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Vision, love for Utah, victory – Ryan Smith's “three bingos” for NBA and NHL success

Ryan Smith never met Larry Miller, never spoke to the man, not once.

Whether the two business titans/team owners would have been friends remains unclear. This much is certain: they were/are different, distinct individuals. For example, as a matter of routine, Larry would not have conducted business with a baseball cap backwards to remind him of his own imperfections and that, although he may be a billionaire, he is still just a guy.

However, the similarities they had/have are evident in what they do, in what they said/want to say, in what they did, in what they did.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered and what he wanted to be remembered for, Miller replied, “As a man who loved Utah.”

When asked what his greatest talent was, Miller said, “My vision. I see things that others don’t see.”

When asked what he wanted to accomplish as a team owner, Miller said, “Winning.”

Yes, well, a triple bingo for Smith.

Bingo, bingo and more bingo.

The young visionary who, a little over a decade after Miller's death, finally bought Miller's NBA team – the one that Larry and Gail had previously saved from moving out of state through that purchase – and who has now taken it over and become an NHL Bringing team to state also loves Utah.

When Smith and his wife, Ashley, addressed the Coyotes for the first time in Arizona, after news of the franchise's acquisition had just arrived, they filled a crowd of stitched-up, leathery and slightly confused hockey players – athletes and coaches trying to process what was going on with the double hockey sticks and what it meant for their future – full of hope and promise for the place, the community they would soon be skating for and achieving their goals in the coming seasons.

“They told us about their story and what they want to accomplish,” Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny told ESPN. “It was amazing to learn about their core values. Why they do this, how much they care about Utah, how much they care about the people of Utah and how much they believe in the state. Honestly, they filled us with emotion and pride to be part of this evolution.”

So that is the strong connection, the commonality, between the two men who have had and/or will have the greatest impact on Utah sports in its first century and a half of existence.

Miller bought the Jazz when he had nothing to do with it and spent far more than his entire wealth and assets to prevent them from becoming someone else's team in someone else's state.

Smith bought the Jazz, part of Real Salt Lake, and now the as-yet-unnamed hockey team for today's generation of fans and those of tomorrow.

After taking ownership of the Jazz, Smith said this about the purchase and his newfound responsibility: “It's not easy owning an NBA team. This is not what people from the outside think, where everything is fun. There's a lot of work, a lot that comes with it. To sit and say, “Hey, this is a dream,” I don’t really see it that way. It's work. It will be work and it will be hard. The dream comes from what we can do for people.”

If you listen closely, you can hear Smith repeating all of this and saying the same thing about owning an NHL team.

He said something else at the time: “We want to win.”

Ahh, the winner. Ask Larry somewhere out there in the great beyond, that's the steepest cliff there is to climb in the rugged, mountainous and competitive regions of the NBA and NHL. It's a bit like organizing a climb of Mount Everest, except that other groups of climbers along the way are determined to push and hop you and your uniformed Sherpas over the edge and into the icy abyss below.

Miller managed to take the Jazz to the NBA Finals twice in his quarter-century as owner before his death in 2009, and the Jazz enjoyed strong success in other postseasons as well.

Since Smith first owned the Jazz in 2020, he has struggled to achieve similar success. Under his – admittedly short – tenure, the team didn't accomplish much, particularly in the last two seasons when the Jazz failed to qualify for the playoffs. He swapped out the front office and hired his golf buddy Danny Ainge, who largely dismantled the team that made the postseason and replaced it with the team that didn't, along with a slew of draft picks and still unfulfilled promises for the future. So far, fans have continued to show up. The question is, for how long?

Utah's new NHL team didn't make the playoffs last season, although many observers believe the club has enough talented young players, draft picks and other options to make a strong move in the coming years. The hockey team is ahead of the basketball team in this regard, despite all the excitement and uncertainty about the team's ownership and location, the lack of an NHL-worthy arena, and all the off-ice confusion. It looks like Smith is leaving the hockey guys in place to do their thing so they can develop into what they're going to be.

“I think we have a lot of good things in store,” Tourigny told ESPN. “The young players are coming. They're not necessarily on our team yet, but they're coming. There's a lot to be happy about. Talent takes time to develop. How far away are we? We will see. I hate it when you start saying when it happens. Our play must speak, and our play will speak.”

It's up to Smith to figure out what Tourigny's team needs and give them the financial and other support needed to achieve what the owner says.

When Smith met with the players in Arizona, he took the entire team on a trip to Scottsdale National Golf Club, where, while playing golf with various groups of players, he asked everyone in sight what he could do to not only Utah to move more smoothly, but to help them in the larger context. He reportedly did what too many team owners fail to do: He listened.

He probably impressed them with his golf swing too – the guy is confident with the club, something of a 2-handicapper.

The rubble surrounding the team formerly known as “The Coyotes” is slowly being swept away. The trauma that unfolded last season, blowing right outside the locker room door, was immense and intense. The team's difficulties during the aforementioned uncertainty were hard to ignore as they impacted not only the players and coaches and their families, but also the team's fan base. This is Arizona's problem now. Will the rubble down there become another NHL team or will thoughts of hockey simply fade from memory? Beats me. The league appears to want a team in the Phoenix area if room and space for a new arena can ever be found.

The campaign began in earnest with Smith's early exposure to his new team and then moved forward with enthusiasm when the team was unveiled at the Delta Center just over a week ago, all to the delight of more than 12,000 new fans gathered for the party.

Players and coaches seemed and seem really excited to skate for Salt Lake.

And with more than 20,000 deposits already made for season tickets to NHL games starting this fall, the feeling is mutual, just as Smith always imagined. So it's like, a team that never made money in Phoenix will quickly make money here.

Vision and love for Utah.

The venue that Larry Miller built for basketball was also almost always full.

Now it is said that Smith will reconstruct the building to make it suitable for more than 17,000 hockey fans.

That's the easy part, especially with the help of public money promised by Utah lawmakers.

The hard part? The actual work? The stuff that keeps Utah fans flocking to the Delta Center and spending their personal money season after season? This will come the same way for both basketball and hockey, in… you know.

The third bingo.

The winning.

Editor's note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Anna Harden

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