Owner says Wild fans deserve better
Craig Leipold leaned back in his office chair and shook his head with a grimaced look, the frustration of missing the playoffs for a third straight year still fresh for the Minnesota Wild owner some four days after the season.
Leipold said he has a ''lot of disappointment'' and he's still trying to ''come to grips'' with the Wild's late collapse that sent them tumbling to 12th place in the Western Conference. They went 2-10-1 from March 10 through April 7.
Leipold said he's borderline ''embarrassed'' for the fans and he's pushing the entire organization to work harder this summer at communicating progress and a plan for building a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
''We let our fans down, and we have to now reach back out and find a way to re-engage them,'' Leipold said. ''We have to convince them that we are committed and serious about winning, and we hope to do that by communicating to them what we're doing with our prospects and our new players and where our future is.''
Plus, with a new head coach. General manager Chuck Fletcher let Todd Richards go on Monday after two seasons.
Leipold also is focused on raising revenue, with the goal of regaining a recent decrease in ticket sales and making up for losing money this year without a postseason appearance. He said the organization has had to make five layoffs.
''Just like all the other businesses, we've had to adjust our workload,'' Leipold said in a wide-ranging interview this week with The Associated Press. He added: ''We didn't make the playoffs. That's why we're losing money. It's not a critical situation. It's not crisis by any means, but we have to run it like a business. If it means that we have to use fewer people to work harder to run the business then that's what we have to do during this period of time.''
Leipold said he believes the Wild's ''brand'' and support remains strong, but he acknowledged the crowded market for other entertainment, sports and hockey spending and the importance of continuing to work at keeping their customers happy. In short, Wild fans aren't simply going to continue showing up without a reason to be excited.
The Wild had announced a sellout for 409 straight games since they began playing in 2000, until that ended this season. They had sellouts for 25 of their 40 regular-season home games, Leipold said.
''We're going to have to show our fans by what we do in the offseason, by who we hire as a coach, by the players that we bring in that we're going to have an exciting team next year and that we're going to have a playoff team next year,'' Leipold said.
When Richards was hired to replace Jacques Lemaire two years ago, Leipold led the message that a more uptempo, physical scheme was important not only to win but to entertain. Lemaire's teams have long been known for their gritty, patient, conservative style.
''Jacques Lemaire's attitude was if you win they'll love you. A lot of people still feel the same. It is still about winning. Winning ugly is still winning. I think we all believe that,'' Leipold said. ''I think we got a little bit caught up in the whole marketing uptempo stuff. It's about winning. We don't care how we do it.''
Fletcher expressed the same focus earlier this week when he discussed the firing of Richards, a decision in which Leipold said he had no input.
''We're in a results-oriented business,'' the general manager said. ''We're all judged that way.''
The lack of success at home, where the Wild have long enjoyed an advantage with their consistent capacity crowds, was a major frustration for the organization this season. They posted a 19-17-5 home record, and the low point came in late March, when the Wild lost to Montreal 8-1 and Toronto 3-0 at the Xcel Energy Center in a span of three days.
''For whatever reason we struggled a little bit at home and lost our prestige, you could say, at this rink,'' right wing Cal Clutterbuck said, adding earlier this week: ''If we could've maintained how we were playing at home the past 10 years we'd be having a totally different conversation right now.''
Losing free agents like Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston without compensation have hurt the Wild, as have several drafts that failed to yield reliable players. Leipold lamented that lack of organizational depth, particularly notable this season when Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu each missed a series of games because they were hurt.
Leipold said the Wild have had the highest insurance payback of any NHL team over the last three years because of all the injuries. Typically, the contracts of a team's top five players are insured. He also praised Fletcher's efforts to restock the system.
''You can't do anything about injuries, but you should be prepared for depth. I don't think we were prepared enough,'' Leipold said.