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Naegele biggest reason for Wild's success

by John McGourty

"I can hardly put into words what the Lester Patrick Trophy means to me. It means a lot. To be receiving this award with Ted Lindsay, Brian Burke and Phil Housley makes it more special."
-- Bob Naegele

Have a lengthy conversation with 2008 Lester Patrick Trophy winner Bob Naegele Jr. about the creation of the Minnesota Wild and it's easy to see why the organization has enjoyed such success.

Naegele is the son of a successful businessman who played local high-school hockey, went to college, and eventually took over his father's business. He made it one of the largest billboard companies in the United States and then sold it to concentrate on investing in business start-ups. He had plenty of experience when he was asked to take on the biggest start-up of his life -- the Wild.

Naegele was brought up in an industrious, religious family and was a good kid, but two incidents in his late teens helped shape him into a more responsible person. He was involved in a near-fatal car crash, and a few years later clashed with his college hockey coach. In analyzing those two incidents, he found better ways to approach life.

Although he came to the NHL in his 50s, Naegele got instant respect for having played in Minnesota's tough high-school leagues. It only was by accident that he had that hockey background, Naegele said.

"I couldn't make the Minnetonka High School basketball team, so I had to go out for hockey," Naegele said. "Basketball had the panache in those days, with a big state tournament, although there was a good state hockey tournament brewing in St. Paul. I played defense as a sophomore and then two years as a goalie.

"I then played goalie on Dartmouth College's freshman team, but I made a mistake of thinking I was smarter than the varsity coach, Ed Jeremiah, so I didn't play my other three years of college. It is one of my biggest regrets because Jeremiah was a pioneer of American hockey, a foundation builder of collegiate hockey, a fine man who understood the game, understood people and players. I never discuss what happened, but it was a case of a young person thinking he knew more than he did."

Naegele was lucky to make it to college after flipping his car on an icy road one night.

"The thing I remember most was my mother after my accident on Highway 7, west of Excelsior," he said. "The car was upside down, a convertible if you can imagine. Think of a mother, how aghast she must have been before she saw me sitting in the police cruiser. Afterwards, we were just sitting and talking at home because I had no appetite for sleeping that night.

"She said to me, 'You know, Bob, God must have some purpose for your life to have kept you alive this evening.' That was pretty telling and I never forgot those words. I've been able to see how God moves as I got older."

Naegele and his wife, Ellis, raised four children, including a son who played high school and college hockey. Two of their daughters are married and now Bob and Ellis are enjoying the grandchildren. Part of the reason for selling the Wild earlier this year to Craig Leipold was to have more time for family.

"Ellis and I raised three girls and a son," Naegele said. "We call my son 'Three,' and he was really a fine hockey player. I so enjoyed watching him play as a young man. There were too many good things to recall them all, but I loved the fact that he captained the Minnetonka High School team 27 years after I did. He was a leader and guys looked up to him. Then he played at Brown. My son also played tennis at Minnetonka with David Wheaton, the U.S. Open Junior winner who was a top professional.

"We raised our children before girls' hockey became popular. I have two granddaughters playing and one is going to be terrific while the other just loves playing the sport. She likes playing for her JV team as long as it doesn't conflict with the school play."

After selling the family business Naegele became involved with helping many other companies, but the one he's best known for resuscitating was Rollerblade Inc. in the 1990s. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time with the right product.

"By the age of 42 I had been a corporate chief executive and I was as good as I was going to get," Naegele said. "I didn't want to play in the same band over and over again. I wanted to be an investor who helped entrepreneurs. My M.O. was to team up with a partner and, most often, find a corporate wreck and do a rescue. Some of those deals were as much personal as corporate.

"That's what happened with Rollerblade Inc. I knew a young man who had a bankruptcy, but he was a sharp young guy and I helped him identify a business opportunity. A couple of companies, actually. It was a decision between an inline-skate company and a tire-shredding and recycling company in the Iron Range. I thought the real opportunity was the tire-shredding business. How wrong I was. He prevailed. We bought the company and changed the corporate name to the product name, Rollerblade, and it took off."

Since the Wild was created, it has been remarkable for its front-office quality and consistency. Naegele is satisfied that it is reflective of how he wanted to build a corporate team.

"With General Manager Doug Risebrough and head coach Jacques Lemaire, two guys who played together, it's been great to see the development of their work," Naegele said. "They never had a business relationship. Add in (assistant GMs) Tom Lynn and Tom Thompson, the blend has been great. We gave Doug the room and the latitude to develop his people and his strategy. He already had the strategy and then plugged in the people and executed it successfully. We only had two losing seasons, our first two seasons, before we went to the Western Conference Final in only our third season."

"What has been understated has been the fine work of the business side of the operation," Naegele continued. "The excellence we created there has translated into a wonderful fan relationship. You can have a good team but no connection to the fans. In this market we had to build on the positive things we had in Minnesota hockey. We refer, on occasion, to the North Stars and their traditions, but when they left there was outrage and bitterness, so we had to build on local hockey.

"We all love high-school hockey here. We had the filter of the NHL brand and then we did the filter of the Minnesota brand. We used the two to examine everything that we did. For example, the basketball team on the other side of the river had a dirigible flying around the stands. That's not NHL hockey and that's not Minnesota. Whenever someone came to call on us with a new idea, that's how we decided if it fit into our marketing and sponsorship.

"The folks on the business side have been equally as creative as the hockey side. In our third season, we put out the 'Green Book,' and included it in the season-ticket package. The actual name was 'The Hockey Operations Handbook,' and in it we said here are the four things that are our foundation: Team, Passion, Preparation and Honesty.

"It was a composite effort with our marketing people sitting down with the hockey operations people and coaches. They said tell us how you do this, do that. The book was 50 pages hardbound. We gave the folks something they could get their hands on. That way we could communicate Team Wild, Brand Wild, Concept Wild.

"It's unavoidable, but the media was setting expectations for us and we said to ourselves, 'That's not fair, we are setting our course,' and that was the way to let our fans know if we were meeting our expectations. People still talk about the Green Book.

"We looked at our situation following the North Stars and compared it to when you are wooing a romantic partner. It was like the fan base had had a bad divorce. It doesn't mean you don't like marriage -- you just had a bad experience. That was our mission and our test was communicating it.

"We wanted to stay prominent continually and got to the point where Tom Powers, a writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote a column saying, 'These people hold a press conference to announce a press conference.' When we decided we'd build the arena and put $45 million into it, we called a press conference. We could have just gone ahead and started building, but we wanted to get a boost out of the announcement. It paid off for everyone.
"You know in the movie Cinderella, how all those people did their jobs to get her ready for the ball? It was all the folks here doing those things that brought together our beautiful Cinderella, the Minnesota Wild." -- Bob Naegele
"You know in the movie Cinderella, how all those people did their jobs to get her ready for the ball? It was all the folks here doing those things that brought together our beautiful Cinderella, the Minnesota Wild."

"I get a lot of credit for what's happened, but Norm Coleman and Jac Sperling were the catalysts," Naegele said. "Norm Coleman, the mayor then of St. Paul and now our U.S. Senator, called Gary Bettman and asked, 'How do we get a team?' Gary told him find a rainmaker and potential investors. Jac was the rainmaker and my name came up among the first investors. Norm was the conductor and we were the orchestra."

Naegele misses his involvement in the team, but says it's for the best for him, the team and the fans.

"There are seasons in life and a corporate executive should always be looking for his successor," Naegele said. "I'm 68 and Craig Leipold is 55. It was time to find someone to take over. In a way, it's a sad time, but it's also a time of great joy and celebration. We were prepared to hand it off and I like that very much."

In an article five years ago, Naegele told a reporter how much he enjoyed playing with a group of friends. He said he still loves skating, but it's not as easy as it used to be.

"I still have all my hockey gear," Naegele said. "Will I put it on again? Maybe. But at age 68, I've got a 35-minute drive to the rink, a half-hour to put on the gear, play for 90 minutes, come back to the dressing room where I'm barely able to get the pads off and drive another 45 minutes. Compare that to putting on my tennis shirt and being on the court in 10 minutes."

Naegele is thrilled to be included in this year's group of Lester Patrick Trophy winners.

"I can hardly put into words what the Lester Patrick Trophy means to me," he said. "It means a lot. To be receiving this award with Ted Lindsay, Brian Burke and Phil Housley makes it more special. When I was growing up, Ted Lindsay was my idol, a hockey icon. Brian Burke has done so much in hockey to deserve this. I would take my son to watch Phil Housley play for South St. Paul High School. That was an amazing time. Phil is just a class guy."
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