Inside the tumultuous tenure of the Coyotes in Arizona and their stunning move to Utah

Inside the tumultuous tenure of the Coyotes in Arizona and their stunning move to Utah

 Read Morewww.espn.com – NHL

Ryan Smith considers Utah the capital for winter sports.

“It’s hard to think about that without hockey, right?” said Smith, a tech billionaire with a growing portfolio of sports franchises that includes the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

Smith began his pursuit of an NHL team a few years ago, formally expressing his interest in an expansion franchise to commissioner Gary Bettman. Smith believed the league had experienced “a rising,” from the quality of play to the value of television contracts. His wife, Ashley, is from Las Vegas, which is five hours away from Salt Lake City. “It’s impossible not to see the success that’s happened there,” he said.

The message Smith conveyed to Bettman and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was, “We’re here and we’re ready.”

About two months ago, Bettman needed to know exactly how ready Ryan and Ashley Smith were to own a team.

The Arizona Coyotes had been playing at Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat rink on the campus of Arizona State University, for the past two seasons. Mullett had been billed as a temporary home as the club sought to build a new arena, but it looked as if it might have to house the team until 2027 as the Coyotes worked through their latest land acquisition plan.

Bettman believed that change in timeline made the Coyotes’ situation untenable. It was time for the NHL to leave Arizona — for now. So how ready was Utah to take the team in, starting next season?

Editor’s Picks

2 Related

The conversation with Smith took a hard pivot. He recalls Bettman hammering two questions:

“Can you guys pull this off? Can you really pull it off?”

Smith unequivocally said yes.

“I mean, if you would’ve told me at the beginning of the year that this is where we’d be, I’d say you were crazy. … It’s unprecedented,” Smith said. “This is a different process. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it or seen it. But we’re in. We’re all-in. And I have a lot of faith in the people in Utah and how they show up for things.”

The NHL board of governors officially approved the sale and relocation of the Coyotes to Smith Entertainment Group on April 18, unanimously.

Cheers in Utah followed a night of tears at Mullett Arena. Fans who had supported this team from Phoenix to Glendale to Tempe openly wept as players saluted them one last time before they gifted Coyotes supporters with the jerseys off their backs, as is customary in the season finale.

It was a funeral for a beleaguered franchise that only these fans truly loved, with the surreal juxtaposition of inconsolable locals in Kachina jerseys listening to James Brown’s “I Feel Good” blaring over the arena speakers after the game — a Coyotes victory over Edmonton that showcased the potential of the young roster.

A roster that now belonged to Utah.

The team’s relocation from Arizona to Utah was itself a juxtaposition. Lightning fast and painfully slow. Mismanagement mixed with shrewd problem-solving. Building trust and losing faith.

Lawson Crouse tosses a jersey to the fans following the Coyotes’ final home game. Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

ALEX MERUELO SR. became the majority owner of the Coyotes in July 2019, purchasing a controlling share from Andrew Barroway for what Forbes reported was around $300 million. Meruelo, a son of Cuban immigrants, was believed to be the first Latino majority owner in the NHL.

At the time, the Coyotes were well established as the NHL’s most plagued franchise. They relocated from Winnipeg in 1996 to the Phoenix Suns‘ arena, which was not designed for a hockey team and had an unfavorable lease for the Coyotes. In 2003, owner Steve Ellman, a local real estate developer, moved them to a new arena in Glendale — away from the core of their fan base, which led to over a decade of attendance problems.

By 2009, the Coyotes were hemorrhaging money and getting financially propped up by the NHL. Owner Jerry Moyes, who purchased the team from Ellman in 2005, put it into bankruptcy with the intention of having Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, former CEO of BlackBerry creator Research In Motion, relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario.

This led to the NHL entering the bankruptcy proceedings to take ownership of the team until 2013, when it sold the Coyotes to a group of new owners in a deal that included a 15-year lease with the city of Glendale, ending speculation that the franchise would relocate to Seattle.

The relationship with Glendale would progressively worsen. In 2015, the city council voted to end that 15-year lease in favor of a series of short-term leases at a reduced rate. According to The Associated Press, members of the Glendale City Council were concerned that team owner IceArizona had breached its $225 million arena lease with the city by using the $15 million a year it received to pay down debt incurred when the group purchased the team.

In 2021, the city of Glendale and the Gila River Arena chose not to renew their operating agreement with the Coyotes beyond the 2021-22 season, saying publicly that they wanted to “increase focus on larger, more impactful events and uses of the city-owned arena.” That sent Meruelo and the franchise scrambling for a new home.

They found a temporary one at Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat college facility on the ASU campus in Tempe. The Coyotes spent more than $20 million to upgrade the building to NHL standards, including a two-story annex as well as professional-level dressing room and training room facilities.

Josh and Shane Doan, center, at the ceremonial puck drop before the Coyotes’ first game at Mullett Arena. Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

“The first year was sick,” one NHL player told ESPN. “We were all excited to check it out and honestly it was a cool place to play. Crowd was great, it got loud. But it was a novelty. When we went back this year, nobody was looking forward to the experience outside of a trip to Arizona. It’s like, ‘We have to do this s— again?’ I don’t know how their players put up with it for so long.”

When Marty Walsh took over as NHL Players’ Association executive director last year, the Coyotes became a high-priority item. The NHL and players have a 50-50 split on hockey-related revenue (HRR). The Coyotes reported significant losses last year, the worst in the league. Mullett was a drag on HRR because of its capacity and lack of revenue-generating amenities. Yet the Coyotes claimed they made more ticket revenue at Mullett than they did in Glendale.

While the team played at Mullett, Meruelo began pursuing a Tempe-owned landfill on which he could build a $2.1 billion entertainment complex that would include the Coyotes’ new arena.

All the Coyotes had to do was win a public referendum on the project, which they called “Landfill to Landmark.” The Coyotes treated it like a formality after the Tempe City Council unanimously approved the proposal. “The Tempe Entertainment District will be a huge win for this community, and we have no doubt that Tempe voters will agree,” Coyotes CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said in May 2023.

Stanley Cup playoffs 2024

The NHL postseason is underway, with teams vying for the Stanley Cup. Check out our coverage, with TV times, the latest news, results and more.• Playoff CentralSubscribe to ESPN+ Stream the NHL on ESPN

They did not agree.

Because of a variety of factors — a well-funded and organized opposition, concerns about taxes and infrastructure, and mistrust of the Coyotes after the Glendale debacle — the plan was defeated soundly. There were actually three propositions: Two lost by 56%-to-44% margins and the other was defeated 57% to 43%.

That was the moment when the Arizona Coyotes’ demise truly began. It marked the first time the NHL struck even the slightest pessimistic tone about the team’s future.

“The NHL is terribly disappointed by the results of the public referenda regarding the Coyotes’ arena project in Tempe,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “We are going to review with the Coyotes what the options might be going forward.”

Smith didn’t yet know he was an option. That would change months later.

SMITH WAS BORN in 1978 in Eugene, Oregon, where his father was a professor. But his heart belongs to Utah, where he enrolled at Brigham Young University in the 1990s, loving sports and innovation. He dropped out of college in his early 20s to start an online survey software company, Qualtrics, with his dad, brother and college roommate. They initially ran it out of their basement. In 2018, SAP bought Qualtrics for $8 billion. Smith and his wife became billionaires.

They founded Smith Entertainment Group. Their foray into professional sports began in 2020, when they bought the Utah Jazz — as well as their arena in downtown Salt Lake City — for $1.66 billion. Two years later, they partnered with investor David Blitzer to purchase the MLS club Real Salt Lake City. The Smiths are passionate about injecting energy into Utah as the state goes through a growth spurt.

They also thought the area was perfect for hockey. So Smith struck up a relationship with Bettman, hoping to one day bring an expansion NHL team to his beloved state.

They had dinner in New York in March 2023. Smith left that meeting under the impression that this process could take some time.

“Expansion is definitely risky, as far as who’s going to get it, when they’re going to get it and how that works,” Smith said to ESPN. “We’re set up uniquely different than other cities that have public interest in expansion, both with the market and the ability to go play right now.”

Bettman heard from other suitors too. Atlanta has two ownership contingents interested in bringing a team back. The league has met with Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta about the possibility of another team in Texas. At least a half-dozen other cities, from Quebec City to Kansas City to Cincinnati, also have reached out. While the league felt steady at 32 teams after welcoming Las Vegas and Seattle over the past five years, it is cognizant of potential financial boosts; the Golden Knights and Kraken both rank in the top half of the league in revenue, with Vegas surging — especially after winning its first Stanley Cup last season.

Of all the potential owners Bettman chatted with, Smith Entertainment Group had the resources and energy to get a team up and running as soon as next season.

“I’ve just learned during these things that even if you have all the time to get ready, you’re still not going to be ready. This is an extreme but it’s kind of how it goes,” Smith said. “I would love the ability to have an expansion draft and go through all of that, especially after you see what the Golden Knights have done and even the Kraken. However, I think it’s a really good solution for everyone. We’re leaning in. We’re helping the NHL. And so I felt like it’s now. So let’s go.”

The NHL had strict guidelines for how much info Smith could share publicly as it worked toward relocating the Coyotes. It was still a delicate situation, as the league had to convince Meruelo to sell the team. It needed everyone to stay quiet until the details were firmed up.

But behind the scenes, things were moving fast. Smith knew he could get a team in place by next season because he already had business infrastructure, such as a ticketing office and game presentation experts, working for the Jazz. The Delta Center has hosted NHL preseason games five times, but it’s still not an ideal hockey venue.

The NHL asked Smith if the arena could eventually hold 17,000-plus fans for hockey. Smith said yes, but it will take some time. He committed to renovations this summer to get 12,000 unobstructed seats for next season. The overall target is to have 17,300 seats for hockey.

Then he began gathering government support. A bill passed in the Utah State Senate to help fund a renovated entertainment district downtown in anticipation of an NHL franchise, which will include getting more access and foot traffic into the arena. It got approval from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

Smith’s vision was coming to fruition. In April, Smith posted to X asking fans for team name suggestions should the NHL ever come to Utah. That was a huge tell to the hockey world: This was happening.

But back in Arizona, players and coaches were still in the dark. For all they knew, there was a plan in motion that would keep them in Phoenix. What they didn’t know was how little faith the NHL had in it being executed by this ownership group, and how badly it wanted the Coyotes out of Mullett Arena.

AFTER THE TEMPE vote failed, the Coyotes claimed they had several other local options for a potential arena — none of them requiring a public vote.

In August 2023, the Coyotes announced they ​​executed a letter of intent to purchase a parcel of land in Mesa to potentially build a new sports arena and entertainment district for the franchise. But the team had another plan in motion that it hoped would satisfy the NHL.

Meruelo targeted a 95-acre parcel of land in north Phoenix the team could acquire in a public auction. He would build an arena with 17,000 fixed seats for NHL games, as well as a practice facility and team headquarters. It would have a live music theater and 400,000 square feet of retail. There would be office space, dining and 1,900 luxury residential units.

His pitch to local governments and other parties was simple: The Coyotes wouldn’t take any public money for the mixed-use project but would seek designation as a “theme park district.” The project would be funded with a surcharge paid by anyone attending events at the newly constructed arena or using any of the other facilities on site.

But time wasn’t on the Coyotes’ side.

Within the team, Dec. 27, 2023, was considered the deadline to give the NHL clarity on arena plans. “If there was no arena plan in place, there were going to be potential relocation options,” a source familiar with the Coyotes said.

The land auction for the site wasn’t going to take place until summer 2024. By the team’s own conservative estimates, there wouldn’t be shovels in the ground until 2025 and the earliest the new arena would open was 2027, meaning a minimum of three more seasons at Mullett Arena if everything went off without a hitch.

Multiple sources said the players’ dissatisfaction with playing at Mullett had grown considerably since the Tempe vote failed. They also felt pessimism with the new arena project, with one player saying he “never felt” that relocation could be successfully avoided.

Arizona coach Andre Tourigny pushed back on that.

General manager Bill Armstrong and head coach Andre Tourigny are introduced in Utah. Chris Gardner/Getty Images

“The atmosphere was unbelievable. The people who’ve been in Mullett understand what I’m saying right now and the people who haven’t think I’m full of it. They think it’s impossible,” he told ESPN’s “The Drop” podcast. “We had success at Mullett. Our team played hard at Mullett. I never heard any player complain about anything in Arizona. The vibe and atmosphere were not the problem. The problem was revenue. The problem was growth of the market. That’s a bigger issue.”

For the NHL, the thought of playoff games being held in a 5,000-seat college arena was abhorrent enough; what if, the league pondered, the Coyotes ever played for the Stanley Cup during their time at Mullett?

It would be an embarrassment for the league.

The league was also skeptical about the Coyotes’ new arena plan being successfully executed, given the dysfunction behind the scenes in finances and management.

“They had lost confidence in the Coyotes’ ownership group, so it didn’t matter what they said anymore,” one source said.

The team’s creative accounting was a constant source of concern around the league. There were incidents over the years of the Coyotes skimping on money. The Coyotes would try to stay at lesser hotels than the collective bargaining agreement stipulates. Ownership tried cutting corners when they could, like removing the printer and copying machine from the coaches’ room.

Multiple sources told ESPN that the Coyotes were either late paying their hotel bills or sometimes just crossed out the total and paid a different amount. Other sources indicated local businesses would come to the team seeking payments, would be offered a fraction of what was owed and then would be negotiated down to take less than what was actually owed.

When asked about unpaid bills, Meruelo said he was unaware of any. “Having been in business for 40 years, you wouldn’t be around if you didn’t pay your bills. That’s all I want to say about that,” he said.

The Coyotes declined to comment further on their approach to paying bills.

Over the past year, the Coyotes experienced significant personnel changes behind the scenes. Nick Sakiewicz, the Coyotes’ chief business officer, left after a year in the position. Rich Nairn, the team’s executive vice president of communications and broadcasting, left after 27 years with the franchise. Liz Montaño, the team’s COO, also departed the team “to pursue new opportunities in the sports industry.”

Perhaps the most significant departure, at least symbolically, was Shane Doan.

He began his career in Winnipeg, moved with the franchise to Phoenix and spent 20 seasons as the face of the franchise, through 1,466 career games. He was there during the Coyotes’ final game at Mullett Arena, cheering on his son Josh Doan, whom Arizona selected 37th overall in the 2021 NHL draft.

Doan worked for the Coyotes after his retirement as chief hockey development officer but had higher aspirations, eventually seeking to become their president of hockey operations in 2023. According to a source, he was told he “wasn’t ready” for the position, a verdict handed down by the owner’s son Alex Meruelo Jr., the team’s chief brand officer who had taken a more active interest in the hockey operations department.

Doan, the franchise’s most iconic player, left to join the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ front office.

Meanwhile, the Mullett Arena situation was coming to a boil, thanks to the NHLPA’s Walsh.

At the NHL All-Star Game in February, Bettman left the door open for Meruelo Sr. to put his new arena plan in motion.

“I don’t make it a practice of contradicting owners unless I have hard facts to the contrary,” Bettman said. “I’m both hopeful and reasonably confident that he’s going to do what he says.”

Walsh, however, had seen enough.

“The next deadline for me is tomorrow. I mean, it’s right now,” said Walsh, the former mayor of Boston who was named executive director of the NHLPA in 2023.

“If there’s no plan in Arizona, I would encourage a move to another location, absolutely. I think the league feels that Arizona is a good market and I can understand that. The issue I have, and the players have, is how long do you wait to get a home? They’re playing in a college arena and they’re the second tenant in that arena. This is not the way to run a business.”

Said one Arizona player at the time: “Once I heard him say that publicly, which echoed what he was telling us behind the scenes, I knew something was going to change, finally.”

Gary Bettman, left, with new Utah owners Ryan and Ashley Smith. Chris Gardner/Getty Images

WHEN SMITH PURCHASED the Utah Jazz from the Miller family in 2020 for $1.66 billion, it was a much different transaction than his purchase of the Coyotes.

“We did a deal together and almost went to the NBA to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this,'” Smith recalled. “And this … This is the exact opposite. This has been so complicated. It’s never really been done before.”

Smith said he never personally negotiated with Meruelo Sr. The NHL brokered all the details of the transaction, from the fees paid by the parties to which parts of the team SEG would acquire and which ones would stay with Meruelo, as well as the conditions through which Meruelo could reactivate the franchise within the next five years.

“I don’t even know all the details on the other end, and I’m cool with that,” Smith said. “That’s not my business. I mean, I guess as a governor, it will be my business in the future. But for now, I think we’re just excited to be a part of the NHL.”

Bettman has said the league was fine with the Coyotes playing at Mullett Arena for three seasons and perhaps even a fourth if “a new building was coming out of the ground.” But it had become clear that the timeline had been stretched. The uncertainty led the NHL to believe that “under a best case scenario, there could be anywhere between three and five more years at Mullett.”

On March 6, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly spoke with Meruelo and asked him, point-blank, about the future of the Coyotes. Meruelo thought they were asking if he wanted to sell the team and indicated that he wasn’t interested.

“Can you look your players in the eyes and tell them when there’s going to be an arena built?” they asked.

“No,” said Meruelo, “I can’t.”

“It’s not fair to the players, to their families and to hockey operations to not know how long it will take to build this arena,” was the response.

Meruelo said Bettman and Daly laid out the average career for an NHL player and compared that to the amount of years the Coyotes would have played in Mullett. They argued that it was possible, based on the new timeline, for a Coyotes player to never have a chance to call an actual NHL arena home.

“It took me a while to understand that. Probably a week or so,” Meruelo told Burns & Gambo of AZ Sports. “A lot of soul-searching. Thinking and praying. And they’re right. It’s not fair to the players and it’s not fair to the NHL.

“But let’s be clear: The reason I did this is because I told them I’m not going to sell the team. We have to work out a plan that makes sense for everyone, so I can move forward with the team over a period of time. And that’s when they decided it’s not an expansion team, it’s an inactive team that can be reactivated again.”

Bettman said it became clear to him that “there was no way Alex Meruelo was going to agree to this if he wasn’t going to have an opportunity to reactivate the franchise.”

Satisfying Meruelo was the NHL’s most challenging task in the transaction. Multiple sources told ESPN at the All-Star Game that there was concern Meruelo could get litigious if the league attempted to emancipate the franchise from him and force a relocation.

So the NHL created what Bettman called “a scenario that I don’t think anybody’s ever done before” in sports: The Coyotes were deactivated and the franchise was moved to Utah. The Coyotes will be reactivated if Meruelo is able to “fully construct a new, state-of-the-art facility appropriate for an NHL team within five years.” He keeps all the intellectual property for the team, from the logos to the name to the records.

Meruelo will remain an “observer” at the board of governors, as the owner of a deactivated team.

One key aspect of the compromise: Meruelo would not need NHL board of governors’ approval to restart the franchise, according to Daly. “He’s already been approved as an NHL owner,” he told ESPN.

Yet even with the sale to Smith in motion, Meruelo was reportedly still checking his options.

Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro reported in early April that Meruelo was seeking “potential buyers both inside the state of Arizona and outside the state of Arizona.”

Sportsnet reported that Meruelo “reached out to other prospective buyers on his own, only to be reminded he couldn’t sell the team without Board approval.”

The Coyotes declined to comment on whether Meruelo had reached out to any potential buyers or investors during the relocation process.

There are many reasons to believe the NHL entered into this agreement with Meruelo with a healthy skepticism about the project ever being completed.

“If there’s outright hostility to another arena and there are forces at bay that are going to do everything to prevent it, that’ll be a problem,” Bettman said. “But I don’t doubt Alex’s commitment to try and deal with all of those head on.”

Many believe Meruelo will be met with opposition to the project locally. “It seems like there’s just so many forces against the Meruelo family down there that it’s hard to see them being able to put it together in time, and then garner the support they need to make the [NHL] feel comfortable about putting a team back there,” said a source.

Those challenges acknowledged, the NHL entered into this agreement in good faith. Bettman talked about there being benchmarks that Meruelo had to hit to the league’s satisfaction and said the NHL would need about a year-and-a-half notice before he could reactivate the team.

But the land auction itself might now become a problem. One source familiar with the process heard from some potential bidders that “didn’t want to be the ones that chased the Coyotes” out of the market.

“Now that the Coyotes have effectively chased themselves out of Arizona, that’s a prime piece of property. So I think there will be other bidders,” the source said.

Meruelo welcomed the competition. “If other bidders show up, make sure you deposit your money, get your paddle and we’ll bid one against the other,” he told AZ Sports.

Bettman has been clear that the NHL intends to return to Arizona.

“I think if you look back from a league perspective over the last almost three decades, the NHL support for hockey in the desert has been unwavering, to say the least,” he said. “And for anybody who’s been on that journey with us, there have been countless times where we could’ve made another decision and we didn’t. And so I hope everybody understands that this is a place where we believe hockey works.”

But it didn’t work for the Coyotes. Which is why the players and management are now in Utah.

Former Coyotes players, including Liam O’Brien, address fans in Utah at the Delta Center. Chris Gardner/Getty Images

ON APRIL 10, news broke that the NHL was preparing two schedules for the 2024-25 season: one with the Coyotes in Arizona and another with them having relocated to Utah.

Tourigny’s wife texted him after the Utah news started swirling. “She said, ‘You’ve been coaching 30 years. We thought that we saw everything,'” he said. “‘We were both wrong.'”

The Coyotes were in Vancouver on April 10 and skated to a 4-3 win over the Canucks before leaving for Edmonton.

“The day we played the Oilers was when it went from rumor to news,” Tourigny recalled. “I think at that moment, the team really gathered together and closed the loop. We stayed really tight to each other. We fought for each other. I think that commitment and that composure in that situation was impressive from the players. They showed their character.”

The Coyotes won three of four games after the Utah news broke, including their emotional farewell game at Mullett Arena.

The NHL’s board of governors convened for an emergency call April 18. By the time a deal of this magnitude gets to them, it’s essentially finished. The “yes” vote was a formality, and unsurprisingly was unanimous.

“I’m enthusiastic about entering a vibrant market with a strong, energetic ownership group,” one member of the board of governors said. “From my perspective, the situation in Arizona had become untenable and it was necessary to move on.”

After the deal was announced, Smith met with Coyotes players in Arizona, taking the entire team on an outing to Scottsdale National Golf Club. He golfed with different groups, asking a lot of questions about what they needed from the new franchise and doing a lot of listening.

“He was a real beauty. He gets it,” one player source said.

Tourigny met the new owners for the first time when they visited Phoenix to introduce themselves to the players.

“They told us about their story and what they want to accomplish,” Tourigny said. “It was amazing to hear about their core values. Why they’re doing this, how much they care about Utah, how much they care about the people in Utah and how much they believe in the state. Honestly, they filled us with emotion and with pride, to be part of that moving forward.”

According to sources, the Coyotes players who are signed through next season have “genuine excitement” about the move to Utah from a hockey perspective. They know that, as was the case with the Golden Knights and Kraken, the novelty of playing in a new market will immediately put them in the spotlight. Expect Utah’s first home game to be on national television, for example. They anticipate Utah will be able to attract better free agents because they won’t be concerned about the stability of the franchise.

All of that optimism was encapsulated by a pep rally for the team held April 24 at Delta Center, where former Coyotes players and hockey operations staff were introduced to a crowd of 12,400 cheering fans. According to Bettman, 20,000 fans had put down a $100 season-ticket deposit as of April 19.

“I think we have a lot of good pieces in place,” Tourigny said. “The young players are coming. They’re not necessarily on our team yet, but they’re coming. There’s a lot to be excited about. Talent needs time to develop. How far away are we? Time will tell. I hate when you start to say when it’s happening. Our play has to do the talking, and our play will do the talking.”

But there was a competing emotion for some of the longtime Coyotes who put roots down in Arizona and had developed strong bonds with those behind the scenes with the organization.

Smith is cognizant of how hard it’s been for the players and staffers, mostly because of the uncertainty. They didn’t have much time to process the news and now head into their summers accepting a new reality. All Smith wants is for the team to feel like they’re part of something, and that they’ll be taken care of in Utah.

That’s one reason the team might end up with a nickname next season, despite initial plans to hold off on a mascot until Year 2. Smith is keen on having players be able to refer to themselves as something beyond “Utah.”

Smith Entertainment Group has hired Doubleday & Cartwright, a firm that has handled branding for numerous pro teams, to work on the name and logo for the team. It could be fast-tracked; Smith recently told ESPN’s “The Pat McAfee Show” that he’d like to get it down to eight possibilities and then have fans vote on a winner, while assuring McAfee that he’d prevent bots from creating a “Boaty McBoatface” online voting situation.

But Smith also wants the players to feel like they’re part of a larger organization inside the Delta Center.

He received a text from Lauri Markkanen this week with a picture of the 7-foot Finnish NBA power forward on skates. Danny Ainge and coach Will Hardy have offered to help make the team feel welcome.

“I mean, that’s the organization that they’re being a part of,” Smith said. “We have this saying called ‘One Utah,’ and they’re really going to feel that.”

Smith feels the gravity of this moment, and he knows he needs to do right by the team and its fans. When the Smiths bought the NBA team, Ashley’s father told Ryan about where he was in 1979 when it was announced the Jazz were coming to Utah. He heard the news on the radio, pulled over and started crying.

“I just hope we have that moment here,” Smith said. “Where everyone is like, ‘Holy cow, this is what we’re doing.’ The passion’s there. Utahans will show up. We need the NHL to continue on an upward trajectory.

“I think we can bring that. People are watching us. They truly are. And the fact that we’re running toward the NHL, and we’re actually doing it in a sticky situation, shows how bad we want it and how bad everyone else should want to be a part of it too.”