Former Preds Owner Leipold Buys Minnesota Wild

By: Dave Campbell, Associated Press
By: Dave Campbell, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — One of the NHL's model franchises was sold Thursday when the Minnesota Wild announced Bob Naegele's majority stake will be bought by former Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold.

Naegele and his group of investors formed Minnesota Sports and Entertainment in 1997 when they were awarded the rights to an expansion franchise that entered the league in 2000. The Wild have announced a sellout for every game they've ever played at their downtown St. Paul arena.

"This is a genuinely incredible moment for me," Leipold said at a news conference.

Vice chairman Jac Sperling declined to reveal the purchase price, but said the deal is expected to close over the next few months pending approvals by the city and the league. The sports business analysts at Forbes released their annual team values in November, estimating the Wild's worth at $180 million. That number ranked them 15th out of 30 NHL teams.

When asked how much he will pay for the franchise and the parent company, Leipold — a native of Wisconsin — laughed as he said, "way too much."

Naegele, who built his wealth on a ubiquitous Twin Cities billboard company founded by his father, said he felt the time was right to move on. A goalie at Minnetonka High School in the 1950s, Naegele currently lives with his wife in Naples, Fla.

"There are seasons in a man's life, so this is the season. How do you know? It's just maybe a business sense. An intuition," said Naegele, who compared his decision to sell the team to giving away his two daughters in marriage.

Naegele will remain a minority investor. The limited partnership owns the Wild as well as the minor league Houston Aeros, the Minnesota Swarm of the National Lacrosse League, and a catering business. Though the city owns the arena and collects rent from the team, Minnesota Sports and Entertainment is the building operator and controls all the revenue from games, concerts and trade shows that are held at Xcel Energy Center and two adjacent facilities.

Success on the ice has been limited for the Wild, who have made the playoffs twice in six seasons and are currently in seventh place in the Western Conference. Their run to the Stanley Cup semifinals in 2003 remains the highlight.

Their focus on drafting and developing players, using a disciplined and defense-oriented style on the ice, and making fans feel like they're a part of the organization has drawn regular praise from peers and observers around the league. The decision to return to Minnesota has been a clear victory for the NHL, which allowed the North Stars to move from this hockey-crazy community to Dallas in 1993.

Leipold completed his $193 million sale of the Predators on Dec. 7 after the NHL's Board of Governors approved the transaction on Nov. 29. He has said he incurred $70 million in operating losses since the league granted him rights to the expansion franchise in 1997. Nashville began playing in the 1998-99 season, two before Minnesota.

Leipold lives in Racine, Wis., with his five sons and wife, Helen, who is an executive with her family business, S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. Leipold said he plans to buy a home near the arena and attend nearly every game.

"This is what I plan to do. It's too much fun," he said. "Why wouldn't you want to be involved in it every single day?"

Well-regarded around the league, Leipold was a member of the NHL's executive committee during negotiations on the last collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2004-05 lockout. Wild president and general manager Doug Risebrough said he didn't anticipate his job or expectations changing.

"He knows what it takes. He knows his influence as an owner. So I view it as a very stable move," Risebrough said.

Associated Press freelance writer Jess Myers contributed to this report.


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