By Michael Russo
First, I’ll be on with shock jock Jim Souhan Sunday morning at 10:35 a.m. on KSTP, 1500-am.
Friday, I sat down with Wild owner Craig Leipold for a state-of-the-team article, which can be read here.
I appreciate the time with Mr. Leipold, who is a busy man, and I’d like to thank Bill Robertson for arranging it. As promised, here is the full Q&A with Mr. Leipold.
In addition, if you never got a chance to read my summertime profile on Mr. Leipold, here’s the story that ran in August. His personality shines in the story, and also, this would be a good read for you because he talks about his desire to acquire top free agents in Minnesota that would help lure other top players. For the below Q&A and accompanying article, my time was limited with Mr. Leipold and I neglected to ask him about upcoming free agency plans. This is a passionate fan and owner, one who allows his GM to spend to the salary-cap ceiling (actually a few million south only because that allows the Wild to have flexibility to make moves during the year).
Q: So how are ya?
A: “A lot of sleepless nights … because of the closeness of the race, because of the uniqueness of this season is, where not only is your game important, there are other games that are just as important. It sure makes for an interesting evening no matter if we’re playing or not.”
Q: When you sit in the crowd, do you get a sense of the fans angst, their nervousness, their displeasure some nights, especially in December?
A: “I don’t know why it seems like this year has been a very, very intense year. It seems more intense than any other year I’ve had and I think it is because of the tightness of the race. I like this team. I like it a lot. We are so close in the standings, anything can happen. Clearly, I think we can still end up in a pretty good spot and frankly, I would like to get home-ice advantage. I still want to win the division. I think this team can do it. Every night is important to get to that position of winning the division. For some reason, it just seems like it’s been an unusually difficult year.
Q: I know this is your first year, but do you think that has a lot to do with the fact that these fans have been around nine years, they’ve seen the same hierarchy for eight years and the reality is sometimes things grow old?
A: “I think the expectation level is high. I think it is for me, I think as a fan. My nervousness of watching the game is as a fan, truly not as an owner. I want to win like the ‘Team of 18,000’ wants to win this game. So I don’t know whether that’s part of it. Expectations were high. I think they should have been. And I think we’re still going to achieve an awful lot this year.”
Q: The fans are very concerned about Niklas Backstrom. Can you talk about that situation right now?
A: “No. It’s not my role to talk about it. Negotiations are going on. We like Nik Backstrom. He’s a great goalie in this league. We want to have him here. He wants to be here. Hopefully we’re going to work it out. That’s really all I know. I would hope that we could get Backstrom signed and I’d be surprised if we didn’t.”
Q: As an owner, if you can’t work it out, do you think even if you’re in the thick of a playoff race that to keep the direction moving forward that you might have to consider trading Backstrom?
A: “That’s Doug’s role and responsibility. He’ll do what is best for this franchise in the long-term, not just for the last 20 games. I think that’s the sign of a good general manager is that they do stuff for the long-term.”
Q: This team has lost players for nothing – Brian Rolston for a fourth, who knows what’s going to happen with Gaborik. It does seem like to keep the franchise moving in the right direction and accumulating assets that this is something you’d have to strongly consider if you can’t sign Nik?
A: “Yeah, but I think we always have to remember that the Gaborik issue is an injury issue. It was not a strategy or philosophy of how we ended up handling Gaborik. Our only intention was re-signing Gaborik. It is still our only intention. Unfortunately the injury caused everything to shut down. It’s our hope that we’ll still re-sign him. I think he’d like to play here. We’re not done yet.”
Q: So you really believe that there’s still a chance?
A: “I hope so. As a fan, I sure hope so.”
A: “Yeah (laughing).”
Q: Can you talk about your philosophy with management and coaches in your career. You had one GM and coach in Nashville. Why no kneejerks firings? Why don’t you change the hierarchy in a league that changes coaches and managers like they’re changing their pants?
A: “First of all, I think my history that I have shows that I don’t get involved in player or coach decisions. And I feel real good about having earned that reputation. The fact is I don’t. I let Doug know really early on that if he asks me, I will give him my opinion. And if I ever thought that he would make his decision based on what my opinion is, I’ll stop giving it to him. And I would be very disappointed. I want to give him an opinion as a fan because he knows more than I’ll ever know about this game. And I’m not about to make decisions on players and coaches that he should be making.”
Q: Does he ask your opinion a lot?
A: “(Laughing). I don’t know what ‘a lot’ means. He doesn’t directly ask, but he talks and does ask, ‘What do you think about this, what do you think about that?’ I would not say he doesn’t ask my opinion a lot, but we do talk a lot.”
Q: So are you always up to date with what’s going on with a Backstrom, what’s going on with a Gaborik?
A: “Yeah, I’d say yes. The answer to that is yes. He is very open to what’s happening with the players, so I’m aware of that.”
Q: Expectations, what do you expect with this team?
A: “I would expect this team to make the playoffs.”
Q: Would you do anything if they didn’t?
A: “No. As every fan, I would be disappointed. I’m looking at this team on the ice right now and I look at where we are relative to what I would consider the seven or eight teams we’re competing with, and we’re better than those teams. It’s my hope that we make it. And I think Gaborik’s going to be back in the end. I think that’s going to help us. It’s going to give us a little bump. I like our position.”
Q: So Doug’s in this for the long haul no matter what. Doug’s job is safe?
A: “Oh yeah. Doug’s fine. This is his team. He’s built it. Let’s be real honest: It’s been disappointing that Gaborik’s been hurt. You see how close we are in this race. Gaborik by now would have been worth 25 goals and 50 points. How many games does that win us? And if the answer is just five games, that puts us ahead of our division right now. So, yeah.”
Q: What’s your theory on Jacques? Do you think he’ll retire after this season?
A: “I don’t know. I’ve never spoken to Jacques about it. He’s an icon in our business. And that’s between Jacques and Doug. I have no input on that. I don’t know what Jacques’ thinking is on that honestly.”
Q: As a fan, and I know Nashville plays almost the exact same style, but do you like the Wild’s defensive style? Would you like to see a more up-tempo game?
A: “I like it when we win. You know what? The issue with style, this is only about winning. The game we saw the other night against Anaheim, I thought was a great game. I thought we played super. Defensively, we played very, very well. And when we had the chance to score, we took it and we did it. And I love a team that can play that way. So, I like this style of game.”
Q: On the state of the league, how concerned is there league-wide that the cap could go significantly down in two seasons?
A: “First of all, I don’t know if it’s a concern. The players are obviously concerned about that. My only concern would be that means the revenue is going down. And I think that’s going to clearly happen. But with the cap going down, that means the teams that are more strategic … from a competitive and advantage standpoint, I think it helps us because we think strategically, we think long-term. It’s the other teams that don’t think that way that are probably going to be in trouble.”
Q: In your situation, are you guys confident that you’ll be able to sustain this economic downturn and continue selling out every night?
A: “We clearly recognize that these are very difficult economic times. We aren’t so brazen to believe that we aren’t going to be affected by this economic downturn. So we’re doing things that are selfishly we think good for us but also good for our fans. We want them to be able to afford tickets. We want them to be able to afford the playoff that we’re going to be in this year. So if we have to freeze our ticket prices, we’re more than OK with doing that. What we want to do is continue our league-leading sellout streak because so much of our revenue is dependent on people here to watch the games. We’ll do everything we can to ensure that happens. The steps we made last week were to help us help the fans afford coming to the games.”
Q: What’s the latest with the practice facility?
A: “We are in communication with the Mayor’s office of St. Paul and they have indicated their strong desire to build an ice-skating facility at the Seven Corners site over here, which is also called Cleveland Circle. And they’ve asking whether we would want to partner with them to be the official practice facility. We absolutely would. We’re encouraging them to do this. And we want to be part of that process. We’ve just begun the dialogue to try to get something built – not just hockey, but all ice skating as part of the entertainment quarter that we have in St. Paul.”
Q: Is there a timetable with that?
A: “Not that I’m aware of. Not at this point.”
Q: Lastly, how involved are you in trying to land an outdoor game?
A: “Our people are talking with the NHL. We absolutely believe that we’re going to get one. I think what we need to do is we’re trying to create a unique theme that this market will have – like Chicago had Wrigley Field, like New York has Yankee Stadium, like Boston has Fenway Park. What we’re known for is outdoor rinks. I’d love to have it someplace where you have all these rinks all around the stadium and doing a tournament outside. We are the State of Hockey and that’s our theme. And so when we’re going to be pitching this to the NHL, it’s all about the State of Hockey, not just what’s going on in the stadium, but all around these parking-lot rinks.”
Q: You’re a “Mystery Alaska” fan. Is it feasible to do a pond hockey-type game on a lake as long as you have a heated indoor press box, of course?
A: “Yeah. Yeah. Sure it is (laughing). But it’s got to be exhibition because you can’t build the facilities.”