The several hundred people in attendance Wednesday at the 42nd annual Lester Patrick Award Luncheon at the St. Paul Hotel could have said that to Bob Naegele, the former lead investor of the Minnesota Wild. Naegele was honored along with Anaheim Ducks Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Burke, former Detroit Red Wings great Ted Lindsay and former NHL defenseman Phil Housley, who retired as the League's all-time leading American-born scorer.
Naegele is widely credited with returning the NHL to Minnesota in 2000, less than a decade after the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas. Every single game played at the Xcel Center, which Naegele helped build, has been a sellout. The Wild are the reigning Northwest Division champions.
As NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said, "Let's face it, if not for Bob Naegele, we wouldn't be having this luncheon today in St. Paul."
Bettman praised Naegele's strategy of forging a bond between the team and the community, the community in this case being Minnesota, fondly referred to here as "the state of hockey." The commissioner cited Naegele's decision to hang the jerseys of every Minnesota high school team on the walls of the Xcel Center's concourse.
Bettman noted that three of the recipients had worn those sweaters, Naegele (Minnetonka), Housley (South St. Paul) and Burke (Edina).
"If this doesn't feel like a hockey family, I don't know what is," USA Hockey Executive Director David Ogrean said in his opening remarks. "We are grateful to all of them for what they have done for the game of hockey."
What they have done is considerable.
Housley played in nine international tournaments for USA Hockey, and was a member of the gold medal-winning team at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the silver-medal squad at the 2002 Winter Olympics. But he said one of his favorite memories was defeating the Russians 3-0 at St. Petersburg in the 2000 World Championships. Housley's mother had died shortly before and Coach Lou Vairo thought it would help him if he played soon after that, made Housley his captain and invited his father along for the trip.
"Phil is personable, smart and hardworking and when it comes to tenacity ... there's no one better," Bettman said.
Housley noted that he is now coaching the Stillwater High School Ponys and that Naegele played goal for the Minnetonka Skippers.
"I can't think of two more intimidating names for hockey teams than the Ponys and the Skippers," Housley joked. Housley cited fellow South St. Paul product Doug Woog as "a big reason that I was able to make that jump (from Minnesota high-school hockey) to the NHL." He also thanked his dad, Leroy, "the heart and soul of our family," for teaching him the value of hard work.
He said it was ironic that the award represents thanks from USA Hockey when "I should be thanking USA Hockey." Housley was invited to play in two international games while he was in high school and passed his test with flying colors. He remembered that teammate Mike Antonovich, who didn't know him, on first meeting told him to get a roll of tape and that Housley complied like rookies do in the presence of veterans. Later, they were on the ice and Antonovich did a double-take and apologized, saying he thought the teen was the stickboy.
Burke played with an Edina travel team in the national championship, co-captained Providence College's hockey team, won the Calder Cup with the Maine Mariners, was an agent representing Brett Hull and others, served as Bettman's chief assistant and has served as GM for three NHL teams. When his Anaheim Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup, Burke became the first general manager of a West Coast hockey team to win the Stanley Cup since Lester Patrick with the 1924 Victoria Cougars. He will be the general manager of Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Burke made a reference to the Ducks' slow start this season to open his remarks.
"I'm very happy you named the recipients before the season began," Burke joked. He then recalled his first meeting with Naegele, whom he didn't know is very religious. "I must have said four or five swear words, as I'm wont to do, when the meal came and Bob said, 'Let's say Grace.'"
The Lester Patrick Award honors service to American hockey, but Burke said that in his case, "it's an unequal bargain. Hockey educated me, it's where I met my wife, it allowed me to travel the globe and it educated my children. ... I intend to keep giving back to hockey because there's no way I can give back for what this game has given me."
Host Bill Clement noted in introducing Lindsay that he has been in the Hockey Hall of Fame for 42 years. The great left wing of the Detroit Red Wings in the 1940s and 1950s started one of the United States' first hockey schools, coached two Detroit high school teams and one college team for no money and has been a great ambassador for NHL hockey.
"It is a pleasure to award the Lester Patrick Trophy to not-so 'Terrible Ted' Lindsay," Clement said.
"I've met a lot of wonderful people in hockey," said Lindsay, the only non-Minnesotan honored this year. "I've always looked at Minnesota as Canada's other province, with the winters you have up here. I played against one of the greatest goalies in history, Frankie Brimsek, who was from here. And John Mariucci was the toughest player. You could hit him with a sledgehammer and he'd keep coming, run right over you."
The rink at the nearby University of Minnesota is named for Mariucci, the team's former coach.
Lindsay said that at age 83, "My only regret about getting older is that I can't play hockey any more."
Naegele concluded the event and called the Lester Patrick Award "an honor from my peers." He introduced his family, including his brother Bill, "a much better hockey player than I ever was." Then he honored his high school coach, Bud Leak, who converted him to a goalie, a move that helped him get into Dartmouth. Naegele then introduced the Wild's initial investors and the team's staff. He had a brief quizzical look and then said to current Wild owner Craig Leopold, "Craig, you stood up with the staff. You are more than staff. Could we have found a better owner?"
Naegele had a long and successful business career but he remains close to his hockey roots.
"The team-building and camaraderie that survive the games is so important," Naegele said. He took what he learned in sports and what he learned from his father and built one of the most successful outdoor-sign companies in the United States. He said he would not be receiving the honor if not for the teamwork of the investors and the fine staff under Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough.
"I accept this award on behalf of all those people and the state of hockey who built this organization on the excellence of amateur hockey," Naegele concluded.