Gary Bettman Talks Coyotes Moves to Arizona and Utah, Says Alex Meruelo Lost ‘A Lot’ of Money

SALT LAKE CITY – Gary Bettman wore the same outfit for his two press conferences on Friday in Phoenix and Salt Lake City: a dark blue suit, a bright blue shirt – with the collar unbuttoned and no tie – and black dress shoes.

However, the expression the commissioner wore on his face was clearly different in each city. During a 35-minute session with reporters at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Phoenix, Bettman became understandably frustrated while sitting next to Alex Meruelo. The questions from the assembled media were sharp and direct. The general tone and atmosphere of the room seemed negative and combative as Meruelo and Bettman had to explain why the NHL put the Arizona market on pause.

The press conference started with a tough question for Meruelo from veteran Arizona hockey reporter Craig Morgan, who ended his thought by saying, “There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of disappointment. And there’s a tremendous amount of distrust for anything you say right now.

When the topics of the Coyotes’ financial health came up, Bettman painted a grim picture.

‘Did he lose a lot of money? Sure. He lost a ton,” Bettman said.

Meruelo tried to piggyback on the commissioner’s comments, after which Bettman took his hand and placed it on Meruelo’s arm, preventing him from continuing to speak.

“I see,” Bettman said. “You don’t have to say it.”

At another point, a reporter asked Meruelo if unpaid bills from the Coyotes were a reason why the franchise was deactivated and the Utah was moved.

“I’m not aware of any unpaid bills,” Meruelo replied.

That answer was followed by a question about why Meruelo hasn’t made many public appearances in the past year.

“Because I don’t like the media,” he said flatly. “I own two TV stations in Los Angeles and five radio stations in Los Angles, and I have never been on radio or TV. I avoid the media for many reasons.”

Knowing this response would not sit well with the fans in Arizona, Bettman quickly intervened to save Meruelo.

“Let me translate that a little,” Bettman interjected. ‘I think he doesn’t like being a public person. Not that he hates the media, because as he says, he owns the media. Some people don’t like being in public. He wouldn’t be the only owner in any sport who feels that way.”

It was an awkward moment and unfortunately probably the brightest point in an otherwise somber press session.

Compare that to Bettman’s opening statement a few hours later in a large room at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City. Filled with media, local politicians and dignitaries and Utah Jazz personnel, Bettman received a loud ovation when he was introduced for his opening statement.

“Since you’re all about to become hockey fans, you’ll notice pretty quickly that I don’t normally get that kind of reception,” Bettman said, a comment that drew a hearty laugh.

The press conference in Salt Lake City started locally at 5 p.m., often the best time for a bad news dump from a major organization on Friday leading up to the weekend. If Bettman and the NHL had their druthers, they surely would have swapped the two press conferences and buried the Arizona session so it could disappear into the Friday night air. But you can’t blame league officials for wanting to put the bad news of the day aside before turning their full attention to the optimistic situation in Utah. It is better to swallow the bitter pill first and wash it down with a nice drink than the other way around.

And Bettman couldn’t resist making a not-so-subtle joke about the Arizona arena’s dysfunction while sitting 650 miles north. After Ryan Smith outlined his vision for transforming the Delta Center into a state-of-the-art, dual-purpose facility that will eventually house 17,500 fans for hockey and basketball, Bettman made it clear he was excited for a smooth transition in Salt Lake City.

“I have been assured by local leaders that there will be no arena drama,” Bettman said. “Based on where we come from, I prefer no arena drama.”

The fact that Smith was able to accomplish in a few weeks what Meruelo couldn’t do over the years is telling. The Coyotes’ tenure in Arizona was punctuated by endless battles with government officials. After the 2021-2022 season, the Coyotes were evicted from their previous home, Gila River Arena, by the city of Glendale. The move came after failed lease renewal talks amid multiple notices of outstanding balances under their previous lease. Tempe voters then rejected a proposal last year to build a new arena for the Coyotes.

The relationship between the hockey team and politicians in Utah is clearly different.

At Friday’s news conference in Salt Lake City, Utah Governor Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson all took turns speaking at the podium.

“This is an epic day in Utah. We are so excited, we have been waiting for this for a while,” said Cox.

Cox revealed that his first conversation with Bettman took place the first week of February. From there, discussions accelerated after Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly informed Meruelo on March 6 that he no longer had time in Tempe. Under Smith’s leadership, multiple levels of government in Utah and Salt Lake City quickly worked together to create an arena solution on the fly. The deal was finalized this week, with the final paperwork signed at 2 a.m. Friday morning.

“There were a thousand ways this could have gone wrong and it almost went wrong,” Cox said. “But so many people came together to make this work.”

“I’m so incredibly surprised, but not surprised by the way we’re showing up,” Smith added. “Throughout the process, from our state legislature, I have never seen so many Republicans, Democrats and religious leaders all on the same page. It’s emotional.”

Although Bettman had major reservations about Meruelo’s plans to eventually build a field, he turned to Smith at one point and seemed to exude pure confidence in the Jazz owner’s plan to renovate the Delta Center to become an NHL worthy location.

“You have assured me and I have seen the plans that we will reach 17,000 in a relatively short period of time, in the next few years,” Bettman said.

On Friday evening, Smith announced that 22,700 people had made a $100 deposit for a chance to win season tickets to the NHL team in Salt Lake City.

“To hear that money has been deposited for more than 22,000 season tickets, isn’t that somewhat satisfying?” Bettman said.

Club officials hope many of those 22,700 fans will show up for a splashy launch event scheduled for Wednesday at the Delta Center.

Former Coyotes players and staff – now wholly owned by Utah – will make their first visit to Salt Lake City with a chance to see the arena and meet the fans. Smith and his wife Ashley met with the players and staff in Arizona on Thursday. Smith said his plan is to retain general manager Bill Armstrong and head coach Andre Tourigny, both of whom signed contract extensions with the Coyotes last fall.

‘We just recruit the people. We need the people. We need everyone,” Smith said.

And that really seemed to sum up the two press conferences perfectly. Smith touted collaboration and partnerships, whether with politicians or his new staff. Meruelo, on the other hand, seems to be isolated on an island, where alliances are extremely difficult to find. And it’s clear that any confidence Bettman had in Meruelo to get an arena project completed has shifted entirely to the Smith family for now.

“We are very happy. We had confidence from the start and this came from getting to know Ryan over the last few years,” said Bettman. “There are special people who don’t wonder why. They just keep going at full speed and do what needs to be done. I had confidence that Ryan and Ashley could do that.”

Required reading

(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)