‘Most painful decision in my life’: Meruelo, Bettman respond to criticism about Arizona Coyotes departure

Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo, left and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman face the media Friday to explain how the team’s relocation to Salt Lake City unfolded. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A week of unbearable silence for Coyotes fans ended Friday with a spirited media session featuring two key players involved in the team’s relocation to Salt Lake City.

“I’ve been presented with the most painful decision in my life, in my 40 years of business,” Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo said. “My family and I are devastated.”

Meruelo and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the media on the heels of Thursday’s announcement that the Coyotes would become inactive and that Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and the Smith Entertainment Group would purchase team operations for $1.2 billion.

The 45-minute press conference had some level of tension to it, with several questions from reporters being met with hostility and hesitancy.

Bettman and Meruelo both made opening remarks, maintaining their commitment to hockey in Arizona.

“I think if you look back from the league perspective, almost three decades of the NHL’s support for hockey in the desert, that has been unwavering, to say the least,” Bettman said.

Meruelo added that “there’s no question that (hockey in the desert) works. The fan base and the enthusiasm has been infectious. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The delay of building a permanent home proved costly, Bettman said.

“We find ourselves here today under difficult circumstances because when the Coyotes moved into Mullett and played, now two seasons there, the belief was that this was going to be temporary, three years,” he said “Even if there was a fourth year, if a building was coming out of the ground, people would understand and be excited. We’d get through it.”

When whispers became louder Monday, no guarantees were to be had. June 27 – the date for an auction of an attractive piece of land in North Phoenix – was still several months away, and despite the unwavering certainty Meruelo spoke with that he would win this auction, acquire this land and build an entertainment district and arena, it wasn’t enough to stop the NHL from making the move to Salt Lake City.

“We were still dealing with uncertainty because there is still an auction to be had. … We were facing … three to five more years at Mullett,” Bettman said.

Bettman followed by thanking Arizona State for allowing the Coyotes to call Mullett Arena home for the past two seasons, also adding that while the facility is a great collegiate hockey facility, it is not a “major league facility.” Concerns arose from the prospect of the arena hosting postseason hockey, or even potentially the Stanley Cup Finals, saying that it is just not practical for events like these.

A large contingent of media members gathered at the Hyatt Regency Phoenix Friday to hear Coyotes leadership speak for the first time about the team’s imment move (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Meruelo added that he agreed with Bettman and the NHL that it was unfair to allow the players to continue to compete in an arena that is not an NHL facility.

At one point, Meruelo was asked why he hadn’t made any media appearances or had many public statements over the past year.

“I don’t like the media,” he said. Bettman clarified the comment to say that Meruelo doesn’t like to be a “public person.”

“I don’t like the limelight. I don’t feel comfortable with it,” Meruelo said. Asked why he hadn’t addressed season-ticket holders about the situation, he said, “I wasn’t able to speak … I have been gagged, threatened. I couldn’t speak.”

No longer gagged or threatened, Meruelo was asked why season-ticket holders have yet to receive their refunds.

“Season-ticket refunds will be made immediately,” Meruelo said. “We’ll look at it and we’ll address it immediately. Just give me a chance to breathe.”

Season-ticket holders received an email just hours after these comments were made, promising to get them additional information and refunds for their deposits for the 2024-25 season.

Another concern from many in the audience was what the timeline looked like. How far did this extend back? When did it get serious?

“The first that Alex Meruelo heard anything about what we wound up consummating was on March 6,” Bettman said. “That is the first time I raised this with him. His reaction was ‘no.’”

The timeline extended through much of March, finally coming to its conclusion Thursday when the NHL Board of Directors voted on the move to Salt Lake City. The papers, Bettman said, were finalized at 2 a.m. Thursday morning.

While the saga was met with much disappointment from the fanbase, the NHL and outsiders, Meruelo was asked if he had regrets about the way the last two years have transpired.

“I’m not sure I’ve had time for regrets. I’ve been so busy,” he said.

Bettman shared his displeasure with the situation.

“My biggest disappointment was that the referendum failed in Tempe,” he said. “I’ve never seen a more public-private win-win than that was, and not the least of which, the landfill is still there and will be for a long time. It was an opportunity for it to be funded privately to clean it up. Of all the things we had to deal with over the last 27 years, I found that the most disappointing.”

The Tempe situation and vote was something that both Meruelo and Bettman referenced several times. At one point, Meruelo was asked about what he personally did to try and get the votes of the Tempe residents.

“I spent seven million dollars on this campaign … I personally went door-to-door, knocking on a thousand doors,” Meruelo said.

Meruelo will remain the owner of the Coyotes brand, name, logo and their AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners. With at least another year left on the Mullett Arena contract and the commitment that Meruelo had made to hockey in the Valley, he spoke about the potential of where their future may lie.

“We talked about maybe playing half a season in Tucson, half a season in Mullett,” Meruelo said. “There is a lot of discussion going on, there is no commitment from anybody right now.”

When asked why Utah works so well and how they were able to get this process done so quickly, Bettman referenced several factors, including the size of the market, the location, the ownership’s hunger for a team and the facilities they have in place.

“There are 12,000 unobstructed seats, 4,000 obstructed. They have plans, which I’ve seen, to take it to 17,000, two summers after this. It’s an improved situation,” Bettman said.

Bettman is referring to the Delta Center, the current home of the Utah Jazz. Originally, there was an expectation that the Delta Center would only be a temporary home of the new hockey team, but with renovations, they will be able to accommodate them long term.

Bettman added that over 20,000 deposits for season tickets have been put down for the Salt Lake City team announced Friday, showing the high level of demand for a team without a name.

Bettman said it is nearly impossible for the team to go through the naming process by the opening of the season and also not something they are overly concerned about. Additionally, Scripps Sports will be picking up television coverage of the team and it will be broadcasted in the Arizona market. New owner Smith first expressed interest in owning an NHL team two years ago, sending a letter to the NHL about his desire to bring an expansion team to Utah.

Bettman said that if the Coyotes are eventually reactivated, filling their roster will be similar to the process of expansion experienced by the Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights.

Meruelo and Bettman repeatedly referenced the importance of winning the land auction to bring hockey back to Arizona. He plans to fund this fully on his own, without any use of taxpayer money, which would be the first current stadium in the Phoenix-metro area to do so.

Despite Salt Lake City ripping the team away from its Arizona home, he remains confident in his ability to build the development and a future, permanent home for the NHL in the Valley, hoping for more success than ever before.

“In the right location and the new arena, I believe (the) Arizona Coyotes will be (a) top 10 in team generated revenues,” Meruelo said. “No question about it.”

Zach Mott(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Zach Mott expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Mott has interned with the Varsity Sports Show doing camera and broadcast work.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Spencer Barnes expects to graduate in May 2026 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Barnes has been a sports beat writer for AZPreps365 and the Gunnison Country Times. He also has done Blaze Radio Sports and the Walter Cronkite Sports Network, clubs that have allowed him to take photos of ASU basketball, football and others. Barnes does freelance photography for Phoenix area high school football and basketball teams and hopes to end up as a traveling or team photographer for the NBA.