Trevor Lewis got the call. The wrong kind. The bad kind. The one nearly 10 years ago when he was informed that his stint in the L.A. Kings training camp was ending and he was being sent down to the minor leagues. This came just days before the Kings were scheduled to play an NHL preseason exhibition in his home state back in October 2008.
The Kings played the San Jose Sharks at the Maverik Center. Lewis was not suited up. The Salt Lake City hockey product has since achieved what most pro hockey players simply dream to. He officially made it. Became a staple of two NHL Stanley Cup championship teams with the Kings in 2012 and 2014. He even played with the Utah Grizzlies in 2013 during the NHL lockout.
Lewis later got to bring back those championship Cups to Utah and celebrate with fans. But he always wondered what it would’ve been like to suit up in L.A. black in front of a hometown crowd. Almost a decade later, the 31-year-old will get to experience it Monday night at the Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Kings are back, facing the Vancouver Canucks in what is being called the “2018 Salt Lake Shootout” in preseason action.
“Here’s hoping this game grows hockey a little bit more in Utah,” Lewis said.
Could Monday’s preseason outing be viewed as a potential trial run? For years now, sports fans in Utah regularly discuss what potential major sports league could eventually be Beehive State-bound? It’s complicated, no doubt. But as one USA Today report stated, Utah is the fastest growing state in the country. More people equals more sports fans.
And more and more each year, recognizable businesses are planting new flags here. The tech industry in Utah, much like the population as a whole, is booming, too. And when it comes to entertaining the idea of a new major sports franchise, someone — or some group — will need to splash the necessary cash to even get an idea off the ground.
What about hockey? What about the NHL here in Utah?
Similar markets in the region have shown they can sustain a team, and win. The Las Vegas Golden Knights were a revelation in year one, stimulating Sin City, making a historic run to the Stanley Cup Finals last year. The Colorado Avalanche are beyond their glory days of the late 1990s, but are firmly part of the footprint in Denver. Seattle looks to be closing in on an expansion bid, which will be accompanied by a reported $650 million expansion fee. Season-ticket deposits are already sold out there.
Then there’s the California teams, including the Kings, Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, all whom have been legit contenders in the West during this decade. Hefty competition, for sure. But as Jeff Robbins noted, the NHL has always intrigued Utah sports officials, even going back to the days when Major League Soccer announced it was coming to Utah in 2004.
Robbins, the CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, said there have been brief internal discussions in the past about the potential viability of an NHL franchise in Salt Lake City, but added the sports commission hasn’t done any deep research on the matter. At least not yet.
“You have to look at what next franchise could a business model sustain?” Robbins said. “Somebody’s going to have to want to come in and own a team, they’ll have to put the resources behind the team. Obviously an NHL team and that business model is not nearly as big or expensive as a football or baseball team.”
To Robbins, he is interested to see the turnout for the preseason game Monday night, to see if the local hockey community is as robust as he’s heard. The expected number of spectators at Monday’s game is 12,000, according to Frank Zang with Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment.
Kevin Bruder, CEO of the Utah Grizzlies, said interest in local hockey is stronger now than ever. The Grizzlies averaged 5,660 fans in 2017-18, their highest average annual turnout since they joined the ECHL in 2005-06. They welcomed over 200,000 spectators last season. Bruder, who has been with the Grizzlies since 1997, said the 2002 Olympic Winter Games played a vital role in growing the sport in Utah. The 2002 men’s tournament was hosted at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.
“It was the gateway to the growth of hockey,” he said.
As for Salt Lake being a potential home to the NHL one day?
“We’re bullish on hockey in Utah, period — that goes at any level,” Bruder said. “I think anything’s possible. Obviously you want to see continued growth in the marketplace and continued excitement. But it’s a fantastic starting spot.”
As noted, so many mechanisms would need to fall into place in order to even get a foot in the door. Starting with a wealthy owner willing to invest hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, who would likely have to partner with Vivint Smart Home Arena and the Miller group in order to spare having to build a brand new hockey arena.
NBA and NHL teams sharing a home base is, in fact, quite common throughout the country. The Jazz arena downtown was once home to the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in the early 1990s.
Monday evening is, indeed, a pseudo trial run in the eyes of Robbins, who with the sports commission, has soaked in some of the top hockey atmospheres the world has to offer over the past two decades.
Lewis, with the L.A. Kings, has noticed the gradual climb in hockey interest here since going pro at the age of 18. It’s even harder to find free skate times at rinks around the valley and the quality of hockey players produced in Utah is increasing, too. Could he envision an NHL team in his own backyard sometime later on down the line?
“I think maybe one day,” Lewis said. “Obviously a lot of pieces would have to fall into place. I definitely think it has a possibility of it. I think they’d get a good fan base. Obviously when I took the Cups back there. I was not expecting all the people to come out that did. It was pretty cool to see.”