Wild owner Craig Leipold: 'This is the best team we've ever had here'
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The preseason is easy, as things go for Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold and his nerves.
Before the Wild's final home preseason game on Thursday, a 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues, Leipold joked that his level of anxiety was at about two on a scale from one to 10.
All that will change in a little less than a week. When the Los Angeles Kings visit St. Paul on Oct. 3 for the regular season opener, Leipold said the nerves will jump to 10, and he will return to his normal in-game routine.
He sits in the same seat, in the second row of his center ice suite, with a rolled up roster in-hand. Many friends and family share the suite with him, but if you glanced his way during a game, you'd think he was a loner. Companions know not to occupy any of the surrounding seats, or risk getting inadvertently swatted when the high-strung and demonstrative Leipold's emotions, and arms, swing with the tide of the on-ice action. If the Wild are winning after 20 minutes or after 40 minutes, nobody switches seats at the start of the next period, for fear of upsetting some kind of cosmic karma.
Leipold, who bought the team in 2008, admits he doesn't sleep well after games, win or lose. Victories leave him filled with adrenaline and restless, while losses leave him tossing and turning thinking of the often miniscule difference between two points and no points -- a close call at the blue line, that puck that hit the post, that pass just missed the tape, whatever.
But when he thinks about the future, and the potential payoff on the significant investment he's made, not only in buying the team but in making one of the biggest (in terms of dollars and cents anyway) free agency splashes in NHL history 14 months ago, he smiles at what he sees on the ice, and at what he expects between now and next summer.
"Very excited," Leipold said on Thursday, speaking candidly with a select group of media he'd invited to watch the preseason tune-up from his suite. "I'm asked a few times a day how the team is going to be, how I feel about them. The fact is I agree with (general manager) Chuck (Fletcher) when he says this is the best team we've ever had here."
He sees a team that's more experienced, deeper and more prepared for the season to come. That's in stark contrast to a year ago at this time, when the NHL was mired in a months-long lockout. When it was finally settled, in January, the Wild had less than a week and no preseason to prep for a condensed schedule that had them traveling more miles than any of the NHL's other 29 teams.
They made the playoffs after a rocky end to the regular season that nearly had them on the outside looking in, but bowed out quickly, falling in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champs, the powerful Chicago Blackhawks.
Leipold will only talk numbers in general terms, but says that the biggest price the Wild paid for the lockout was emotionally.
"In terms of the finances, that's history, it was all about wear and tear on the players and the fans and everybody," he said. "I'm just glad to have it over."
He stood solidly with fellow owners during the lockout, but it was admittedly hard for Leipold, after spending nearly $200 million to bring the free agent market's two most coveted players - forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter - to Minnesota, to have to wait six months to get to see the results of his investment on the ice.
"It was pretty frustrating, knowing that we had this anticipation by our fan base, to get the two marquee players that had been on the market one time in 10 years, and to be able to sign them both," he said. "It was frustrating not to have (them) out there."
With a full training camp and preseason to get lines set and build chemistry, Leipold says that the excuses are gone, and it's time for this team to perform.
"I think that last year was probably the first year of our window, and I think we've got a 10-year window ahead of us where we're going to be a solid team," Leipold said. "We feel great about our future."
Off the ice, the businessman sees an impressive performance on the balance sheet, saying that season ticket sales, new ticket sales and the level of corporate support for the Wild is perhaps the best it has ever been. Within a few years, they expect to announce some improvements to the 13-year-old Xcel Energy Center, to further enhance a fan experience already regarded as one of the best in the NHL. And he said there continues to be a quiet push for a team practice facility in St. Paul, across the street from their home rink - a project that was funded by the state legislature, but vetoed by then-Governor Tim Pawlenty in 2009.
There's a new division to conquer, more nearby rivals like Winnipeg, Chicago and St. Louis, coming to town on a more regular basis, and much shorter road trips within that division that will mean more opportunities for fans to get a good night's sleep. The days of the division game in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver getting over long after most Minnesotans have gone to bed are gone.
Then the horn blows and the crowd starts to cheer, signaling the Wild are returning to the ice, and the third period is about to begin. Leipold thanks his guests, grabs a rolled up roster and heads back to row two of his suite, to expend 20 more minute of nervous energy. Throughout the arena, more than 15,000 seats are sold - a decent crowd for a weeknight, in the preseason.
And in keeping with years-old tradition, every seat immediately surrounding the owner is empty.