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Naegele leaves behind legacy of so much more than hockey

Former Wild chairman loved the sport but was also passionate about the families and lives of those close to him

by Dan Myers @MNWildScribe /

Bob Naegele, Jr. was a man of devout faith, a man of integrity, of passion and of love ... of family, of God and of hockey. 

His devotion to each was paramount to how he conducted himself in the business world as well.

When Naegele sold his ownership in Rollerblade in 1995, he and his wife, Ellis, shared the profits with every worker in the company.

"But the amount of money wasn't based on your title in the company," said Wild president Matt Majka, at the time vice president of product marketing at Rollerblade. "All that mattered was how long you had worked for the company."

The checks arrived, unannounced, a few days before Christmas that year.

"There were people, a warehouse worker for example, who received life-changing money, where a new VP would have received far less," Majka said. "That's how Bob and Ellis and the family treated people; they treated them fairly and with equal respect."


That money allowed some to put a down payment on a house. For others, it could have paid for part of a child's college education or for a family vacation. 

"People were dumbfounded. They didn't know how to react. It really had changed their life," Majka said, emotion in his voice. "There was no notice about it, so you can imagine, if you're a person who started making minimum wage but you've been working for Rollerblade for 15 years, it changed your life. 

"People just didn't know what to say, and to this day, I know how grateful so many people are that Bob and Ellis were that generous."

Naegele, the first chairman of the Wild and one of the men largely responsible for the return of NHL hockey to Minnesota, passed away Wednesday evening due to complications from cancer. 

In his wake are countless stories of the lives he has touched.

Naegele was the owner of a professional hockey team, but he cared for the concession stand worker and a security guard just as much as he did the Wild's first-line right wing. That's just who he was.

When the Wild began play in 2000, it wasn't uncommon for Naegele to be standing just outside Gate 1 of Xcel Energy Center, greeting fans and shaking hands as they entered the building. 

For those who interacted with him on a daily basis, working for Naegele couldn't have been a better experience. 

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."

Naegele was that way with everybody.

Former Wild forward Wes Walz met Naegele for the first time during the team's first-ever training camp in 2000. But Naegele didn't ask Walz about his career or his latest adventures in hockey; he asked about his family. 

At the time, Walz and his wife, Kerry-Anne, had three children.

A few months later, Naegele found Walz outside the dressing room and asked how his wife and each one of his children was doing, using each of their names like he had known the family for years.

"That was the first thing that kind of hit me about Mr. Naegele, was that he cared about you, and not about you as a hockey player, but he cared about you as a person," Walz said.

Tweet from @walz3737: Trust me when I say this, nobody loved the Wild more than Mr Naegele, period. Strong in his faith and convictions but always, always cared about others. You changed my life, & gave me opportunity when you purchased the Wild, I will always be indebted and grateful. RIP Mr. Naegele

When Walz signed with the Wild in the summer of 2000, no other NHL franchises were interested in him. 

A third-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 1989, Walz bounced between the Boston, Philadelphia and Calgary organizations between 1990 and 1996 before finding himself out of the League.

Walz moved his family to Switzerland for the 1996-97 season and he played there four years. By 2000, he was resigned to the fact that he would likely finish his career there, until the Wild came calling that summer.

He took less money to return to the United States for one final crack at the NHL, converting that one opportunity into a 6 1/2-year run in a Wild uniform.

Minnesota is now home for the Walz family, as Wes works for the Wild in a number of different off-ice capacities and does television analysis for FOX Sports North. 

With Naegele's condition worsening in recent days, Walz had lunch with the former chairman two weeks ago, offering him a chance to share something with Naegele that he had waited years to say face-to-face.

"I never really had a chance to thank him for buying the team and giving me an opportunity," Walz said. "The first 10 years, I was up and down in the minors and in Switzerland and I was all over the place. I had really underperformed in my career. And when the expansion team came along, they stuck their neck out for me, and that was the Minnesota Wild.  

"I'll be grateful to him for buying the team and giving me that opportunity to finish my career in one place and be able to be happy and proud of what I've accomplished on the ice."

Walz brought with him that day one of the Bibles Naegele had sent him during his playing days. Each year around Christmas, one would arrive at the Walz household with Naegele's name in small print and a handwritten note to the family inside the cover.

Walz, like Naegele was, is a man of deep faith, so the gift always had special meaning. After lunch, Walz read the note to him and the two discussed the old Wild days. 

"He loved the Wild, so he was right in his element," Walz said. 

Former Wild defenseman Brent Burns was just 18 years old when he debuted with the club in October of 2003. A native of Barrie, Ontario, Burns was new to the Twin Cities and new to the team, having been drafted in the first round by the Wild the previous June.

But Naegele made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

"I was pretty young at the start there, and he was always checking in on me and always gracious to my family and my parents," said Burns, now with the San Jose Sharks. "He obviously meant so much to the State of Hockey." 

The same was true of Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who came to Minnesota as a 22-year-old rookie in 2005. He had spent the prior season in Houston with the team's AHL affiliate, but was still new to the country when he arrived that fall.

Koivu said he met with Naegele within the past couple of weeks and told him that he appreciated the safe environment he created inside the dressing room for his players and the staff.

"I think that's the best way to describe what he meant to the players and the families that were on the team," Koivu said. "Just a great man, the way he treated us as players and our families."

Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, himself a former player under Naegele, was also able to visit with Naegele over the past couple of weeks -- a true sign of the reverence for him his players had. 

A native Minnesotan, the return of the Wild and NHL to the state was special to Hendrickson, as it was to so many others in the state ... no more so than Naegele, who grew up playing the game on frozen ponds in the west metro and played goaltender at Minnetonka High School.

The sport was a major part of Naegele's life from the time he was a kid until the very end, when he'd watch Wild games from his hospital bed. 

"Bringing the franchise back here had deep roots and meanings for all of us, but for him, he was the guy that believed it could get done," Hendrickson said. "For those of us that grew up North Stars fans, you'd never picture a team in St. Paul or the Minnesota Wild, and he did. They got it done, and that was a credit with him and to the people he surrounded himself with."

But more than the sport and the state he leaves behind will be the lives he touched in so many other ways away from the rinks.

"There's hockey involved and there is successes in business, but he left a mark on so many people," Hendrickson said. "I think that's the tribute to him when people look at the end of your life, is your impact on others, and he had a great impact."

Video: Reaction to the passing of Bob Naegele, Jr.

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

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