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Coyotes' move to Salt Lake City elicits opposing responses in 2 cities

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sat next to the former Arizona Coyotes owner in a downtown Phoenix hotel meeting room, trying to put a positive spin on the funeral for a franchise.

Later Friday, Bettman sat next to the new Coyotes owner in Salt Lake City to bask in the excitement of the league's newest city and a fan base that had been itching for another team to join the NBA's Utah Jazz.

One day, two drastically different news conferences for the same hockey team.

"If you look back from the perspective over the last three decades, the NHL support for hockey in Arizona has been unwavering, to say the least,” Bettman said Friday in Phoenix. “And for anybody who’s been on that journey with us, there have been countless times when we could have made another decision and we didn’t. And so I hope everybody understands that this is a place that we believe hockey works.”

But only under the right circumstances.

Hockey worked in the desert for 27 years, albeit with some major potholes along the way.

In the Coyotes' 28th year since moving from Winnipeg, those ruts derailed the franchise and sent it to Utah.

His hand forced by self-inflicted and out-of-his-control circumstances, Alex Meruelo sold the Coyotes to the Smith Entertainment Group on Thursday, a deal approved unanimously by the NHL Board of Governors. The $1.2 billion deal gives SEG owner Ryan Smith control of the franchise's hockey operations, while Meruelo will keep the name and maintain business operations as he tries to build a long-awaited new hockey arena in Arizona.

Bettman approached Meruelo with a proposal to sell them team so it could play in an arena up to NHL standards — the 4,500-seat Mullett Arena is not — on March 6 and, despite initial hesitations, pulled off the deal in six weeks.

“We focused on the fact that these are the types of owners that we want, and this is the type of community we’d like to be a part of,” Bettman said. “For us, when the opportunity to come to Salt Lake City came, it was something we were very strongly focused on and something we wanted to accomplish — and to accomplish it was not easy.”

The deal elicited opposite responses in two states.

Utah fans have been expectedly excited, snapping up 11,000 season ticket deposits in the first few hours after the sale. Smith said that number had risen to 22,700 by Friday.

The yet-to-be-named team will already have a solid foundation in place, one poured by Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong through an aggressive rebuild started three years ago. The team has a talented core, players like Clayton Keller, Logan Cooley and Dylan Guenther, pushing to get the franchise back to the playoffs — outside of the 2020 pandemic bubble — for the first time since the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

Utah fans met Bettman with roaring applause in Salt Lake City on Friday — a rarity for the commissioner — as clusters of people gathered outside the Delta Center to take pictures in front of new “NHL in Utah” signage.

“For Utah, I hope we carry the same strut in our step and the trust in ourselves that they (the NHL) have in us,” Smith said while seated next Bettman and his wife, Ashley. “It’s a big bet on us and I’m incredibly amazed but not surprised on how we show up. I've never seen so many Republicans and Democrats, religious leaders and education leaders all on the same page like this.”

Arizona fans were decidedly dejected and accusatory, claiming Meruelo and the rest of the Coyotes' management were deceitful about the team's yearly proclamations that it will remain in Arizona for the long haul.

The flickering light down at the end of the long tunnel is a promise the Coyotes franchise will be “reactivated” if a new arena is built within five years. Meruelo's group has its sights set on a June land auction for a tract of land in north Phoenix valued at $68.5 million, one they hope to develop into an entertainment district that will include a new arena.

“You have my commitment to do everything in my power to keep the Coyotes in the Valley. one of the few communities in the country with four professional sports teams,” Meruelo said. “This is a global sports market.”

One without a hockey team for the foreseeable future.

Associated Press