Wild owner selling majority share to ex-Predators owner Leipold

Updated: January 11, 2008, 11:48 PM ET
Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Craig Leipold emerged as the new chairman of the Minnesota Wild, promising not to "mess with" one of the NHL's model franchises.

The Wild announced Thursday that Bob Naegele's majority stake in the team will be bought by Leipold, the Wisconsin entrepreneur and former Nashville Predators owner.

"I'm not here to fix anything," Leipold said at a news conference to discuss the sale.

Naegele and his group of investors formed Minnesota Sports and Entertainment in 1997 when they were awarded the rights to an expansion franchise that entered the league in 2000. The Wild have announced a sellout for every game they've ever played at their downtown St. Paul arena.

"This is a genuinely incredible moment for me," Leipold said.

Vice chairman Jac Sperling declined to reveal the purchase price, but said the deal is expected to close over the next few months pending approvals by the city and the league.

The sports business analysts at Forbes released their annual team values in November, estimating the Wild's worth at $180 million. That number ranked them 15th out of 30 NHL teams. When asked how much he will pay for the franchise and the parent company, Leipold laughed as he said, "way too much."

Naegele, who built his wealth on a ubiquitous Twin Cities billboard company founded by his father, said he felt the time was right to move on. A goalie at Minnetonka High School in the 1950s, Naegele currently lives with his wife in Naples, Fla.

"There are seasons in a man's life, so this is the season. How do you know? It's just maybe a business sense. An intuition," said Naegele, who compared his decision to sell the team to giving away his two daughters in marriage.

Naegele will remain a minority investor. The limited partnership owns the Wild as well as the minor league Houston Aeros, the Minnesota Swarm of the National Lacrosse League, and a catering business. Though the city owns the arena and collects rent from the team, Minnesota Sports and Entertainment is the building operator and controls all the revenue from games, concerts and trade shows that are held at Xcel Energy Center and two adjacent facilities.

Success on the ice has been limited for the Wild, who have made the playoffs twice in six seasons and are currently in seventh place in the Western Conference. Their run to the Stanley Cup semifinals in 2003 remains the highlight.

Their focus on drafting and developing players, using a disciplined and defense-oriented style on the ice, and making fans feel like they're a part of the organization has drawn regular praise from peers and observers around the league. The decision to return to Minnesota has been a clear victory for the NHL, which allowed the North Stars to move from this hockey-crazy community to Dallas in 1993.

With that surely in mind, Leipold went out of his way to plead for the public's trust. Minnesotans have a tendency to be wary of outsiders.

"I'm passionate about hockey, incredibly passionate. I'm committed to winning. Everything that you've seen out of this organization in the past eight years has my complete respect, and it's my challenge and objective to continue that," said Leipold, who became hooked on the sport by going to Chicago as a kid to watch Blackhawks games.

Leipold completed his $193 million sale of the Predators on Dec. 7 after the NHL's Board of Governors approved the transaction on Nov. 29. He has said he incurred $70 million in operating losses since the league granted him rights to the expansion franchise in 1997, but predicted local owners would fare better.

Leipold lives in Racine, Wis., with his five sons and wife, Helen, who is an executive with her family business, S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. Before he bought the Predators, Leipold founded a business-to-business telemarketing firm and later purchased a maker of protective clothing and footwear.

Within a month of his decision to sell the Predators, Leipold said, he regretted it. He said he plans to buy a home near the arena and attend nearly every game.

"This is what I plan to do. It's too much fun," he said. "Why wouldn't you want to be involved in it every single day?"

Well-regarded around the league, Leipold was a member of the NHL's executive committee during negotiations on the last collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2004-05 lockout.

Nashville began playing in the 1998-99 season and has made the playoffs three times, partly due to a willingness to spend on free agents and a continuity fostered by Leipold. The Predators have never changed general managers or coaches.

Wild president and general manager Doug Risebrough didn't anticipate his job or expectations changing.

"He knows what it takes. He knows his influence as an owner. So I view it as a very stable move," Risebrough said.

After beating Detroit 6-5 in a shootout Thursday, Wild coach Jacques Lemaire had little to say about the sale.

"Things will keep going, our job is to win as many games as we can. The office is something else," Lemaire said.

But Wild forward Mark Parrish expressed a bit more enthusiasm.

"Mr. Naegele was a great owner," Parrish said. "He treated us all very well and with a lot of respect. I wish him all the best. From what I've heard, Mr. Leipold is a great guy and is pretty much cut out of the same mold. I'm excited."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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