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Naegele's vision for pro hockey lives on beyond his wildest dreams

State of Hockey Legacy Award honoree and first Wild owner achieved what many said was impossible: making pro hockey work in St. Paul

by Dan Myers @DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- In the mid-1990s, the idea that professional hockey could work in downtown Saint Paul was a radical one.

The bustling area along West Seventh Street looked nothing like it does today. The state-of-the-art ballpark in Lowertown didn't exist. Xcel Energy Center and RiverCentre weren't even dreams yet.

But Bob Naegele Jr. had a vision.

He and a host of others, led by former Mayor Norm Coleman, dreamt that the NHL should not only return to St. Paul, but should be the centerpiece of the revival of the State of Hockey's capital city.

In recognition of achieving that dream, Naegele -- the first principle owner of the Minnesota Wild -- was awarded the State of Hockey Legacy Award prior to Thursday night's game against the Dallas Stars.

Naegele joins previous honorees from all walks of hockey life, including Walter L. Bush Jr. (2016), Bob O'Connor (2015), Lou Nanne (2014), Glen Sonmor (2012), Neal Broten (2011) and Lou Cotroneo (2010).

"To be honored with those folks, it's legendary for me," Naegele said. "I'm among hockey legends as players, as coaches, as general managers, as scouts, none of which I've ever been. But I played another part of doing something that maybe none of those other folks could do, just playing another role on the team. That was my role."

Almost instantly after the North Stars packed up and moved to North Texas, Naegele felt compelled to accept the challenge of bringing the NHL back to Minnesota.

It wasn't easy.

The Stars' home, the Met Center in Bloomington, was outdated and wasn't an option for a potential new team. Minneapolis' Target Center was new, but it wasn't an ideal hockey facility. 

Coleman believed that the centerpiece of a revitalization of St. Paul could revolve around a professional sports team coming to the east side of the Twin Cities for the first time.

In Naegele, he found a willing partner. But it wasn't easy. Critics scoffed at the idea of pro hockey in a city other than St. Paul's larger, more populated twin.

Then again, Naegele had never been one to shy away from a challenge.

"I've always enjoyed when somebody says, 'You can't do that.' It's always proved to me to be a challenge," Naegele said. "When the North Stars left, I realized what a hole it left in the heart of everyone in Minnesota, whether you're a hockey fan or not. I had the opportunity -- I was in the rare place and time -- to change history. That became a primary motivator for me to take a swing at the puck. And now I see that fulfilled with the great success it's been."

The centerpiece of his plan was Xcel Energy Center, built on the site of the former St. Paul Civic Center. Open now for nearly two decades, the arena is still widely considered one of the top venues in the country, not just for hockey, but for concerts and countless other events that roll through town every year.

Video: State of Hockey Legacy Award: Bob Naegele Jr.

"Others have tried to imitate it," Naegele said. "Yet it doesn't have the heart of the State of Hockey. They're just buildings that are built to imitate ours. But ours has that soul, and when you see it ... I was walking through the lower level, and it's the cleanest building of any arena in the League. It's a pride for every employee that works for the Wild."

That pride was something that began with Naegele and continued with current team owner Craig Leipold. 

Like Naegele with the Wild, Leipold also entered the NHL as a new owner in the late 90s, as chairman of the Nashvillle Predators.

Current Wild Assistant General Manager Andrew Brunette played for the Predators when Leipold owned the franchise, then came to Minnesota and played for Naegele. He said he felt an immediate similarity between the feel of each organization, something that helped make the transition from Naegele to Leipold, when he purchased the Wild in 2008, seamless.

"It was that same family feel," Brunette said. "When [Naegele] would talk to you, it was never about hockey. He was always asking how things were away from the rink, how your family was doing. And it's the same way now."

But Naegele didn't just treat players and coaches that way. As the former owner walked through the building on Thursday, from his suite to the arena level for a radio interview during intermission, Naegele spotted several people that worked similar jobs during his tenure as owner. 

He still greeted them with a smile and remembered their names, nearly a decade after selling the Wild.

That's one of his lasting legacies with those who worked for him.

Wild Media Relations Director Aaron Sickman began with the organization as an unpaid intern in 1998, working his way up the chain of command to his current position.

"After just one meeting, whether you were an intern, or a director, he knew your name and took the time to say hi to you and ask how you were doing," Sickman said. "He was a great person to work for and Wild fans couldn't have asked for a better person to bring the NHL back to Minnesota."

It also wasn't uncommon for him to mingle with fans outside Gate 1, shaking hands and meeting the paying public, thanking them for coming out and gathering opinions on what could be done better.

That kind of stuff just didn't happen back then, but it was of utmost importance to Naegele.

"Hockey teaches you many lessons, and one of them is, when you're on a team, you don't think of what the social status is or the position is of your teammates," Naegele said. "You're on a team, you have a mission. So it always seemed to me, every fan, regardless of his social or economic status, or whatever his position in life -- old, young, middle-aged -- we were all a part of the team. I've been a team player all my life, and that just seemed natural."

Even now, having been back to the arena and to watch the team he helped cultivate many times, Naegele still marvels at what the Wild is, and what professional hockey in Minnesota and in St. Paul has become.

"It's important to have a good legacy, and what you do at the beginning effects the outcome," Naegele said. "To me, to see the legacy that's here, I'm proud of it, and I'm proud that everybody thats been a part of it, it's such a blessing to hear about it. I believe we sewed good seeds and they continue to grow up and become a good harvest. I'm out of the picture, yet the tradition carries on.

"It's so fun to see. None of us could have envisioned what the outcome would be 21 years later. We're all so excited about the rejuvenation of St. Paul and what the arena has done for the status of, not only of the city, but of the state of Minnesota."


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