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Arizona Coyotes players informed team is expected to move to Salt Lake City, AP source says

Arizona Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka (70) during an NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb) Arizona Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka (70) during an NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
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Arizona Coyotes players have been informed the NHL club is expected to relocate to Salt Lake City, a person with knowledge of the meeting said Friday night.

General manager Bill Armstrong flew to Edmonton, Alberta, to tell players about the team’s potential move to Utah before its game against the Oilers, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.

Players and officials could visit Salt Lake City next week, possibly as soon as after the season finale Wednesday, which could be the final game at 5,000-seat Mullett Arena in Tempe.

Coyotes players were not available following Friday night's 3-2 overtime win over Edmonton and coach Andre Tourigny said he would only take questions about the game.

“This team has been through a lot of adversity," Tourigny said. “The first time the rumor came around, we didn't manage it well and we shoot ourselves in the foot, went on a 14-game losing streak. Our guys are showing how proud they are, how much they care for each other and how much they want to have success with each other. It's cool to feel that, cool to see them cheering each other and pushing in the same direction like that.”

FILE - The marquee in front of the Energy Solutions Arena, formerly the Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz, shows conflicting signage at dusk before a game against the Toronto Raptors, Monday, Nov. 20, 2006, in Salt Lake City. Preparations are being made in case an NHL team is in Salt Lake City sooner than later. Prospective owner Ryan Smith earlier this week solicited public suggestions for a team name. All this comes as the Arizona Coyotes are hoping to win a land auction for a site to build a new arena in the city of Phoenix. (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson, File)

The news comes amid buzz that Ryan Smith, owner of the NBA's Utah Jazz, has been working to acquire an NHL team, a move that could include the league buying the Coyotes from Alex Meruelo and flipping it. Smith earlier this week solicited name ideas for a possible team in Salt Lake City, and the league has been working on two different drafts of the 2024-25 schedule based on whether the franchise is playing in Arizona or Utah.

The Smith Entertainment Group in January said was interested in bringing a hockey team to Salt Lake City and had the immediate ability to facilitate that. The team would play in the Delta Center until a new arena could be built. That announcement included the request to initiate an expansion process.

But it also was conspicuously timed near the midway point of the season and without a long-term home for the Coyotes in Arizona. Last year, an arena referendum in Tempe failed, and in recent weeks the team said it was committed to winning a land auction for a potential arena site in Phoenix.

Even if that auction succeeds, it could lead the NHL back to the desert later this decade. NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh had repeatedly expressed concerns about the current situation, playing in a small arena on Arizona State's campus, which was one possible home for the team until a new building was constructed.

Now the team is likely headed to its third location since joining the league from the World Hockey Association in 1979. Originally the Winnipeg Jets, the club was sold to a Phoenix-area ownership group led by the Suns’ Jerry Colangelo in 1996, moved to Arizona and was rebranded as the Coyotes.

That group sold them in 2001 to developer Steve Ellman, with Wayne Gretzky part of the ownership group and head of hockey operations. The Coyotes in 2003 moved from Phoenix to nearby Glendale.

After incurring major financial difficulties, Ellman sold to trucking magnate Jerry Moyes in 2005. The trouble continued for several years, and the NHL went from paying the team’s bills to assuming operational control of the organization in 2008.

Moyes put the team into bankruptcy and was stripped of his remaining ownership after word emerged he intended to sell to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie of Blackberry fame, who planned to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. After bankruptcy litigation and multiple failed bids to buy the team over several years, a group of Canadian businessmen took over in 2013.

By 2014, that group agreed to sell controlling interest to Philadelphia hedge fund manager Andrew Barroway, who bought out the rest of the shares of the team in 2017. Meruelo bought controlling interest from Barroway in 2019 and has owned the team since before the sale to Smith Entertainment Group.

Officials from Salt Lake City, Utah and the city’s 2034 Olympic bid supported Smith’s attempt to bring hockey to the state.

“Utah has a long history with hockey, the strongest economy in the nation, a passionate sports fanbase, and the youngest and most active population,” governor Spencer Cox said in January. “These factors make Utah ripe for the expansion of our sports and entertainment community.”

Smith said he and his group were “100 per cent focused on making this happen as soon as possible.” It appears now to be happening for the 2024-25 NHL season.

Salt Lake City gets the Coyotes over other options, such as Houston, which was speculated as a relocation possibility since the league announced in 2018 they’d be shifting to the Central Division in 2021 with the addition of the expansion Seattle Kraken. The success of the Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights, who won the Stanley Cup last year in their sixth season of existence, has provided optimism about another hockey market in the western U.S.

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