Leaving Arizona: Everything you need to know about the Coyotes moving to Salt Lake City


The Arizona Coyotes are on the verge of relocating to Salt Lake City.

The NHL board of governors has to approve the transaction, but all signs point to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith acquiring the beleaguered franchise, which began its run in the desert back in 1996 following relocation from Winnipeg.

News about the Coyotes’ move hit hyperspeed in the past week after multiple reports of the NHL preparing two different schedules, one with the team in Arizona and another with the team in Utah. The news came just days after the Coyotes had released images of the new arena they hoped to build outside of Phoenix.

What happened? Why is the team moving now, after several other instances in which it should have but didn’t relocate? Here’s the full picture, as we understand it, regarding the past, present and future of the Arizona Coyotes, courtesy of ESPN’s Ryan S. Clark, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski.

Why Utah?

While the Salt Lake City market has intrigued the NHL, the league’s decision to bring a team to that market is tied to having a deep-pocketed owner that wants one, and an arena ready to house one.

Ryan and Ashley Smith, owners of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, have been seeking an NHL team for a few years. In January, Smith Entertainment Group formally requested that the NHL initiate an expansion process and bring a team to Salt Lake City.

“The Utah expression of interest has been the most aggressive and has carried a lot of energy with it,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at the NHL All-Star Game in February.

Ryan Smith had spent several years building a level of trust with Bettman. He had an arena in Delta Center, home of the Jazz, that had hosted NHL exhibition games. Smith told the NHL there would be renovations to make Delta Center more hockey-friendly if he was ever awarded a franchise.

Smith said in January he didn’t care how he acquired the team, saying: “Our goal is NHL in Utah. And I’ll leave the rest up to Gary.” But an NHL source told ESPN that Smith’s preference was to have an expansion team in Utah — and along with it, the chance to build one through an expansion draft.

His willingness to forgo that and accept a relocation was a key factor in the Coyotes moving to Salt Lake City.

Beyond the building and the owner, the NHL believes it’s a market with a ton of potential for hockey. It’s a winter sports town, and one that’s expected to host the 2034 Winter Olympics — a bid that could produce a new arena for the Jazz and the new NHL team. Salt Lake City has also been experiencing an economic boom: a 2024 report by the Milken Institute ranked Salt Lake City fourth among 403 U.S. cities in growth of jobs, wages and high-tech industry.

Like Arizona, having a team in Utah also fits nicely with the location of several other U.S.-based franchises in the Western Conference. — Wyshynski

How is the transaction going to work?

If approved, multiple sources told ESPN that Smith will pay between $1.2 and $1.3 billion for the team. Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo will receive $1 billion. The rest of the NHL’s owners will split between $200-$300 million as a relocation fee paid by Smith.

Sources have indicated that the total transaction is a complicated one, as it’s not a typical relocation. It’s expected the NHL will buy the Coyotes from Meruelo and sell what’s essentially a clean slate new team to Smith, who will retain the Coyotes’ players and hockey operations staff in the transaction.

This will allow Meruelo the chance to “restart” the Coyotes down the line.

Sources told ESPN that satisfying Meruelo was a key to the transaction. There was concern within the league as far back as NHL All-Star Weekend that Meruelo could wage a prolonged legal battle over relocation if the NHL decided it wanted the franchise moved, due to uncertainty about the Coyotes’ arena plans.

One way to satisfy Meruelo was to give him around $1 billion in the transaction. But Meruelo still wanted to own an NHL team in Arizona and still planned on building an arena for one. The NHL had to find a creative way to keep the door open for Meruelo in Arizona while moving the current incarnation of the Coyotes.

Meruelo is still seeking to win an auction for a 95-acre parcel of land in north Phoenix, where he intends to build an arena, a practice facility, a theater, housing units and retail. The auction for that land is set for June 27.

It’s the latest arena plan for the team, which has been seeking a permanent home since the city of Glendale terminated its lease with the Coyotes at Gila River Arena following the 2021-22 season. The Coyotes moved to Mullett Arena while seeking an arena solution in Tempe. The Coyotes believed they had one with a 16,000-seat arena in a proposed $2.1 billion entertainment district, but voters rejected that plan in May 2023.

It was after the Tempe vote failed that the NHL began considering its options with Arizona. The league supported Meruelo’s attempt at winning the land auction and building his arena, but questions surrounding its eventual completion were numerous. That included cost, infrastructure and timeline — the Coyotes said shovels wouldn’t be in the ground until 2025, which meant the team wouldn’t play in Mullett Arena until 2027, if not longer.

Thus, Bettman and the NHL came up with an ingenious way to satisfy their concerns and Meruelo’s needs. It’s expected that the final transaction will include a clause that allows Meruelo to “reactivate” the franchise as an expansion team — paying what’s expected to be a $1 billion expansion fee if that happens — between now and 2029 if his arena project is completed.

All of the team’s intellectual property — including those iconic Kachina jerseys — would remain with Meruelo. It’s an agreement that evokes the deal made with the city of Cleveland when the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995.

If the project is completed, the NHL can return to a market where it clearly wants to have a team — witness the constant fights to “save” the Coyotes since their bankruptcy in 2009 — and have a state-of-the-art arena ready for an expansion team. If the project doesn’t come to pass, Meruelo walks away with $1 billion for having let the Coyotes move to Utah. — Wyshynski

Are all of the players, coaches and staff going to join the new franchise?

Every NHL team has personnel decisions they must consider in the offseason, and that would have been the case for the Coyotes whether they stayed in Arizona or relocated to Salt Lake City.

Per Cap Friendly, the team has 13 players who are under contract for next season. It’s a group that includes forwards such as Nick Bjugstad, Logan Cooley, Lawson Crouse, Clayton Keller, Matias Maccelli and Nick Schmaltz. Cooley was the third pick of the 2022 draft and is part of a core of homegrown players that includes Josh Doan, Dylan Guenther, Keller and Maccelli, among others.

They have three pending unrestricted free agents, including defenseman Travis Dermott, who could re-sign with the team or head elsewhere. They also have seven restricted free agents who are in need of a new contract. Five of those RFAs are defensemen, such as Sean Durzi, J.J. Moser and Juuso Valimaki.

All those players under contract could either remain with the franchise or get traded elsewhere, which is a scenario that every NHL franchise faces in the offseason.

Still, relocated teams go through changes, which was the case when the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets after the 2010-11 season.

Of the 38 players that played at least one game for the Thrashers, there were 23 that remained with the club during their inaugural campaign in Winnipeg. It’s a group that included Nik Antropov, Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler.

Atlanta’s transition to Winnipeg also saw changes with the coaching staff and the front office. The Thrashers hired Craig Ramsay at the start of their last season in Atlanta only to have the team’s new ownership group move on from Ramsay and hire Claude Noel, who was the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate that was already in Winnipeg (the Manitoba Moose).

The Thrashers also hired Rick Dudley as their general manager in April 2010, but he was gone by June 2011. He was replaced with Kevin Cheveldayoff, who has been the only general manager the franchise has known since its time in Winnipeg.

What’s the situation with the current coaching staff and front office that’s in place?

Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny is about to finish his third season with the club. Back in August, he signed a three-year extension, with general manager Bill Armstrong saying at the time, “He is an excellent coach, leader and communicator who has helped us establish a tremendous culture in our dressing room. Our players like him, respect him and compete hard for him.”

The club also signed assistant coach Mario Duhamel and goaltending coach Corey Schwab to multiyear extensions just days after announcing Tourigny’s new deal.

Less than a month later, the club announced it had signed Armstrong to a multiyear extension. Armstrong has been with the club for four seasons and has overseen an organization that has worked to develop one of the stronger farm systems in the NHL. Back in February, the team also gave contract extensions to director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski and associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski. — Clark

What are Coyotes players saying? What are other teams’ players saying?

The team’s players have been guarded publicly with their comments so far, waiting to learn more about how official the situation would become before opening up. They had, after all, answered questions when rumors of the franchising relocating cropped up in years past.

“We’ve just tried to focus on hockey and since I’ve played in Arizona, there’s always been a lot of rumors, so we try to do as best we can to try and focus on hockey,” Keller said. “It was definitely in our heads. You can say it’s not a distraction, but buddies, family, people are always texting and keep putting it in your head. [Tourigny] said we had another opportunity to deal with the same thing and learn from our past mistakes.”

Auston Matthews never suited up for the Coyotes. But if it weren’t for that Arizona-based team, the Scottsdale-raised Matthews may never have believed in pursuing the sport as a kid — a decision that’s led to Matthews becoming a first-overall pick, Hart Trophy winner and Rocket Richard winner as one of the league’s most prolific scorers.

He weighed in on a potential move by the Coyotes prior to the news this weekend that a change was imminent.

“Obviously, selfishly, growing up there with them was a big part of me getting into hockey,” Matthews said Thursday. “I’d love for them to figure it out, but you kind of understand the position the NHL’s in as well.”

Maple Leafs rookie Matthew Knies is another one of the few Arizona-bred players in the NHL, and expressed his disappointment last week about the Coyotes potentially moving elsewhere.

“Not too happy with the situation,” Knies said. “It’s pretty unfortunate. The Coyotes did a lot for me growing up, and I loved going to the games. It was a big reason as to why I got into hockey. But that kind of situation is out of my control. I’m hopeful that they can stay there, because it meant a lot to me, but I guess we’re going to have to see what happens.”

If it weren’t for the Coyotes, Knies said he might not have pursued playing hockey. Naturally he was concerned losing an NHL team in that area will impact how other kids view their opportunity in the sport, and was hopeful the Coyotes would stick.

“When I was growing up, [Arizona] wasn’t the hockey hotbed Colorado or Chicago or Detroit was,” he said. “But it was definitely growing, and you could see the potential there. The Coyotes were a big part of that, and so it’s definitely gotten a lot better. I know a lot of kids are starting to pick up a hockey stick now, and it’s just really good to see. So, again, hope they can stay there.” — Shilton

Will it be the Utah Coyotes, or a new team identity?

Even if there are actual coyotes in the state of Utah, it appears as if there is going to be a new name for the franchise.

Smith, who is also a co-owner of Real Salt Lake in MLS and the Utah Royals in the NWSL, took to social media on April 8 asking, “If an NHL team were to come to Utah, what should we name it?” The question was then followed by a link to a survey.

As of Saturday, the survey was no longer active.

Smith’s post on X generated more than 3 million views and over 1,000 responses. Some of the proposed team names were serious suggestions, while others were a bit more sardonic.

There were some who suggested the new team be called the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, an homage to the professional team that was there from 1969 through 1994 before they left town to become the Detroit Vipers.

Others suggested some winter-themed names such as the Utah Blizzard or the Utah Yeti. But there were some who wondered if that would work given that the Colorado Avalanche are in a neighboring state and have similar elements in their name and uniform design.

A few people chimed in with ideas such as the Utah Buzz, the Utah Hive, the Utah Stingers, the Utah Swarm and the Salt Lake City Swarm. Those are all nods to the state’s extensive relationship with bees. One of Utah’s nicknames is “The Beehive State.” The Western honey bee is the official insect of Utah, while a beehive is featured on the state flag, the state seal and Utah State Route road signs.

And yes, there were some who suggested that they keep Coyotes given there are coyotes in the state. But as noted above, the deal between Meruelo and the NHL is that Meruelo will be able to retain the team name and intellectual property in the hopes of “reactivating” the Coyotes franchise in the future.

There’s also the recent historical precedent that’s been set with relocated NHL teams and changing names. Five of the past six relocated teams have changed their names to something that was more regional in nature.

For example, the Colorado Rockies became the New Jersey Devils while the Quebec Nordiques turned into the Colorado Avalanche. It was the same for when the original Winnipeg Jets became the Coyotes, the Hartford Whalers were changed to the Carolina Hurricanes and the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets once the NHL came back to Manitoba.

The only team of those six to relocate and keep part of its original name was when the Minnesota North Stars relocated to become the Dallas Stars. The franchise kept “Stars” because of Texas being known as “The Lone Star State.” — Clark

Where will the team play? Will it get a new arena in the future?

The plan right now is for the Utah team to play out of the Delta Center, a facility owned by Smith that is home to the NBA’s Jazz.

However, as ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported, sources have said the NHL told the Smiths there are hockey-specific upgrades needed at Delta Center if it were to become the team’s permanent home.

The venue has hosted preseason NHL games in each of the past four seasons — primarily between L.A. and Vegas — but the current layout would limit sightlines for NHL games and prohibit the Smiths from selling the arena to 18,206-seat capacity (only 10,420 seats were sold for those NHL preseason games).

Given the limited amount of time before puck drop of the 2024-25 season, it’s not as if the Smiths would be expected to completely overhaul their facility overnight. But some alterations will be possible over the summer and more changes could be carried out in the next offseason.

Smith has government support on that front thanks to a bill passed in the Utah State Senate to help fund a renovated entertainment district downtown. That was in anticipation of an NHL franchise potentially relocating there, something to which Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has expressed — and had already given — his approval prior to the weekend’s news. — Shilton

What’s the future of the NHL in Arizona?

The NHL has never wavered about how it values the Arizona market. The league likes the population size, its television audience and its geography in relation to other U.S. teams in the Western Conference. There’s also been a significant youth hockey boom in that market during the franchise’s time in Arizona. NHL players like the Maple Leafs’ Matthews and Knies grew up rooting for the Coyotes.

Bettman has called the Coyotes “a victim of circumstance” when it comes to their struggles in the market, through ownership issues and their arena plights.

“We believe Arizona and particularly the greater Phoenix area is a good NHL market and a place we want to be,” he said in May 2023.

While leaving the door open for Meruelo to own an expansion franchise in a new arena was clearly a way to satisfy him in the relocation gambit, the fact remains that the NHL appears committed to bringing an expansion team back to Arizona. Bettman has been steadfast in saying that the NHL is not currently in an expansion mode, but cities like Houston and Atlanta are also showing significant interest. — Wyshynski

Timeline of the NHL’s Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes (1995-2024)

1995: The Winnipeg Jets are sold to Minnesota businessmen Steven Gluckstern and Richard Burke, who intended to move them to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the 1996-97 season. After being unable to work out a lease agreement in the Twin Cities, they instead opted to move the team to Phoenix.

1996: The now-Phoenix Coyotes play in America West Arena, home of the NBA’s Suns, in a facility that was suboptimal for hockey. Players on that inaugural team included Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Hall of Famer Mike Gartner, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and Shane Doan, who played his rookie season with the Jets and then 20 seasons with the Coyotes.

2001: Burke, now the primary owner, sells the Coyotes to an ownership group that includes Phoenix-area developer Steve Ellman and NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, who was a part-owner and the team’s new president of hockey operations.

2003: After attempts to further retrofit America West Arena and build a new building in Scottsdale failed, Ellman turned his attention to West Valley. In 2001, he signed a lease agreement with the city of Glendale to build a new arena. On Dec. 27, 2003, the Coyotes played their first game at Glendale Arena, beginning a run of 18 seasons there. As attendance for the team fell from a high of 15,582 tickets distributed per game in 2005-06 to just 11,989 in 2009-10, the arena’s location away from where many Coyotes fans lived became a point of criticism.

2005: Jerry Moyes, a trucking magnate who was also a part-owner of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks, buys the Coyotes from Ellman. Gretzky becomes head coach of the team, a position he held for four seasons without a playoff berth.

2006: The Coyotes are set to host the 2006 NHL All-Star Game, which never happens because of the NHL players’ involvement in the 2006 Winter Olympics. The Coyotes would never host an All-Star Game or draft in their time in Arizona.

2009: Media reports reveal that the Coyotes are hemorrhaging money and being propped by up by the NHL. In May, Moyes puts the team into bankruptcy with the intention of having Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, former CEO of BlackBerry creator Research In Motion, relocate the team to Hamilton in Ontario, Canada. The NHL strips Moyes of his ownership authority. In a bankruptcy hearing, the NHL puts in a bid against that of Balsillie and argues that this bid, if accepted by the court, would have circumvented NHL rules. The court sides with the NHL, which takes over the team and seeks a new owner that would keep the franchise in Arizona.

2012: Under coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes win their only division title and make their only conference final. After qualifying for the playoffs in their first four seasons in Phoenix, the Coyotes would make the playoff tournament only four times before relocating.

2013: After close calls with potential owners like Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago investor Matt Hulsizer, former San Jose Sharks owner Greg Jamison and “Ice Edge Holdings,” the NHL finally unloads the Coyotes to an ownership collective called IceArizona and Renaissance Sports and Entertainment for a reported $225 million. That comes with a 15-year lease with the city of Glendale that ends speculation that the team would relocate to Seattle.

2014: The team rebrands as the Arizona Coyotes. IceArizona sells a controlling interest in the Coyotes to hedge fund manager Andrew Barroway.

2015: The Glendale City Council votes 5-2 to end its 15-year agreement for the Coyotes to manage and play at Gila River Arena, opting for short-term leases at a reduced rate for the city.

2016: The Coyotes announce plans for an arena in Tempe for the 2019-20 season that would have created facilities for the Arizona State University hockey team. ASU pulls out of the deal in 2017.

2019: Barroway sells the majority of the Coyotes to billionaire Alex Meruelo, the first Latino owner in the NHL. Meruelo takes full control of the team in 2023.

2021: The city of Glendale and the Gila River Arena choose not to renew their operating agreement with the Coyotes beyond the 2021-22 season.

2022: The Coyotes move to Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat facility on the campus of ASU and home to the school’s men’s hockey team, signing a three-year lease with options that carry through 2027. The team and the NHL call it a temporary move while the Coyotes attempt to secure a new arena site.

2023: Meruelo’s proposal to turn a Tempe landfill into a $2.1 billion arena and entertainment complex is defeated in a public vote, a result that is shocking for the franchise and the NHL. Bettman calls it “terribly disappointing” and says “we are going to review with the Coyotes what the options might be going forward.”

2024: While Coyotes fans and players prepare for the team to bid on a parcel of land near Phoenix for a potential new arena in the summer, the possibility arises of Meruelo selling the franchise, with the NHL and the Smith Entertainment Group relocating it to Salt Lake City. — Wyshynski

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