would also be used for a likely Winter Olympics in 2034.

“As everyone knows, Utah is a vibrant and thriving state, and we are thrilled to be a part of it,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “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.

“The NHL’s belief in Arizona has never wavered. 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.”

General manager Bill Armstrong reportedly told Coyotes players and staff of the pending sale and move last weekend, when they demanded answers after news leaked to the media.

This is not expected to be the end of the NHL in Arizona. The sale of the Coyotes to SEG is for a reported $1 billion, and the agreement includes a guarantee to current team owner Alex Meruelo for an NHL expansion team if he can build a new arena within the next five years.

Meruelo will maintain business operations with plans for a $3 billion project in north Phoenix. Upon building the new arena and getting the expansion franchise, Meruelo will pay the $1 billion back to the league.

“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,” said Arizona Coyotes Chairman & Governor Alex Meruelo in the NHL 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.”

The Coyotes' final home game in Arizona was a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday, as fans bid farewell to their team. All sides involved wanted the team's sale to take place between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Saturday.

Making the playoffs wasn't a possibility for the Coyotes this season, as they finished 13th in the Western Conference with 77 points (36–41–5). The 2023-24 campaign was the fourth consecutive season in which the team posted a losing record. The Coyotes made the playoffs nine times during their 27 seasons in Arizona.

The move to Utah is the second relocation for the franchise originally known as the Winnipeg Jets. The team began play in Phoenix for the 1996-97 season as part of the NHL's effort to put teams in the West and Southwest regions of the United States.

Attendance has been an issue for the franchise throughout its time in Arizona. The Coyotes originally played in Phoenix's America West Arena, which was designed for basketball and poorly suited to hockey. Those conditions, in addition to an unfavorable lease, led to the team moving to an arena in nearby Glendale in 2005.

However, Glendale city officials and the Coyotes could never reach an agreement at Gila River Arena that was suitable to both sides, with several potential ownership changes and rumors of relocation to markets including Seattle and Houston. With dwindling attendance, unpaid bills and taxes leading to a failure to reach a long-term lease with the team, Glendale terminated the Coyotes' lease, citing a desire to book different events (especially concerts) at Gila River.

From there, the Coyotes were left scrambling to find a new home in Arizona. Plans to build a new arena and surrounding complex in Tempe fell through when proposals were voted down. That left the team to play in Mallett Arena on the Arizona State campus.

The 5,000-seat facility is suitable for college hockey but well below the capacity expected for an NHL team, despite renovations made to accommodate professional players. Playing in such a small arena was never going to be sustainable for long-term success and in turn fueled the ambition to find a new home for the franchise.

With Utah seeking an NHL club, a deal seemed inevitable. The pressing question after the move could be choosing a new name for the team — Black Diamonds appears to be a popular one on social media — while Meruelo retains the Coyotes' name and logo for Arizona's expansion club.

Don't expect Utah to rush launching a new nickname and mascot for next season. The team wants to make sure it gets those right for the region and its fans.

"It will 100 percent be 'Utah,' and then it will be 'Utah Something,’' obviously," Smith said in the NHL's official press release. "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."