Wild owner: Free agent bonanza 'a game changer'

Associated Press Modified: July 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm •  Published: July 5, 2012
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Craig Leipold never thought one of the biggest bonanzas in NHL history was even possible when the Wild owner stepped into the negotiating room with general manager Chuck Fletcher and the agents for defenseman Ryan Suter.

The Wild had opened the summer hoping to land one of the two biggest prizes on the market — either Suter or forward Zach Parise — to bolster a franchise that has missed the postseason for four straight seasons.

At one point during the meeting, Suter's agent, Neil Sheehy, looked at Leipold and Fletcher and essentially issued a challenge.

"He said to us, 'Are you guys committed enough that you're in for both of these guys?'" Leipold recalled from his hotel room in New York on Thursday. "Chuck kind of looks at me and said, 'Can we talk for a second?'"

The two men stepped aside to digest the possibilities and the costs of making the unthinkable a reality. They plunged ahead, stunning the league when they signed Parise and Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million deals Wednesday, immediately energizing a franchise that was finally starting to see some apathy set in among its fans.

"This is a game changer," Leipold said, still euphoric some 24 hours later. "We're overnight changing who we are. We're changing our identity. We'll never get that opportunity again."

If any franchise needed it, it was the one in the "State of Hockey." The Wild enjoyed a decade-long honeymoon with their fans after coming into the league as an expansion team at the turn of the century. The hockey-hungry fans were happy to simply have the pro game back in town after losing the North Stars to Dallas.

Leipold bought the Wild in 2008, but the team has gone through a painful rebuilding period and had difficulty finding new stars to replace Marian Gaborik, who left for the New York Rangers in 2009.

As much of a fan as he is a businessman, Leipold desperately wanted to inject some sizzle into a roster short on star power this summer. But as late as Monday night, he feared the team was going to come away empty-handed.

"We didn't think we were going to get either one," he said. "We heard Detroit was hot on Suter. All we know is what we're reading. We were hearing we were up against Pittsburgh, Chicago, teams that have won in the last three or four years. These aren't just your normal run-of-the-mill teams. They're winning right now."

It turns out that Parise and Suter spent much of Monday and Tuesday talking to each other, researching the teams and trying to make a joint decision on where to play. In the end, they saw the list of promising young prospects Fletcher has assembled, the strong goaltending that has been the team's hallmark for years and a market that was close to home for both players and decided to make the move to Minnesota.