Hockey players haven’t cornered the market on hockey injuries. They can happen to owners, too.
To be fair, Craig Leipold’s injury didn’t happen on the ice. But the Wild owner, whose majority stake of the team recently became 95 percent when he bought out his most minority owner, sure seemed as proud of his still-bruised finger as he is about his hockey team these days.
Mere minutes after wanting to punch a wall in his Racine, Wis., home — the Wild gave up two goals in 32 seconds after Zach Parise tied last Thursday’s game in San Jose, Leipold high-fived his 23-year-old son, Curtie, so hard and so awkwardly that Curtie bent dad’s left ring finger almost all the way back.
Three of Curtie’s friends were in the room. The high-fiving of everyone began when Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu each scored to tie the game once again. Then, when Koivu scored the go-ahead and eventual winning goal less than two minutes after tying it, well, “This one, his adrenaline was just running.” Curtie sprang up and, bam, Papa Leipold was throbbing.
“You know, he never did apologize,” Leipold said of the fourth of his five boys. “He just kept laughing.”
Leipold, who sat down with the Star Tribune in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Sunday, has been in a jovial mood lately, especially after traveling to Southern California with his one of his best friends and watching the Wild secure three of four points against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
It doesn’t hurt that the team that’s second in Leipold’s heart, the Green Bay Packers, has advanced in the NFL playoffs.
Nearing the midpoint of the season, Leipold’s Wild, a franchise he bought in 2008 for $260 million and a team he has invested more than $600 million in player payroll alone, has the best record in the Western Conference and fourth best in the NHL (25-9-5) based on its .705 points percentage (points earned divided by the maximum points possible).
In two of the next three games, the Wild hosts the fifth-best team, the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, and visits the team it is chasing for the Central Division lead, Chicago, on Sunday night.
The Wild is tops in the West in goals per game (3.13) and goals-against per game (2.13).
Leipold is thrilled the Wild pounced on Bruce Boudreau the instant the coach was sacked last spring by the Ducks. He says the team’s success, especially Staal’s resurgence and strong seasons by younger players, are the fruits of Boudreau’s labor.
“It’s almost surreal at times,” Leipold said of the Wild, which has scooped up points in 20 of the past 22 games (16-2-4). “You’re watching the team, and they’re winning, they’re winning, they’re winning.”
Leipold isn’t fooling himself into thinking the Wild’s the most dominant team in the NHL.
But the former Nashville Predators owner said, “We have a good team that competes really hard every night with strong goaltending, great defense and great scoring. And that’s what you want in a team. And now we’ve got a coach that is a difference-maker. He does things differently than I’ve seen in my 18, 19 years of owning a team.
“I like what he’s doing.”
Leipold and General Manager Chuck Fletcher figured Boudreau’s seat was scorching hot in Anaheim last season. Anything short of a Stanley Cup, and Boudreau knew he’d be axed, so his fate was sealed the second the Ducks blew a 3-2 series lead to the Predators in the first round.
So was the Wild’s.
Leipold and Fletcher decided Boudreau would be the guy if he became available. So, when Boudreau was fired, Leipold said the Wild reacted “in the blink of an eye.” Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr were on a plane to Orange County within 24 hours.
Leipold talked to Boudreau on the phone a few days later.
“He said directly to me, ‘I wake up in the morning and I go to bed at night. And the first thing I think about in the day and the last thing I think about at night is the Stanley Cup,’” Leipold said. “I’m going, ‘Oh my God! This is the guy. This is the guy!’
“He has done everything, he hasn’t won the Stanley Cup. He wants it as bad as I want it. If you don’t have one, you want it really bad.”
The Wild signed Boudreau to a four-year contract at nearly $12 million.
“It became, ‘OK, fine [Chuck], … just go get him,’ ” Leipold said. “This is not a position that you want to be conservative and cheap on. Let’s stretch.”
What Leipold loves most is the accountability Boudreau has created. If the top power-play unit isn’t going well, he’ll start with the second or alter the personnel. If the Wild’s up a goal or down a goal late in a game, he’ll go with the five or six skaters he feels will get the job done no matter the player.
In games, Boudreau is quick to adjust if somebody’s having an off night.
“Before you know it, you have a player that was on the first line, now he’s on the third line. You’ve got a player that was on the second line, now he gets jumped up to the first,” Leipold said.
The Xcel Energy Center has become an entertaining place again. At one point last season, the Wild went winless in nine games in St. Paul. This season, the Wild is 13-4.
“If you’re going to lose, go on the road and lose, but win at home,” said Leipold, whose team is 12-5-5 on the road with points in 10 straight.
“We’re doing what we should be doing at home. And our players are just feeding off the fan excitement and passion.”
Before the season, Leipold said the Wild needed two of its young core forwards to break out. So far, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are all having strong seasons.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that, in the past, have played well, but, in our opinion, hadn’t played to their potential,” Leipold said. “And now we’re seeing it. They’re difference makers. We’re in a window right now where our experienced players and our young players are all starting to play at the peak of their performance.”
He loves what Staal, the Wild’s leading scorer, has added.
“I like his intensity, and his desire to prove something. I love that,” Leipold said. “He made really clear when I talked to him early on, ‘What you saw the last two years was not Eric Staal.’ ”
And, Leipold claims he’s not worried what eight more years of Parise, 32, and Ryan Suter, 31, taking up $7.5-plus million each in salary cap room could do to his franchise.
“If I had to make that same decision at this time right now, I would make it in a flash,” Leipold said. “That decision changed our franchise. Completely changed our franchise. What happens six years from now, I don’t know. But I can tell you is six years from now, if it doesn’t work out, I would still go back and say we wouldn’t be who we are today without those two players on our team.”
As excited as Leipold is, there’s no win-or-else proclamation. He’s honest when asked if he believes the Wild’s a Stanley Cup contender.
“It takes a lot of luck,” Leipold said. “And injuries are all part of luck. Right now, we don’t have any injuries. So we’re playing well. What happens if two guys go out to injuries? Three guys?
“So, what am I expecting this year? I don’t know if we’ve got the kind of team, right now, that can play four hard series in the playoffs. I don’t know, they could surprise me.
“But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet. We’ve got some guys coming up who within a couple of years of being in this league can start to make a difference in the weakness that we have, which is the size of our players — although we’re better than we were last year. Staal certainly helps at center, and Niederreiter is playing more to his strength.
“But, I don’t know where it’ll go.”