Gary Bettman talks about moving coyotes in Arizona and Utah, says Alex Meruelo was 'losing a lot' of money

SALT LAKE CITY — Gary Bettman wore the same outfit to his news conferences Friday in Phoenix and Salt Lake City: a dark navy suit, a crisp blue dress shirt — with an undone collar and no tie — and black dress shoes.

However, the expression on the commissioner's face was noticeably different in each city. During a 35-minute session with reporters at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix, Pittman grew frustrated as he sat next to Alex Meruelo. The questions from the gathered media were clear and direct. The overall tone and tone of the room seemed negative and hostile, as Meruelo and Bettman were left to explain why the NHL was pressing pause on the Arizona market.

The press conference opened with a tough question for Merello from veteran Arizona hockey reporter Craig Morgan, who finished his thought by saying, “There's a lot of anger, there's a lot of disappointment. There's a tremendous amount of distrust of anything you say at this point.”

When the topics of the Wolves' financial health came up, Bettman painted a bleak picture.

“Was he losing a lot of money? You bet. He was losing a lot,” Pittman said.

Meruelo tried to capitalize on the commissioner's comments, at which point Pittman grabbed his hand and placed it on Meruelo's arm, preventing him from speaking further.

“I get it,” Bateman said. “You don't have to say that.”

At another point, a reporter asked Meruelo if unpaid bills from the Coyotes were the reason for deactivating the franchise and transferring to Utah State.

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

This answer was followed by an inquiry as to why Meruelo had not appeared much in public over the past year.

“Because I don’t like the media,” he said frankly. “I own two television stations in Los Angeles and five radio stations in Los Angeles and have never been involved in radio or television. I just avoid the media for many reasons.

Knowing that answer wouldn't sit well with fans in Arizona, Pittman quickly stepped in to try to save Meruelo.

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“Let me translate that a little bit,” Pittman interrupted. “I think he doesn't like to be a public person. It's not that he hates the media, because as he says he owns the media. Some people don't like to be in public. He wouldn't be the only owner in any sport who feels that way.”

It was an awkward moment and unfortunately perhaps the low point in an otherwise dismal press session.

Contrast that with Bettman's opening remarks a few hours later inside a large room inside Delta Center in Salt Lake City. Bettman, who was packed with media, local politicians, dignitaries and Utah Jazz staff, received a standing ovation when he was introduced to deliver his opening remarks.

“Since you're about to be hockey fans, you'll quickly learn that I don't usually get that kind of reception,” Pittman said, a comment that elicited a hearty laugh.

The news conference in Salt Lake City began at 5 p.m. locally, which is often prime time to unpack bad news from a major organization on the Friday before the weekend. If Bettman and the NHL had experts, they certainly would have swapped press conferences, burying the session in Arizona until it vanished into the Friday evening air. But you can't blame league officials for wanting to put aside the day's bad news before turning their attention fully to the upbeat situation in Utah. It is better to swallow the bitter pill first and then wash it down with a delicious drink rather than the other way around.

And Pittman couldn't help but take a not-so-subtle jab at the dysfunction of the arena in Arizona while sitting 650 miles to the north. After Ryan Smith laid out his vision for transforming the Delta Center into a modern, dual-purpose facility that will eventually house 17,500 hockey and basketball fans, Pittman made a point to point out how excited he is for a smooth transition in Salt Lake City.

“Local leaders have assured me that we will not see any drama on the scene,” Pittman said. “Based on where we're coming from, I'd rather not have drama on the scene.”

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The fact that Smith was able to accomplish in a matter of weeks what Meruelo could not accomplish over a period of years is very clear. The Coyotes' tenure in Arizona was punctuated by endless battles with government officials. Following the 2021-22 season, the Coyotes were ousted from their former home, Gila River Arena, by the city of Glendale. The move came after failed discussions about extending the lease amid multiple notices regarding outstanding balances under the previous lease agreement. Then Tempe voters rejected a proposal last year to build a new Coyote Arena.

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

At Friday's press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson took turns speaking at the podium.

“This is an epic day in Utah. “We're very excited, we've been waiting for this for a while,” Cox said.

Cox revealed that his first conversation with Bateman took place in the first week of February. From there, discussions moved quickly after Pittman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daley informed Meruelo on March 6 that he no longer had time in Tempe. With Smith's operating point, multiple levels of government in Utah and Salt Lake City quickly worked together to create an on-the-ground solution in no time. The deal was finalized this week, and the final papers were signed at 2 a.m. Friday.

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

“I'm very surprised, but I'm not surprised at the way we're turning out,” Smith added. “Throughout the whole process, through our state legislature, I've never seen so many Republicans, Democrats and faith leaders on the same page before. It's emotional.”

While Bettman had strong reservations about Meruelo's plans to eventually build an area, he did turn to Smith at one point and seemed to show absolute confidence in the plan the Jazz owner had in place to overhaul the Delta Center to make it an NHL-worthy venue.

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“She assured me and I saw the plans that in a relatively short period of time, in the next two years, we would get to 17,000,” Pittman said.

On Friday evening, Smith announced that 22,700 people had placed a $100 deposit for a chance to purchase season ticket plans for Salt Lake City's NHL team.

“Hearing that there are deposits for over 22,000 season tickets, that's a bit interesting, don't you think?” Bateman said.

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

Former Coyotes players and employees – now wholly owned by the state of Utah – will make their first visit to Salt Lake City with a chance to see the arena and meet fans. Smith and his wife, Ashley, met with 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're just gaining people. We need people. We need everyone,” Smith said.

This seems to sum up the two press conferences perfectly. Smith promoted cooperation and partnerships, whether with politicians or his new staff. On the contrary, Meruelo seems to be isolated on an island, and it is very difficult to form alliances with him. It is clear that any confidence Pittman has in Meruelo to complete the arena project has been transferred entirely to the Smith family for the time being.

“We're very happy. We've had confidence from the beginning and that's been a result of getting to know Ryan over the last couple of years,” Bateman said. “There are special people who don't wonder why. They move full speed ahead and do what needs to be done. I was confident that Ryan and Ashley could do it.

Required reading

(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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