Ex-Coyotes receive emotional welcome in Salt Lake City: ‘We already want to fight for Utah’

SALT LAKE CITY — The door to the Delta Airlines chartered plane carrying the first members of Utah’s NHL team opened at 10:30 sharp Wednesday morning.

Immediately, passengers inside the plane were hit with a heat that had nothing to do with the sunny weather and 75 degrees that greeted them on the tarmac. Instead, it was the warm energy radiating from about 1,000 fans — mostly minor hockey kids from around the state — who filled the airport hangar to greet players and staff.

After eventful seasons, marked by uncertainty and drama, the former members of the Arizona Coyotes finally had the opportunity to turn the page, Wednesday in Salt Lake City.

“Coming off that plane and for those players today, it was a clean slate for them,” Utah general manager Bill Armstrong said. “You could see the joy on their faces when they saw the children. I don’t know if kids will ever understand how much this means to gamers. I almost had a tear in my eye. »

“Obviously a lot has happened over the last few weeks, but we’re very excited to be here,” added Utah forward Clayton Keller. “Getting off the plane was amazing.”

Dozens of children held up homemade signs, welcoming the players to Utah, their enthusiastic voices echoing inside the hangar. At one point, a loud cheer of “Utah Yetis” broke out from the kids, who were trying to defend their favorite nickname for the team.

While waiting for the plane to arrive, the musical selection was carefully chosen inside the hangar.

They played “The Hockey Song” by Stompin’ Tom Connors, which was sandwiched between Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” and Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer.” It was an attempt to try to sum up Utah’s feeling of almost inexplicably drafting an NHL team in just six weeks.

When players and staff got off the plane, they wore black team-issued hoodies that featured the NHL logo and the phrase “Utah, East.” 2024.” The players then spent about 15 minutes signing autographs and taking photos with fans.

Utah head coach Andre Tourigny said his wife caught him and expressed her astonishment at the scene unfolding before her.

“She said to me, ‘Can you imagine all these kids who missed school coming here and welcoming you to town?’ “, said Tourigny. “It touched her.”

Tourigny later added that the show of support inside the airport hangar forged an instant bond between the team and their new city.

“We already felt at home,” Tourigny said. “We want to fight for Utah already. I’m blown away right now.

From there, 17 players, staff and their loved ones were taken to experience their new home. Players were able to tour the Utah Jazz’s state-of-the-art practice facilities, located less than two miles from the Delta Center in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City.

And when the players were given their first tour of the Delta Center – which will serve as their home arena next season – they were impressed with the setup. For starters, it will accommodate nearly three times as many spectators as the 4,600 people who could fit into their previous home at Mullett Arena in Tempe. And given the steep curvature of the seat bowl, it looks and feels different than most NHL venues. The hockey team is planning drastic renovations in the coming years that will eventually result in a seating capacity of approximately 17,000 for NHL games.

“It’s unique with the seats that are right above you,” Keller said. “And from everything we’ve heard, the building is still very noisy.”

“They were excited about the rink today. We want to relaunch it here. We want to become the loudest building in the NHL,” Armstrong added. “This building here gives us a chance. The way it’s built, how steep it is, you couldn’t design a better building for us.

Players and staff got a glimpse of that energy inside the Delta Center during a spectacular kickoff event Wednesday evening. More than 12,000 fans filled the arena — the maximum allowed with the stage and setup for Wednesday’s event — to greet players and staff in person.

Team owners Ashley and Ryan Smith were greeted with a loud ovation and everyone took a few moments to express their feelings.

“We’re excited to take the energy of Jazz, multiply it and create an even better fan experience in this area,” Ashley said while holding the wireless microphone on stage. “And we are full of gratitude, enthusiasm and energy to come and watch these players do their job on this ice. »

Ryan said the number of fans who made deposits for season tickets for the 2024-25 season increased to 29,000.

Each of the 17 players then had the chance to take the microphone and introduce themselves to their new fans inside the Delta Center.

Center Liam O’Brien perhaps stole the show when he introduced himself and said: “My name is Liam O’Brien, but you can call me Spicy Tuna.” Let’s rock this place! »

This sent the crowd into a frenzy. Then, at Jack McBain’s urging, the entire arena began singing “Spicy Tuna.”

When Alex Kerfoot received the mic, he told the crowd, “This is one of the coolest experiences we’ve had as hockey players. »

The entire scene was a remarkable turn of events for a group of players and staff who felt abandoned and neglected just two weeks ago. As rumors about the sale of the team and a possible move began to arise, players and staff found themselves completely in the dark about the procedure.

“The process was complicated for everyone. We understood that past and present owners could not speak. The league couldn’t speak,” Tourigny said. “We were caught in the middle.”

But all that changed last week when the Smiths flew to Arizona hours after the league’s board of governors approved a plan under which they would own an NHL franchise in Utah and would inherit the staff and roster of the Coyotes’ hockey operations. The Smiths had a direct conversation with players and staff, informing them that they would be placed under the Jazz umbrella, who had the personnel and infrastructure to help them move to Utah. All player and staff concerns were put to rest at this meeting.

“What we respected most was their authenticity. Ryan came into the room, pulled up a chair and we had an honest conversation,” Utah forward Lawson Crouse said. “I think it’s come a long way with our group with everything we’ve been through the last few weeks.”

“From the moment Ryan and Ashely came to talk to us, the way they talked to us, they excited us,” Tourigny added. “From there we felt like we had some stability here. We are pleased.”

One of the things promised by the Smiths was an opportunity for players, their staff and their loved ones to have a chance to visit Salt Lake City before the start of summer. Wednesday’s visit was hastily organized but executed to perfection. At one point, Tourigny said he and Armstrong were standing in the hotel lobby when the wives and girlfriends were returning from their own sightseeing and city tours.

“They were smiling and excited,” Tourigny said. “Seeing our families and the players’ families get excited, it shows two things: how welcoming the people of Utah have been to us and how excited we are to come.”

Armstrong said Wednesday’s visit “planted a seed” of enthusiasm among the players and their families, so that when they return to Salt Lake City full time in about five months, they will have a positive experience to look forward to. hang their hat. When the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in the spring of 2011, they weren’t offered such an opportunity to tour their new city and NHL facilities months in advance.

And Utah’s players and staff came away from Wednesday’s visit knowing they had just participated in something unique and memorable.

“It’s been a surreal experience,” Armstrong said. “I don’t think there’s a player here that comes to visit us that isn’t moved by the feeling he gets when he sees the fans here. And how excited they are to have us in Utah .

“This will be my seventh year in the NHL and I told my wife, ‘I think this is my best day in the NHL so far,’” Tourigny added. “This is how I feel.”

(Photo of Liam O’Brien speaking at the NHL Utah Kickoff Party: Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

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