The history of Utah ice hockey

Jan 25, 2024, 1:52 PM

Grizzlies Goalie Corey Hirsch at a game in 2002. (Paul Barker/Deseret News)...

Grizzlies Goalie Corey Hirsch at a game in 2002. (Paul Barker/Deseret News)

(Paul Barker/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The owner of the Utah Jazz has formally asked the National Hockey League to consider establishing a team in Utah. And though the NHL might be a novelty in Utah, Tyson Whiting, the broadcaster for the Utah Grizzlies, said ice hockey in Utah dates back 50 years. 

What is the history of Utah ice hockey? 

The Salt Lake Golden Eagles predated the Utah Grizzlies. The team called Utah home from 1969 to 1994. 

“They were pretty much like a triple-A team just one step below the NHL,” said Whiting. And they were successful, he said.  

The Salt Lake Golden Eagles played at the Salt Palace (before it was demolished and became a convention center.) At the time, it was also the home of the Utah Jazz.

“[The team] seemed to have a lot of support, especially in the late 1980s. (Hockey games were) a big happening in town,” said Whiting. 

In 1994, the Golden Eagles were sold by the Larry H. Miller group to another group in Detroit. There, the team became the Detroit Vipers. 

Salt Lake City was left without a hockey team during the 1995 season. 

The Utah Grizzlies arrive

In 1995, about 515 miles away in Denver, Colorado, another team was formed. 

“They played as the Denver Grizzlies for one year and they won a championship,” said Whiting. The team played in the International Hockey League. 

According to Whiting, at the time, the IHL was just a step below the NHL. However, it folded in 2001. 

The Denver Grizzlies were successful. According to Whiting, they averaged 12,000 cheering fans per game. 

Their success motivated an NHL team to move to Denver. The Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, forcing the Denver Grizzlies out of town. 

The team moved to Salt Lake and became the Utah Grizzlies. During their inaugural season in 1996, they won the Turner Cup, according to Whiting. 

The trophy was the IHL equivalent of the NHL’s Stanley Cup.

Until 2005, the Grizzlies played in Salt Lake City. Then, they were sold to a group in Cleveland, and became known as the Cleveland Monsters. They play in the American Hockey League. 

However, Whiting said that a group led by Dave Elmore bought a team in the ECHL. He moved that team to Salt Lake City and they were renamed the Utah Grizzlies. 

“Some eighteen years later Grizzlies are still here,” Whiting said.

The team still plays in the ECHL, which was previously known as the East Coast Hockey League. However, Whiting said the league currently goes by the ECHL.

“Right now, it’s just listed as ECHL partly because of the teams out west and that, you know, the league kind of feels like that East Coast moniker doesn’t necessarily fit,” Whiting said. 

NHL in Utah?

Whiting added that the ECHL is the third-tier hockey league. “The NHL’s kind of the ultimate,” followed by the AHL. 

While Whiting said that “it seems like right now everybody’s kind of happy with where they are,” the Grizzlies could potentially move to the AHL. However, he said the problem right now is that there are already 32 teams in the league. The ECHL has more room, currently consisting of only 28 teams. 

“Maybe the Grizzlies can end up fitting there as an affiliate with the with the new NHL teams that were to come here,” said Whiting. 

Currently, the ECHL website says that the Utah Grizzlies are affiliated with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and the AHL’s Colorado Eagles. 

Related: Utah Jazz owner formally asks NHL for expansion team in Utah


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The history of Utah ice hockey