- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Months before the Washington Capitals began their free fall to the dregs of the NHL, owner Ted Leonsis already was praising the overachieving, cost-conscious Minnesota Wild.

“I would have traded my entire team for Minnesota’s,” Leonsis said last summer. “But with our fans, if we did that, I don’t think you’d come.”

Soon enough, the need for star power and marketing sizzle won’t be holding back Leonsis or any other NHL team owner in his quest to emulate the no-name Wild. Assuming the league survives a nasty labor war set to turn hot this fall, the Wild almost certainly will stand as the model by which each club attempts to reorganize.

In less than four seasons, the expansion Wild have sold out every game at St. Paul’s downtown Xcel Energy Center, reached the conference finals in their third year of existence and posted an estimated $20million operating profit that is believed to be the highest in the NHL. And they’ve done it all with a payroll that was the NHL’s lowest for three straight years and only this season edged up to $26.8million — 27th in the 30-team league and roughly a third of what the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings are spending on players.

As the hosts of this weekend’s All-Star Game festivities, the Wild’s business acumen and rapturous fan support have been on full display.

“Minnesota has done an absolutely fabulous job,” said Bill Daly, NHL executive vice president. “They’ve clearly made a lot of solid decisions. What is probably most striking to me is the way they’ve tapped into the roots of hockey in this market and made a connection with youth hockey here. The Wild have formed a bridge back to their own team that perhaps didn’t exist when [NHL] hockey was here before.”

The Wild began under treacherous circumstances following the acrimonious departure of the Minnesota North Stars and owner Norm Green to Dallas in 1993. But team chairman Bob Naegele Jr. and his staff have made it easy for local fans, and most anybody else who cares about sports, to root for the Wild.

Many teams pay lip service to forging a deep bond with the fan base and making a mark upon the community. But the Wild have spelled out their commitment to the fan base in “Hockey Operations Handbook,” a 65-page, hardcover, leather-bound mission statement that outlines the franchise’s core philosophies.

In the tome, also known as “The Green Book,” the Wild outline an unyielding commitment to the concept of team, an aversion to flashy free-agent signings, and an insistence on fan service and making every team employee fully accountable to both management and the community at large.

The result is a young, grinding, and thoroughly likeable team that already exists well within the $40million figure that has circulated as a potential target for a salary cap NHL officials ideally would like in the next labor agreement.

“There’s no great secret for franchise success,” said Matt Majka, Wild senior vice president of business operations. “We certainly benefited from the passion people have here for hockey. But it’s all about simply talking to and listening to your fans. When we started, we were talking to fans right away. We were running focus groups, qualitative surveys, getting as much feedback as possible. This is precisely the type of team they said they wanted.”

The Wild have stumbled considerably from their deep playoff run last spring and now stand at 19-20-15-2, 10th best in the Western Conference. Early season holdouts by leading forwards Marian Gaborik and Pascal DuPuis particularly hurt the club out of the gate. But the Wild refused to capitulate to their monetary demands, and both were signed for a combined $3.6million for this season. A return to the playoffs is still possible, because Minnesota trails the No.8 team, Nashville, by just five points.

“This season, no question, has been much more challenging,” Majka said. “But nothing has really changed in how we operate. We laid out our principles, and people understood there were going to be peaks and valleys. We stuck with our plans and our values, and the fans have continued to respond.”

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