Wild faces show-me state of hockey

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2011 - 6:28 AM

Craig Leipold watched his Wild acquire a couple of big-name players, but crowds show that fans are in a wait-and-see mode.

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Deceiving an owner is not generally good policy for a general manager, but that's just what Chuck Fletcher did in July.

As the Wild GM was working on the Martin Havlat-for-Dany Heatley trade, Fletcher had an agreement with San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson not to tell anybody -- even the team's owners. The players had no-trade clauses, meaning any leaks could derail the whole thing.

Fletcher would tell Wild owner Craig Leipold only that there was a possibility of something big on the horizon involving Havlat, and the player the Wild would get in return had a history of scoring goals and held a substantial contract.

"Occasionally I'd walk into Chuck's office and say, 'I think I know who it is,'" Leipold said. "Chuck would say, 'OK, what's his last name start with?' I'd go, 'M,' and he'd go, ... 'No.'"

Said Fletcher: "Craig would go in our war room, point and go, 'Is it that guy, is it that guy?' He guessed a lot of names on a lot of teams, ... but he never guessed Heatley."

Leipold's reaction when he learned the Wild would be acquiring Heatley, who has the third-most goals (325) since entering the NHL in 2001?

"I was like, 'Wow!!!'" Leipold said. "I said, 'Come on, just tell me the truth, lay everything on the table. What else did you give up besides Havlat?' He said, 'Nothing.' I said, 'No, future considerations, no picks, no prospects?' He said, 'Nothing.' I said, 'Wow, wow, wow.'"

The Wild gained some buzz as Fletcher pulled off the Heatley trade nine days after acquiring the equivalent of three first-round picks (Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and Zack Phillips) for defenseman Brent Burns.

That buzz didn't exactly filter into the box office.

When the highly-touted first line of Setoguchi, Heatley and Mikko Koivu debuted Sept. 23 at Xcel Energy Center in an exhibition game, 14,119 tickets were sold. About half that number were in the arena.

"I was surprised because I couldn't wait to watch that first line," Leipold said. "I flew in just for that game and brought a lot of friends who were dying to watch that first line. And I thought people would have that same sense of anticipation."

The trio combined for eight points, with Heatley scoring the overtime winner against Columbus. After such dramatics, there still was no bump four days later for an exhibition game against St. Louis, when the crowd was announced at 13,789 but the rink was at least three-quarters empty.

Yes, this was preseason. But this is Minnesota, and a franchise that claimed to sell out every home game in history until last season.

The Wild declines to reveal its actual number of season-ticket holders. But we know one thing: The "Team of 18,000" has fewer than 14,000 season-ticket holders.

Two things are clear: Wild fans who have been willing to invest big money in the past on tickets are frustrated watching a team that hasn't made the playoffs in three years; and fans, despite the offseason moves, are in wait-and-see mode.

"They want to see what kind of start we get off to, and we think that's important," Leipold said. "We want to get off to a good start. ... Last year hurt us. We had some real bombs at home, and I don't think the fans want to experience that."

Winning helps

With the Vikings losing and the Timberwolves on hiatus, the Wild could capitalize, although Leipold had a different perspective.

"In Nashville, when the Titans had their best Sunday, we'd have our biggest week," said Leipold, the original owner of the Predators. "The fans are excited, they're pumped up, they want to feel that adrenaline again, so they go to another sporting event.

"I think it's true here as well. If there's a big Sunday victory, you want to come Tuesday night to get that feeling back again."

In 2008, Leipold bought the Wild after it won the Northwest Division thanks in large part to players such as Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra.

"We end up losing these guys and getting nothing for them," Leipold said. "That just set us behind. The Gaborik situation, we didn't trade him early, as we probably should have the next year, then he gets hurt for the whole year and we get nothing for him ... Think about what other teams get for their marquee players. It killed us. I didn't anticipate how bare the cupboard would be."

Now, Leipold said he believes Fletcher has addressed the Wild's weaknesses -- scorers who like to shoot -- and he's really excited about the pipeline of prospects -- players such as Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin, Coyle and Phillips.

Leipold said Fletcher, who has two years left on his contract, has no simmering seat underneath him.

"Everything he has done, the moves he has made, I have complete confidence in what he's building here," Leipold said. "I am completely confident that those moves are going to result in this team being a marquee team down the road."

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