Visiting Team Wants In The Game
April 13, 2006 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen -- Hartford Courant

Hartford's mayor and its would-be hockey impresario spent 20 hours on a fact-finding tour here, a hectic jaunt from the high-five enthusiasm of the Minnesota Wild owners' box to the sobering realities of closed-door money talks, seeking an answer to one question:

Can Hartford do what Minnesota did? Can the city, having lost an NHL franchise, win one back?

Mayor Eddie A. Perez and developer Lawrence R. Gottesdiener came away Wednesday with no firm answers but plenty of advice: You need a strong NHL fan base, they were told. You need firm political leadership. You need a committed owner. You need to minimize the city's risk. And you need NHL buy-in.

Because the NHL has a memory.

Minnesota's hockey fans "didn't leave the North Stars, the North Stars left us," Wild owner Robert O. Naegele Jr. said in an interview, recalling the pitch his group made before the league. "We had to overcome that obstacle."

One other thing, current St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman told the Hartford visitors Wednesday: Be realistic in your expectations.

"I don't want to oversell," said Coleman, who was on the city council when the Wild deal was made. He noted that despite the surge in economic development around the new arena, St. Paul's "ground zero" of homelessness is just across the street. "You can argue the economic impacts all you want. But the one thing we know for sure is that where you build an arena will change dramatically. It will have an impact."

Some of the impact could be seen in St. Paul's enthusiasm for the team. The 18,000-seat arena was sold out for the season home finale Tuesday, although the Wild aren't going to the playoffs. Later, on the streets around the arena, Naegele was treated like a celebrity.

Before the game, Perez, Gottesdiener and the staff members they brought got a private tour of the arena.

As they entered, their eyes were drawn upward - both to a banner that read "Welcome to the State of Hockey" and to a long row of high school hockey jerseys.

Team vice president Jac Sperling and arena architect and project director Ray Chandler walked the group around the arena, beginning with its elongated glass face, what they called the Front Door of St. Paul. They then went from the $12 seats to the 74 corporate boxes that sell from $75,000 to $200,000, from the press box to the back of house.

Sperling and Chandler stressed the importance of having something greater than a hockey arena. Including the Wild's 44 home games, the arena has functions more than 160 nights a year.

When the group met up with Naegele, he took them to the Fishing Lodge - a bar with access just for "on the glass" ticket holders.

"In L.A. they call it the Board Room - dark cherry paneling," Naegele said. "In Minnesota? The Board Room? Sorry. The Fishing Lodge? Maybe!"

"What would you do for actuaries?" Perez said, laughing.

In an interview, Naegele recalled the first effort to get hockey back to Minnesota after the North Stars left the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 1993. Then-Mayor Norm Coleman - no relation to the current mayor - was trying to lure Peter Karmanos and the Hartford Whalers to what could have been a revamped civic center, a deal that fell through. Then the NHL decided in 1997 on a four-team expansion.

"We were looking for a relocation team, and then the NHL opened it up," Naegele said.

Eventually, there came a presentation before the league in New York. St. Paul's delegation included the governor, the mayor and area business leaders. "We took some hard questions about the North Stars leaving," he said. "The NHL guys have a memory."

Norm Coleman, now a U.S. senator, joined the group in the owners' box for the game. Coleman, who attributes his seat in the Senate in large part to his success in winning the Wild, agreed.

"It was a hard sell to some of the owners, but not to the league itself," Coleman said. "We had to explain away why we lost a team. ... But the league knows that communities in which teams have left, when they come back, they do very well."

Coleman also addressed the deal itself.

"I went into this trying to minimize the risk for the city and I gave the team the upside opportunity," he said. "For me, it was all a win. We had a downtown that was dead. It was dying ... If you want to make money, make money. But help me revitalize my downtown."

Perez was measured throughout the visit. Speaking as he watched the Wild beat the Blackhawks, Perez said the deal hinges on two crucial things: state support and statewide corporate buy-in.

"This has to be a business crusade," he said. "It can't be a personal crusade."

In contrast, Gottesdiener is not a measured man. Sitting at the table with Perez and others, Gottesdiener said: "I want to completely change Hartford."

"I'm fired up," Gottesdiener said as he followed Naegele through the St. Paul streets after the game for an impromptu tour. "I'm just freaking out when it comes to the reception we're getting in this city."

Wednesday morning the arena was traded for the board room, as the groups again met to discuss specifics. Much of the details were shared behind closed doors.

In short, the $175 million arena was paid for with a $45 million no-interest state loan, a $17 million state grant, a $65 million loan from the city, and $45 million from the team.

The team's ownership has a 25-year lease on the arena, is its full-time manager for sports and entertainment, and pays between $6 million and $9 million a year to the city.

That money covers 90 percent of the city's annual debt service on the project.

"You've got to get people to own it," Perez said. "I'm sold on the fact that hockey is a possibility for Hartford. Now I've got to go back and figure out how to make it a possibility for the state."

Gottesdiener balanced enthusiasm with realism.

"This has to be a community enterprise," he said, adding that the process will probably take longer than the 2 years he envisioned. "This needs to be the state's major league franchise. No question about it."