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Here's why the NHL will work in Salt Lake City

Delta Center in Salt Lake City Delta Center in Salt Lake City - The Canadian Press

As your resident American hockey writer here at TSN, I’m minimally qualified to discuss which southern markets may make sense for expansion and relocation in the National Hockey League – and no more than that.

But by sheer coincidence, NHL expansion and relocation has followed me around the U.S.

I spent years in Phoenix during my undergraduate studies (go Sun Devils), close to the endless financial and operational challenges that beleaguered the Arizona Coyotes organization.

Then I spent several years working in Las Vegas, and was there when the NHL announced its 31st franchise – a decision I was exceptionally, perhaps even brazenly bullish on for a variety of reasons at the time. That bet has been perhaps the best of Gary Bettman’s tenure, no pun intended.  

I’ve spent the past couple of years living in Salt Lake City, Utah – the presumed next home of an NHL franchise by way of the Coyotes relocation. It’s a relocation I thought was likely some months back. The rationale was simple: The NHL sees a safe haven at minimum and a possible gold mine in Utah, and it is solving a two-decade-long problem in the process.

When it comes to pro hockey, I believe that Salt Lake will be Vegas, not Phoenix, which is great news for the league. Here are four critical reasons why:     

1. The market makes sense

Let’s get one argument out of the way, and that’s the size and scale of Salt Lake City as a market. This came up as a bit of a canard during the Vegas expansion, where far too many people were fixated on the population of the city itself, and not the broader market.

The same is true here: Salt Lake City may have just a quarter of a million residents, but Salt Lake County is five times the size:


Add neighboring Utah County – a 30-minute drive from the Salt Lake City downtown area for many – and you’re talking about a population base close to two million residents.


Even by traditional market research, Salt Lake City is sandwiched directly between St. Louis, Nashville, and Pittsburgh. You may be familiar with those markets.

2. The area is booming economically

The state of Utah proper, driven heavily by the population density in Salt Lake County and Utah County, are economically cruising. The annual U.S. News & World Report graded Utah as the No. 1 state in the country, buoyed heavily by the best overall economy in the country, a combination of heavy sustained growth and minimal unemployment.

The NHL’s business model remains heavily reliant on gate revenues, which is why playing in a college arena was untenable over the long term. These economic indicators of the population in and around the Salt Lake area are positive.

3. Marginal competition and a shared home

When Vegas expansion was being considered, there were three extraordinarily compelling arguments in its favour. First, the hypergrowth of the city. Second, the colossal tourism draw of the market (more on this later). Third, the fact the NHL would be the first of the big four North American sports leagues to move into the city.

There is marginal competition in Salt Lake City, with just one big four sports franchise in the form of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Here there is upside and opportunity. The Coyotes – a singular tenant in Phoenix – were embroiled in a never-ending saga of chasing arena financing that never materialized in locations that never materialized across all of Phoenix.

In Salt Lake, there’s already a home in place in the form of The Delta Center – the home of the Jazz, with a historically loyal fan base when it comes to attendance, even in down years. While the arena is not optimally built for hockey, it’s believed it can seat up to 14,000 fans. Far from optimal and likely a short-term solution, but also not far off from the 15,300 maximum capacity at Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg.

It could have been timed better, but the arena seems a temporary issue. Jazz owner Ryan Smith now has ammunition for a new, dual-tenant arena – something much more financially palatable because of the doubling (at minimum) of home events.

The Jazz were already pursuing, at minimum, renovations for the Delta Center. Now it’s full steam ahead on a sports and entertainment district that has credible financial backing.

4. Southern expansion, but in the ultimate winter sports city

There were debates about how strong the market would be, but a gate-driven league like the NHL knew in Vegas it had a city with five-star-calibre tourism that makes it a massive draw for out-of-market fans.

Salt Lake City pales in comparison to Vegas on that front, yet there are obvious parallels. The area draws huge numbers of out-of-state skiers and snowboarders during the winter months, all looking to chase “The Greatest Snow on Earth.”

The size of that tourism is consequential: 2022 estimates had revenues in excess of $12-billion dollars. Those visitors now have a second nightly entertainment option coming to the downtown.

There’s a reason Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, and there’s a reason it will likely win the bid to host the 2034 Winter Olympics. And make no mistake, that thought has crossed the NHL’s mind.

It will take time…

The indicators may be very encouraging, but they are just indicators. We are still talking about a franchise being relocated in rapid fashion, into a city with limited (the city does house the ECHL Utah Grizzlies) exposure to the league and into an arena that’s not viable over the long term.

The youth participation rate in hockey is small, as is the number of ice rinks in the area. Building that out will take time, just as it did in Phoenix.

And though the core of this young Coyotes lineup has been impressively competitive, this is an organization that has struggled to ice competitive hockey teams for some time. That’s not easy to unwind.

But this is a market that makes complete sense for the league, and it’s a city I put ahead of all others, save for Houston, a year ago in the pecking order. It will take time to foster, but compared to where they are coming from, I think the NHL is finally relieved.

And no, I am not moving to Quebec City.