Wild owner: Free agent bonanza ‘a game changer’

Published 8:25 am Friday, July 6, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS  — Craig Leipold never thought one of the biggest bonanzas in NHL history was even possible when the Wild owner stepped into the negotiating room with general manager Chuck Fletcher and the agents for defenseman Ryan Suter.

The Wild had opened the summer hoping to land one of the two biggest prizes on the market — either Suter or forward Zach Parise — to bolster a franchise that has missed the postseason for four straight seasons.

At one point during the meeting, Suter’s agent, Neil Sheehy, looked at Leipold and Fletcher and essentially issued a challenge.

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“He said to us, ‘Are you guys committed enough that you’re in for both of these guys?”’ Leipold recalled from his hotel room in New York on Thursday. “Chuck kind of looks at me and said, ‘Can we talk for a second?”’

The two men stepped aside to digest the possibilities and the costs of making the unthinkable a reality. They plunged ahead, stunning the league when they signed Parise and Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million deals Wednesday, immediately energizing a franchise that was finally starting to see some apathy set in among its fans.

“This is a game changer,” Leipold said, still euphoric some 24 hours later. “We’re overnight changing who we are. We’re changing our identity. We’ll never get that opportunity again.”

If any franchise needed it, it was the one in the “State of Hockey.” The Wild enjoyed a decade-long honeymoon with their fans after coming into the league as an expansion team at the turn of the century. The hockey-hungry fans were happy to simply have the pro game back in town after losing the North Stars to Dallas.

Leipold bought the Wild in 2008, but the team has gone through a painful rebuilding period and had difficulty finding new stars to replace Marian Gaborik, who left for the New York Rangers in 2009.

As much of a fan as he is a businessman, Leipold desperately wanted to inject some sizzle into a roster short on star power this summer. But as late as Monday night, he feared the team was going to come away empty-handed.

“We didn’t think we were going to get either one,” he said. “We heard Detroit was hot on Suter. All we know is what we’re reading. We were hearing we were up against Pittsburgh, Chicago, teams that have won in the last three or four years. These aren’t just your normal run-of-the-mill teams. They’re winning right now.”

It turns out that Parise and Suter spent much of Monday and Tuesday talking to each other, researching the teams and trying to make a joint decision on where to play. In the end, they saw the list of promising young prospects Fletcher has assembled, the strong goaltending that has been the team’s hallmark for years and a market that was close to home for both players and decided to make the move to Minnesota.

“This is a huge commitment on Craig’s part, on our organization’s part,” Fletcher said. “It took a lot of courage and commitment for all of us to go after these players.”

For an owner who said his grandfather “would roll over in his grave” if he knew Leipold was paying $7 to drink a bottle of water in his hotel room, the enormity of the cost — $196 million as the league and its players are locked in negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement — did give him pause.

“I remember talking to (COO) Matt Majka,” Leipold said. “I said, ‘Matt can you do it? How much more can you sell?’ This is a business decision. He said, ‘I can’t even answer that. I have no comparable situation to use. This is like starting over. I can only tell you it’s going to be huge.’ That was it. That was the decision. And we said ok.”

The impact has been immediate. The Wild sold more than 700 season tickets on Wednesday while many of their fans were out of town at lake cabins celebrating the Fourth of July.

“We are going to be able to skip ahead four or five steps of development and recruiting costs to get to a place that could take us three years to get to,” Leipold said. “And we can do it now.”

For a medium-sized sports market that has seen so many players leave for bigger cities and bigger pay days throughout the years, it was a momentous move. A team in flyover country was able to land the two best players available over long-established powers like Detroit, Pittsburgh and New Jersey.

“It is starting to sink in,” Leipold said. “To get two players of the caliber that we did with Zach and Ryan is just one of those things that when you start this mission to make the team better, you have holes on the team you want to fill. Your dream is to be able to fill those with players of that caliber. But we never thought we could get both of them.”