Now that the Minnesota Wild has played to more than 300 consecutive sellouts in one the best arenas in professional sports, it’s difficult to imagine that the deal to bring a professional hockey team to Saint Paul was such a long shot that it almost fell apart – several times.
This story is about two men who believed in a dream and worked to the end to achieve it. It’s about the revitalization of a city and the return of NHL hockey to the Twin Cities. It’s about the building of an arena and a franchise that is now the model for all future arenas and franchises.
But back then, it was just a dream. That is until Bob Naegele, Jr. and Norm Coleman crossed paths.
When former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman was mayor of Saint Paul, he tried not once, but twice, to bring a relocated franchise to town. Coleman first tried to lure the Winnipeg Jets but as he says: “The NHL really needed to have a decision of where Richard Burke was going to end up, literally within weeks. At a certain point in time, the sand ran out on the clock and Burke already had Phoenix lined up.”
While Coleman was unable to get a deal done, Burke gave him a great tip, “He told me, ‘If you want to keep this going, you should give a call to guy in Denver named Jac Sperling.’”
Coleman called Sperling who was excited to get involved in the deal. That’s when the next opportunity presented itself.
“I talked to Peter Karmanos and engaged him in a conversation to bring the Hartford Whalers to Saint Paul,” Coleman says. “The Governor and I actually had a handshake agreement with Karmanos to bring the Whalers here.”
Of course, then Karmanos came to town: “The city was not in good shape, West Publishing just left and we were hurting,” Coleman says. “The room rates were so cheap at the Saint Paul Hotel that he didn’t think we could support a team in this town. He said to me ‘How are you going to sell hockey tickets when room rates are less than $50?’”
It was around this time that Mayor Coleman knew that if his vision of revitalizing downtown Saint Paul was going to happen, he would have to go a different route – an expansion franchise. Luckily, at that time, the NHL was looking to expand by four teams.
At first this proved difficult. As Coleman recalls: “It was like a scene in The Alamo. We had a lot of folks lined up but nobody was putting their foot across the line.”
It was about this time that Bob Naegele, Jr. got wind of the idea: “I got a phone call in 1996 from my son saying, ‘Pop, there’s this very sharp mayor in Saint Paul who has some grand ideas and I think we ought to sit down and have breakfast with him.”
Later on, Coleman would have a meeting with several prospective owners to discuss bringing an NHL franchise to Saint Paul.
As Coleman recalls: “To this day, I remember sitting down for that meeting and seeing the gleam in Bob’s eye. I saw a sparkle. Then I went to Jac and said, ‘I think this guy can do it.’”
Naegele was excited. He couldn’t wait to put an investor group together and pitch the NHL on the dream of bringing hockey back to its rightful place in Minnesota.
“There were 10 groups making a pitch to the NHL,” recalls Naegele. “We had the governor, mayor, the Capital city partnership and the Chamber. We had the complete package and gave an impressive presentation.”
However, the NHL was apprehensive about Minnesota: “We had a stain there,” Naegele admits. “The market had not been able to keep the North Stars. But we simply told them this: ‘At the time the North Stars left there were 13,500 people in the seats of a 15,000 seat arena. Hockey left us, we did not leave hockey.’”
This had won the NHL over. Shortly after that, the league shortened their list to six applicants and came out to Saint Paul for a sight inspection of the old Civic Center.
“It had East German architecure,” Coleman jokes. “It was brown concerete with no windows. Besides the state high school tournaments it didn’t have much going for it.”
Of course, there was a plan in place to renovate the building with a $59 million package.
Coleman tells the story best: “We had hosted the circus just before. We’re walking around the arena talking about this $59 million plan, a great plan to renovate the arena. However, the air was heavy with the smell of elephant dung [because of the circus]. So, we’re walking through the arena and at one point during the tour the commissioner says to me, ‘Do you have a plan B?’”
According to Naegele: “The league told us ‘You have an ‘A’ market. You have an ‘A’ ownership group. How would you grade the arena?’”
Coleman adds: “We knew we couldn’t bluff this portion of the meeting and told them ‘B.’ They told us we would need three ‘As’ to go ahead.
So it was on to Plan B, building a new arena in Saint Paul. Coleman then went on to help build an ambitious plan that would be funded from the city based on revenues generated from having an NHL team in Saint Paul, a commitment from the investor group and a 0% loan from the state.
“One of the conditions from the league was that we had to have the financing lined up or we would not receive the franchise,” Coleman says. “The ownership group was in, the city was in and the state was in, but we had a tremendous struggle in the legislature.”
At the very last minute on the very last day, the state legislature stepped up and approved the funding.
Shorty after, Bob Naegele, Jr. was on his way to New York City to pick up the franchise award.
““Bob and I are both believers,” Coleman says. “I really think the Good Lord watched over. At every moment where it could have fallen apart, it kept together. At every moment where it could have been over if we walked through the wrong door, we always walked through the right door.
Coleman adds: “I really do believe this was meant to be and as a result it has transformed Saint Paul in an extraordinary way. It would not have happened without a lot of good people who put their heart and soul into it and took a lot of risks to make it happen.”
Bob Breau | Commissioner, Minnesota Junior Hockey League
Erik Johnson | Defenseman, St. Louis Blues
Doug Johnson | Editor, Let's Play Hockey
Doug Woog | Former Minnesota Gophers Head Coach
Bob Naegele, Jr. | Former Chairman, Minnesota Wild &
Norm Coleman | Former U.S. Senator and Mayor of Saint Paul
Laura Halldorson | Former Gopher's Women's Coach
Phil Housley | Former NHL Player and High School Coach
Lou Nanne | Former NHL Player, Coach and General Manager