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Continued: Sid Hartman: Leipold turns on GM after one year

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 17, 2009 - 2:15 PM

It's hard to understand how Craig Leipold sang the praises of Doug Risebrough when Leipold bought the Wild, only to fire Risebrough, one of the best hockey executives in the game, as team president and general manager a year later.

The Wild won its first division championship last year, and this season the team finished three points short of a playoff berth despite having bigger injury problems than any team in the league. The team has been very competitive year after year, and the billionaire from Wisconsin decided that everything good he said about Risebrough at this time last year has changed.

Of course it is Risebrough's fault that Jacques Lemaire quit after the Wild coach had been hinting to his assistants all year that this was going to be his final season.

And the day of the final game of the season Lemaire told the assistant coaches "this is it, I'm not going to come back to coach next year."

The johnny-come-lately owner of the Wild must not be informed of all the great things that Risebrough did, taking over an expansion club and making it pretty competitive from the start.

Risebrough was able to persuade Lemaire to come out of retirement and coach the team, and landing such a capable coach was a huge boost to the franchise right away. Risebrough was one of the few people who could have accomplished this because of his long relationship with Lemaire from their days as teammates on the Canadiens.

Then Risebrough hit the jackpot drafting Marian Gaborik with the Wild's first-ever draft pick. Gaborik developed into an NHL superstar.

The organization drafted well, kept the payroll down before the NHL salary cap was put in place and was considered the league's model franchise.

To top it off, Leipold didn't have the courage to face the media and call a news conference to announce his decision to fire one of the most popular sports executives in my long media career, instead staging a conference call to let the media learn what I consider to be sad news.

Next season will be critical for the Wild. The team must be concerned, or Leipold wouldn't have staged a conference call to 1,000 season ticket holders to let them know that there wouldn't be any increase in prices and encouraged everybody to renew.

It is amazing to me that a man who has been president of a club that claims it has sold out every game in its existence gets fired after doing one of the best jobs of any executive in hockey. Rest assured, former owner Bob Naegele Jr. wouldn't have made this move.

If I were Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, I would jump for joy, because with Lemaire and Risebrough gone and Gaborik likely gone as well, the Wild figures to be in decline, while the Wolves -- with three first-round draft picks and a young team that will get better -- will have a better chance to compete for the fan's dollar.

Defends decision

Leipold didn't deny he said a lot of good things about Risebrough when he took over as owner last April. "When I first bought the franchise one year ago today, that was at a point in time where I had probably spent two hours with Doug my entire life, that I probably was saying things about what his reputation was and what his image was in the market," Leipold said Thursday. "But the fact is, it's been a year now, I've been here, I've been closer to the decision-making process. I understand what I believe where we need to be, and these are the tough decisions when you're the CEO of an operation, of any kind of business, you've got to make tough decisions."

Leipold said he had no personal issues with Risebrough. "Doug's a great guy. I like Doug a lot," he said. "I think there were some issues that I thought needed to be addressed. It was a tough decision, but it's a decision I'm going to have to live with. I think it was the right one."

Leipold refused to say why he made the change.

"I don't think that adds any value to talk about what the issues were," he said. "I don't think anybody really needs to know when someone is terminated, what the problem was. I've got a lot of respect for Doug, maybe more than you might think I do, and that's part of the reason why I don't think anything needs to be aired out."

If he respected Risebrough, why did he fire him?

"That's absolutely unfair for you to say I don't have much respect for him," Leipold said. "That just shows that you don't know me, for you to say that.

"It doesn't mean I don't have respect for him. I think he's a great human being, he's done a lot for this franchise. But ultimately, it is my responsibility to do what I think is the right decision to put the best product on the ice."

Leipold was asked if he will try to get Lemaire to change his mind. "Jacques Lemaire is not interested in coming back," Leipold said. "I've spoken with Jacques, he was very clear that it's time for a change. The fact that Doug was here, [or] was not here, was not why Jacques left."

Morales not surprised

Twins catcher Jose Morales was asked if he was surprised to get the chance with the major league team after beginning last season at Class AAA Rochester before injuring his ankle in June, which cost him the rest of the 2008 season.

"Actually, it's not a surprise," he said. "It's what you work for in the offseason. I'm definitely glad. I'm happy to be here. It's not a big surprise once [Joe] Mauer got hurt, I know I had the chance and the opportunity, I just took advantage of it and it paid off.

"It's the same game [in the majors or minors], just make sure you make the routine plays and you'll be fine."

Morales said veteran catcher Mike Redmond has been a big help. "That's one thing -- in the minor leagues, we don't have scouting reports every day, I've definitely got Mike helping me out ... since Day 1 in spring training. He let me know that anything I needed, I could go to him and ask. He's been great with me."

Jottings

Asked about keeping all three of the Wolves' first-round draft choices, Taylor responded: "That isn't my preference. My preference would be to package two of them for a higher one. My preference might be to use one of them in package to trade for a player. Three young guys on this team would be too hard for a coach."

The Steelers released Gary Russell, the former Gophers running back who scored a touchdown for Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. The Steelers gave no reason for his release.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast once a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com

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