From left: Neal Broten, Glen Sonmor, Sen. Norm Coleman, Bob Naegele, Jr. and Tom Reid announce the name of Minnesota's hockey team.
Technically, today should be referred to as an anniversary, not a birthday.
But, since its inception, Robert (Bob) Naegele, Jr., has spoken in familial terms about his, and Minnesota hockey’s “baby” that he’s watched grow since infancy.
Today, that “baby” – the Minnesota Wild – turns 10 years old. On June 25, 1997, the National Hockey League officially awarded St. Paul an expansion hockey franchise, which would begin play in October of 2000.
“It’s right up there with the other great moments in franchise history, because it was the first memory,” said Naegele, who flew to New York 10 years ago to accept the responsibility of Minnesota’s newest professional franchise. “I didn’t want to be in New York. I wanted it to be part of the celebration in St. Paul. Jac (Sperling) said, ‘No, you better be there so you can shake hands with the other owners.’
“I remember flying back that evening and I missed the Zamboni parade, which my grandkids rode in. Then-mayor Norm Coleman was there. I only got to see the photos, which was the most disappointing part for me. So I arrived late that evening, but Norm was celebrating at Mancini’s. And it’s only fitting that we had that celebration at Mancini’s (which was owned by legendary St. Paul restaurateur, Nick Mancini).”
The team didn’t have a coach. There were no jerseys. No team name. No players. Not even an arena. The only semblance of a team on that day in 1997 was Greg Hoyt, Naegele’s son-in-law, who was lending a helping hand when possible, two non-full-time employees and a handful of teenage interns brought in to answer phones.
This was the group in charge of selling this franchise to a hockey market that, just four years earlier, had watched its Minnesota North Stars unceremoniously moved to Dallas, Texas.
The team’s job on June 26 was supposed to be easy – just answer the phones beginning at 9:00 AM. That day, Jamie Spencer reported to the Wild offices to field a few incoming calls. To his surprise, the handset on his telephone never left the side of his face.
“Just constant questions – ‘what’s going on with this,’ ‘who are the players going be?’ Spencer recalled 10 years later. “The fax machine was rolling. The phones didn’t stop. It was just a completely chaotic experience.”
Then an intern, and now the Wild’s Senior Director, Customer Sales and Service, Spencer and the rest of the crew began taking ticket orders at $100 apiece. The National Hockey League handed down a mandate that all four expansion teams – Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota – must reach 12,000 deposits by April of the year that the team would play.
Wild Executive Vice President Matt Majka was an outside consultant at the time. He admitted to getting caught up in the excitement of the news, but he would be lying if he said he wasn’t nervous about how the public would respond to another hockey franchise.
“Would the phones ring the way we wanted them to?” he wondered. “Well, long story short: less than a week in, we had 6,000 deposits for season tickets, meaning we were halfway to our goal with three and a half years to go.”
More than three years before the hockey team would ever win a game on the ice, the newborn had already taken its first step. There were plenty more steps to take for the little one before it would be sent out into the real world and the young age of three and a half.
In terms of selling tickets, that was plenty of time. But there was more on the To Do list than just getting fans. First off, the team needed a building. The St. Paul Civic Center held a lot of memories for those in Minnesota’s hockey culture, but it wouldn’t suffice for an NHL franchise. The demolition of the Civic Center and creation of the Xcel Energy Center was handled beautifully by designers and construction workers.
The front office went to work on the citizens of the State of Hockey.
“We used that time well to get to know the hockey community in particular – what their hopes and dreams were,” said Majka. “And, it gave us time to get to know those first 6,000 fans, who were in our fold. They were able to tell us their wishes for the organization. You cross your fingers that this market in St. Paul and this market in Minnesota is really ready for the NHL after the wounds that were incurred from the North Stars’ departure.”
The hockey community responded favorably to the Wild’s outreach. But, what the fans really wanted was hockey games. What kind of players are we going to get. Who is going to coach them? Who is going to put the team together?
“The trouble was the intangibility of it. We didn’t have a building. There was a hole in the ground. There was really no face of the franchise other than Bob Naegele. The faces didn’t come for a couple years later.”
Spencer knew after the first day how passionate the fans were, and how important it was to remember them when each decision was made.
“Along the way, we asked them to trust us and to be with us,” he said. “A lot of the same fans that were calling on the first day are still around. It’s been a really rewarding experience to be a part of that and to grow with them as fans and see them develop.”
The fans watched the team develop. A name was given. A logo was unveiled. Doug Risebrough was hired as General Manager. Jacques Lemaire was brought in to coach the team. The faces of the franchise were drafted, and signed. The state of the art facility was finished on time.
The puck finally dropped in October of 2000. Soon, the team wrapped up an inaugural season in which every game was sold out. The sellout streak continued as the club went on a miracle run to the Western Conference Finals in its third year of existence. A spectacular All-Star Weekend took place in January of 2004.
This baby could be labeled a “prodigy.” Even after a depressing work stoppage that canceled a season, the team recovered without missing a beat in attendance or fan interest. Another playoff appearance soon followed and here we are, 10 years later.
“We could see it in the building process that we had caught the fancy of the public as well as the NHL fans,” said Naegele. “That was really exciting to see that culmination.”
The team has come up short in just one area, and that is Stanley Cups. For a franchise that has been in existence for just 10 years, a Cup certainly wouldn’t be expected so soon. Then again, the Minnesota Wild has surpassed expectations for 10 years.
“I certainly would not have predicted this kind of success,” said Majka. “We all had high hopes and we all had dreams. But I never could have predicted that we would have this kind of success on the ice and off the ice. To have the fans respond the way they have. To have the community respond the way it has. To have the corporate community respond – before we even really deserved it to be honest – was fantastic…It would have been foolish to think that all of this could have happened back in ’97.”