A Short History of the Minnesota Wild

This is the first of two stories assessing the past, present, and future of the Minnesota Wild. Read part II here.

from Volume 1, Issue 2 of Erik Ritland’s weekly online magazine Ramblin’ On

Bob Neagele, the first owner of the Wild, was always a fan favorite and I could never figure out why. Sure, he had a hand in bringing hockey back to Minnesota, but when considering the product he put on the ice and the blunders he made it’s surprising there wasn’t at least some venom against him eventually.

Under Neagele ticket prices were high and always rising and he never considered having special package ticket deals. These would be forgivable offenses, or even expected, if it seemed like he cared about whether he put good product on the ice (or if the team, I don’t know, got to the Stanley Cup finals). Either he assumed that there’d always be 18,000 suckers and a strong season ticket base no matter how bad the team was or else he figured he’d sell the team before people caught wise and stopped renewing their season tickets and coming to games.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, once the season ticket base started dwindling and people stopped coming to the games Naegele sold the team to Craig Leipold. Poor, poor Craig Leipold.

It didn’t help that Doug Risebrough, Naegele’s General Manager, had his fair share of blunders as well. They include, but are not limited to, not getting anything for Marian Gaborik (nor attempting to build a team around him good enough to make him want to stay) and first round draft picks between 2004 and 2008 that are ALL convincingly considered busts according to htttp://www.firstroundbust.com.

Marian Gaborik, the Wild's only franchise player

Marian Gaborik, the Wild’s only franchise player

A story of first Wild coach Jacques Lemaire pretty much sums up what Naegele and Risebrough cared most about. When it became clear in 2002-2003 that the Wild could be a great team and even succeed in the playoffs Lemaire approached Risebrough and Naegele and told them that it would be in the best interest of the team to trade some players and use their success to build for the future. Naegele, not caring about the future, instead let it ride for the income, press, and temporary prestige of being a playoff team.

In short, the draft mistakes, trade blunders, and success in ‘03 left the Wild organization fairly depleted when Craig Leipold hired his GM Chuck Fletcher.

At first I wasn’t too impressed with the moves Leipold and Fletcher made. Hiring Todd Richards as Jacques Lemaire’s successor as coach was puzzling considering the other higher caliber, resume-filled coaches that were available. Acquiring Martin Havlat seemed like a good idea at the time – an inexpensive player that had the potential to be, I dunno, a second rate Gaborik – but he never played to his expectations.

Martin Havlat looking uninterested…as he often was

After two dismal seasons Richards finally got canned. No surprise there. The hiring of another rookie NHL coach, Mike Yeo, cast another shadow of doubt upon the new regime. The resumes of Yeo and Richards are practically the same. If one didn’t work why would the other? It seemed like Naegle all over again – go with the cheap option instead of what was best for the team.

All in all the first couple years of Leipold/Fletcher are not much of an improvement over Naegele/Risebrough. But in the Summer of ’11 some signs of life finally came out of the Wild camp. The results, while not immediate, have laid the groundwork for what will certainly become a contending team in the next few years.

Click here to read part II.

Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His writings on culture, music (including his own projects), sports, religion, and many other topics are cataloged regularly at Ramblin’ On. You can reach him via email here.


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