Scoggins: Wild owner savors early return on huge investment

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2013 - 11:37 AM

Craig Leipold is a superfan who hangs on the edge of his seat with every shift. He's also a businessman who wants to see a reward for his financial risk.

Craig Leipold's face turned fire- engine red and he smacked his palm with a rolled-up piece of paper. He looked like a human volcano about to erupt.

The reason? Some player in a Wild jersey had fired the puck to the opposite end for an icing call. In the first period. Of a preseason game last season.

So one can only imagine the Wild owner's state of mind and blood pressure rate Saturday night when his team came out flatter than a pancake griddle in the most anticipated season opener since its inaugural season. Apparently, he didn't smash anything inside his suite, though.

"I knew these players are better than what we saw in the first period," Leipold said. "I felt we were going to be fine."

The Wild restored order and returned to script in the second period, allowing their owner and fans to breathe easy after a 4-2 victory against Colorado in the debut of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and the rest of Leipold's $72 million roster. The Wild owner spent many frustrating days during the work stoppage probably wondering when he would get to see his expensive investment in the flesh so, naturally, he was still beaming Sunday as he relaxed in the lobby of a St. Paul hotel.

"It's all about hockey now," he said a few hours before his team defeated the Dallas Stars 1-0 at Xcel Energy Center.

Leipold finally has escaped the dark days of a lockout that saw him play a central negotiating role and become cast in some hockey circles as a villain and hypocrite. In April, Leipold lamented the rising salaries of players and said the NHL's economic system needed repair. A few months later, he signed Parise and Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. Critics dug up Leipold's quote at every turn as evidence that owners wanted it both ways.

"Listen, we were matching other offers [from teams interested in Parise and Suter]," he said. "This is what I had to do to get these players. That's a long commitment. I would make it again if I had to do that. I think the new CBA is a good CBA. The last one, I played under the rules of that collective bargaining agreement. Under this one, I'll play under the same rules."

Leipold regrets that the lockout happened and lasted as long as it did, but he doesn't apologize for making a substantial financial commitment in a tough economic climate for the league. Nor should he. He merely showed he's serious about wanting to build a championship team. And nobody should be surprised that a businessman also wants to squeeze every nickel of profit out of his operation, even if it requires short-term pain.

"I run the business the way I think it should be run," he said. "I know what this market is looking for. This is not a southern market. I know how the fans will react when we're winning. The decision I made last summer is one I would make again. If the opportunity were to present itself, I would make it in a second."

That doesn't mean Leipold is tone deaf to fan frustration. He spent the past two weeks hat in hand asking for forgiveness. The entire NHL is in apology mode after subjecting its fan base to a protracted work stoppage.

The Wild found itself in better shape than other markets because hockey matters here and the buzz over Parise and Suter resumed. Frankly, the pushback has been minimal here, despite all the huffing and puffing about fans turning to other interests.

"Honestly we had no idea what to expect," Leipold said. "We did a lot of stuff for our fans, and it was genuine. We really felt like the fans had been abused for the last couple of months."

Leipold made in-home visits to a few season-ticket holders last week. He spent an hour with one family that "gave it to us pretty good."

"They made it clear that they are not happy," he said.

Leipold said the reaction Saturday night from fans inside the arena was "totally favorable." He felt a weight lifted off his shoulders once the puck dropped. At that moment, the lockout was officially over.

"Totally past it," he said. "That's the furthest thing from my mind."

He's only focused on the on-ice product now. Leipold committed nearly $200 million to sign Parise and Suter, and the Wild carries the league's third-highest salary cap hit. He is a superfan who hangs on the edge of his seat with every shift. He's also a businessman who wants to see a return on his investment.

"As a fan, I honestly believe that we are a team to be reckoned with now for 10 years because we're young and we're committed," he said. "Unless injuries or something crazy happens, we're a team that's going to be around for a long time. All that's going to do is enable us to recruit other players. I really like our position."

Chip Scoggins ascogggins@startribune.com

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