NHL approves Coyotes sale, relocation to Salt Lake City

'This is gut-wrenching': Coyotes players bid emotional farewell to Arizona fans (2:02)

The Arizona Coyotes say goodbye to an emotional set of fans in the final home game of the season ahead of their apparent move to Salt Lake City. (2:02)

The NHL is moving the team now formerly known as the Arizona Coyotes to Utah to begin play as a new franchise next season, the league announced Thursday.

Ryan and Ashley Smith of Smith Entertainment Group bought the team and its existing hockey assets for $1.2 billion from Alex Meruelo, sources told ESPN. Meruelo had owned the Coyotes since buying the franchise for $300 million in 2019, but the league lost patience in his ability to find a long-term arena solution in Arizona and facilitated a sale.

The Smiths, who also own the NBA's Utah Jazz, initially built a relationship with commissioner Gary Bettman because they wanted an expansion franchise. However, over the past several months, the conversation changed and Bettman approached the Smiths about becoming a solution for the Coyotes instead.

According to Ryan Smith, things pivoted fast.

"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," he told ESPN. "It was more of: 'Can you guys pull this off? Can you really pull it off?' It looks like [the Coyotes'] situation's going to be a little longer than everyone anticipated, and [the NHL] kind of had an issue. So our response is very much like, we want to be part of the league. We think we bring a lot. We think we can add a lot. We think we can give back more than we take and help grow the sport.

"It's unprecedented. 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 sale was approved at a virtual NHL board of governors meeting Thursday afternoon.

"As everyone knows, Utah is a vibrant and thriving state, and we are thrilled to be a part of it," Bettman said in a statement Thursday. "We are also delighted to welcome Ashley and Ryan Smith to the NHL family and know they will be great stewards of the game in Utah. We thank them for working so collaboratively with the league to resolve a complex situation in this unprecedented and beneficial way."

The Coyotes' final home game at Mullett Arena on Wednesday night was emotional, with players and staff members pouring onto the ice for photos after a win against the Edmonton Oilers.

"It's been a hard 20 to 25 years, not knowing where home is going to be," said Coyotes rookie Josh Doan, son of franchise legend Shane Doan.

Players were largely kept in the dark on relocation until last Friday, when general manager Bill Armstrong met the team on the road in Edmonton. Players and coaches demanded answers in a team meeting, according to sources, and left that night understanding that the move was imminent.

The Coyotes' players, draft picks and hockey operations department will relocate to Utah, playing for a new yet-to-be-named franchise. Smith said there's a chance the team will play with a temporary name and logo for next season. SEG is using a branding agency and is canvassing the community for suggestions.

"It's OK if we take the full process and don't rush it, because we're going to have it forever," Smith told ESPN. "And look, it's not ideal for me. I would love to come in and have it all picked out and ready to go."

The Utah team will play at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, a facility the Smiths own and which is also home to the Jazz. SEG said it will work on improvements over the summer to outfit the arena for hockey, including building a hockey-specific locker room. According to Smith, the Delta Center will have 12,000 unobstructed seats for hockey games next season and SEG will work to expand after that.

"First of all, [the NHL] wanted to know if the arena can fit 17,000-plus, and that's what we've been able to confirm," Smith told ESPN. "We've got some internal work to obviously do with our city and state, too. I mean, we got a lot more people coming in now, and so we need to build the infrastructure also up and around the arena. That's a really big focus of ours -- so the entrance of the arena just isn't that front door; it's the entertainment around it and that kind of a thing."

Smith already has government support from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. A bill was passed in the Utah state Senate to help fund a renovated entertainment district downtown in anticipation of an NHL franchise.

Meruelo, meanwhile, received $1 billion in the sale, according to sources, and will maintain the name, intellectual property and historical records of the Coyotes -- which will now be considered an inactive franchise. Meruelo will have a five-year window in which he can try to build an arena and bring a team to Arizona, for an expected price tag of $1 billion.

The extra $200 million in this week's sale will be split among NHL teams.

"I agree with Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League, that it is simply unfair to continue to have our players, coaches, hockey front office, and the NHL teams they compete against, spend several more years playing in an arena that is not suited for NHL hockey," Meruelo said in a statement released Thursday.

"This is not the end for NHL hockey in Arizona. I have negotiated the right to reactivate the team within the next five years, and have retained ownership of the beloved Coyotes name, brand and logo. I remain committed to this community and to building a first-class sports arena and entertainment district without seeking financial support from the public."

The Coyotes had been playing at 5,000-seat Mullett Arena on Arizona State University's campus since the beginning of last season as Meruelo continued his quest to find a permanent home in Arizona. Meruelo has eyed a plot in the Phoenix area and intends to win a state-run land auction for it June 27. However, according to sources, the NHL grew skeptical of the timeline and decided it needed a better solution for next season. The league also convinced Meruelo that it wasn't fair to the players to continue playing at Mullett Arena for the foreseeable future.

"The NHL's belief in Arizona has never wavered," Bettman said in his statement. "We thank Alex Meruelo for his commitment to the franchise and Arizona, and we fully support his ongoing efforts to secure a new home in the desert for the Coyotes. We also want to acknowledge the loyal hockey fans of Arizona, who have supported their team with dedication for nearly three decades while growing the game."

When NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh was hired in 2023, finding a solution for the Coyotes was among his top priorities. The players' union, like the league, became frustrated when Meruelo blew by artificial deadlines to break ground on a new arena. While the league was losing money on the Coyotes, the players were too, as the two sides have a 50-50 split on hockey-related revenue.

Smith said he was conscious of how difficult the situation has been for players but is planning a warm welcome, including inviting players to get acclimated.

"We're here for them," Smith told ESPN. "We have an incredible Utah Jazz organization who are all onboard. I've got Lauri Markkanen, our All-Star, who literally sent me a picture today with him with skates on. I've got Will Hardy, our head coach, saying, 'Whatever you need.' I got [team CEO] Danny Ainge saying, 'Hey, do you want me to come down and help you?'

"I mean, that's the organization that they're being a part of. We have this saying called 'One Utah,' and they're really going to feel that."