Wild owner Craig Leipold knows goals: 'We've got to get more exciting'
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Some pro sports owners would've looked at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night and considered it half-empty for the Minnesota Wild's preseason game with the St. Louis Blues.
Wild owner Craig Leipold, who invited select members of the media into his private suite for food, beverages and to watch the game on Tuesday -- a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues -- may not have seen the rink as half full exactly. But with what he's seen on the ice so far from his new coach and his new-look squad, he thinks that pro hockey's going to be a much tougher ticket in the shadow of the State Capitol sometime soon.
It wasn't lost on the owner, or the announced audience of 13,789 (which looked considerably smaller), that the Wild's first two goals were set up by the combination of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi - the pair of widely-publicized imports from San Jose that general manager Chuck Fletcher picked up over the summer. In fact, perhaps the last time the rink in St. Paul was this loud was on NHL Draft night in June, when the trade of defenseman Brent Burns to the Sharks was announced and Setoguchi set sail for the self-proclaimed State of Hockey.
"I don't know whether they told (Fletcher) to make a splash, but he did," said Leipold, in an exclusive interview with 1500 ESPN. "Big trades over the summer, starting at the draft, and we're really excited. We had a huge need to score goals, so we had to get players that would shoot the puck, and we filled that need."
The Wisconsin native admitted that while his current team missed the playoffs, which led to the firing of coach Todd Richards the day after the regular season ended, he watched with some interest as the first NHL team he owned, the Nashville Predators, won a playoff series for the first time and brought post-season excitement to hockey fans in Tennessee. Ironically, he's looking for the Wild to bring that same kind of excitement back to the land where hockey is king.
"We've got to get more exciting," Leipold said. "We've got to show our fans that we're committed to putting the puck in the net."
From his luxurious perch just up from the red line, Leipold is a demonstrative owner, jumping up to celebrate when his team puts the puck in the net, twisting a rolled-up stats sheet to release nervous energy, and quietly mumbling a harsh word or two when on-ice activity is not to his liking. But when it comes to decisions about who will coach the team, and which players that man will coach, Leipold says that he's the farthest thing you'll find from the hands-on Jerry Jones and George Steinbrenner style.
"This is Chuck's team. He's the general manager and it's his responsibility to hire the coach," said Leipold, responding to the surprise some expressed that Richards would be replaced with another young, first-time NHL head coach. "It would be unfair for me to have any undue influence on his biggest decision which is hiring that coach. Mike Yeo is Chuck's guy, and that makes him my guy. I'm totally in on this."
This is clearly a time of opportunity for the Wild to make an impact on the local sports scene, with the Twins and football Gophers in the tank, the Vikings headed that way, and the Timberwolves in limbo, at best. Leipold knows that, and feels that in Fletcher and the moves they've made, the Wild are heading toward finally giving Minnesota a winning team again. Still, the owner was less thrilled by the end of the game, as the Wild pulled off a Vikings-like effort over 30 minutes, then saw a 3-1 lead become a 4-3 shortcoming.
Yeo is talking about fielding an exciting team at the same time that he's stressing patience, knowing that the Blues were playing a system they know well, while the Wild are still getting used to the ways of new teammates and a new coach.
"It's not fair to the players, because it's very new, and (the Blues) have had a couple more years of building their game," Yeo said afterward. "Their team was able to stay with their game more consistently. When you play that way, then you put yourself in a position to take the game over in the third."
Likewise, Leipold has seen the team go from a sellout streak and the playoff hunt to empty seats and coaching turnover during his time as the man writing the checks. But there's a new product on the ice, and a new confidence in the owners' suite that the long journey back to sellout crowds in the playoffs has already begun.