Danny Ainge

SALT LAKE CITY -- Hockey is about the only sport Danny Ainge didn’t play. He starred in football, basketball and baseball in high school; played college basketball and Major League Baseball at the same time; and, of course, has had a long, accomplished career as an NBA player, coach and executive.

But Ainge follows hockey, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and has an inside perspective on the owners of Utah’s new NHL team. He works for Ryan and Ashley Smith as Utah Jazz CEO of basketball operations.

When they held a press conference with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at Delta Center on Friday, he was in the audience.

“I don’t know how else to say it except they’re just amazing,” Ainge said. “I mean, the only reason I’m working in basketball right now is because of them.”

After his three-sport high school career in Eugene, Oregon, Ainge played basketball at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, from 1977-81.

He also played 211 games over three seasons as an infielder and outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1979-81. Of course, that was in the summer, so he didn’t cross paths with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But then he joined the Boston Celtics as a guard in 1981-82 and got to know some of the Boston Bruins at Boston Garden.

“My experience with hockey, it was just when I got to Boston,” he said. “We were sharing an arena there, and we had some players that we hung out with a little bit in between practice sessions. But I follow hockey. I follow playoff hockey. I’ve seen some hockey, and I love hockey.”

After 35 seasons in the NBA -- 14 as a player, three as a coach and 18 as an executive -- Ainge announced his retirement June 2, 2021. Among his many accomplishments: two NBA titles as a player (1984 and 1986) and another as executive (2008), all with the Celtics.

“I was done,” he said. “I was just worn out a little bit.”

But then the Smiths convinced him to join the Jazz on Dec. 15, 2021.

“They’ve rejuvenated me,” the 65-year-old said. “Not to work at the same level that I did in Boston and the same responsibilities, but to be part of the franchise has been really, really fun.”

Over the last couple of months, Ainge started following the Arizona Coyotes. He mentioned forwards Clayton Keller, their 25-year-old leading scorer this season (76 points in 78 games), and Dylan Guenther, a 21-year-old who scored 18 goals in 45 games.

“I think they’ve got some promising, fun young players,” he said. “It’s exciting. I’m excited for hockey again.”

The NHL Board of Governors voted Thursday to establish an NHL team in Utah. The new team acquired the Coyotes’ hockey assets, including the players and hockey operations employees. Ryan Smith met with them Thursday and referenced them multiple times in the press conference Friday, calling them “our 70 people.”

Delta Center will host a free event to welcome the team Wednesday. Fans are invited to a plaza party and celebration, with food, music, games, giveaways and player introductions.

“[The Smiths] really want to take care of people, and they want to make it a good experience,” Ainge said. “They’re going to make those 70 people that they talked about really, really excited that they’re here.”

The fan response has been overwhelming. Utah collected about 22,700 season-ticket deposits in just over 24 hours and might have to offer partial season-ticket packages. Delta Center will start with 16,200 seats for hockey, including 12,000 unobstructed, until renovations create 17,500 for hockey over a couple of years.

“That doesn’t really surprise me,” Ainge said. “I guess it’s surprising that there’s that much that fast, but I don’t think that I’m surprised. Utah is … like, Ryan talked a lot about it here. He believes in Utah, and he believes in the people.”

Ryan Smith said the Utah NHL team will invest in youth hockey the way the Jazz have invested in youth basketball too. He said he just ordered 70,000 jerseys for the Junior Jazz.

Maybe a young athlete who plays football, basketball and baseball will try hockey too.

“I know how sports are such a big part of children’s lives around here,” Ainge said. “I think adding hockey will just add that many more people. [Kids can] find a new love or a new option in hockey. I think that’s very exciting. Sports is big in this whole culture.”

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