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Peer-To-Peer Conversations: Craig Leipold on how the Minnesota Wild are handling COVID-19

In the midst of the NHL’s suspended season and the global coronavirus pandemic, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold spoke with The Hockey News’ owner and publisher W. Graeme Roustan about how his hockey club plans to compensate employees and where the NHL can go from here.
Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

In the midst of the NHL’s suspended season and the global coronavirus pandemic, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold spoke with The Hockey News’ owner and publisher W. Graeme Roustan about how his hockey club plans to compensate employees and where the NHL can go from here.

Graeme Roustan: Today, we have Craig Leipold, the owner of the Minnesota Wild, on with us today for Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News. Thanks very much for joining us.

Craig Leopold: Graeme, thanks for having me. We have a lot of time on our hands. So I can't think of a better thing to do than talk hockey with you.

GR: How are your employees and your staff doing?

CL: They're all worried. They don't know what direction this is going in – first I'm talking about the Coronavirus and then secondly about the future of when we're going to go start playing again. Everybody is wondering what's going to happen. We announced that we would, through the month of April, pay all employees 100 percent of their salaries and 100 percent of their benefits. We'll continue to communicate with them on a weekly basis to give them some sense of confidence that we as a leadership team and as the Minnesota Wild are paying attention to what's going on and in our own industry and our business and in the community in St. Paul. They now recognize the importance that they have. We've asked them to be ready to make an immediate contribution once we get the green light that we're good to go. We're going to have to move very quickly, and our employees, just like every other employee or person going on in this country, they're all just wondering when this is going to end.

GR: It's very important to put your employees at ease as far as where their income is going to be coming from. That's a strong leadership thing that you're doing.Are you sending a message out there to other owners, other businesses that this is the right thing to do?

CL: No, I'm not. Every owner understands that this is a business that they have, and I don't feel like I'm in a position for us to dictate what we feel they should do. Everyone is in a different position. This just felt right for us in our market and our community. And I think everyone should make that decision based on their own economic situation and the communities that they live in.

GR: You sit on the executive committee of the Board of Governors for the NHL. I know that a lot of owners call you to talk about all kinds of issues. How are the owners collectively doing, and how are their staffs doing in general?

CL: We have been talking in the last two weeks. I think there's high value and understanding what other teams are going to be doing. I have been on the phone to other owners, and we've talked through situations and options that we're looking at. I can say this: if there's any way that we can get this season, jumpstart it back on the ice and at a minimum play the playoffs, that is the foremost direction that every team owner wants to go. We want to finish this season. I think all hockey fans can rest assured that our No. 1 priority – well, the No. 1 priority is safety and the health of our employees and our fans – but after that, we want to be playing hockey, and we'll do everything we can to accomplish that. I think all the owners that I've spoken with individually and from what I have heard on with the Board of Governors conference calls is everyone feels the same way. Let's see what we can do to get the season started in some format, make good decisions. And let's see if we can still play hockey this season.

GR: The NHL followed the NBA's decision in pausing the season. A lot of NHL owners are actually owners of NBA franchises as well. Would you say it's sort of a universal theme right now, both at the NBA and NHL level, from an owner's point of view, to look at the seasons and look at their businesses the same? 

CL: I wouldn't characterize it that way. I am certain that Gary Bettman is in communication with the NBA and what their thoughts are. I think the more data you can get, the better your decision-making process will be. Every league has to make their own decisions. I would think, though, because we do have a number of owners of teams in both leagues, and I know the two commissioners are very good friends, I would expect that what one does, the other one will do. But I wouldn't know that to be factual.

GR: A few players have been diagnosed with the virus, and the NHL extended the isolation date to April 6. Has it put a little bit more pressure on your staff to know that this thing is being pushed back further? 

CL: I think it's fair to say that any delay that we have will cause additional stress. But in all honesty, right now, we're thinking about late May or June. It's not going to get started in April. We're probably thinking a little longer term. But I just don't see where April was going to be a possibility for us.

GR: With this new reality that we're all facing, where a virus in a distant country can shut down the business of the world and cause a lot of health problems, from an owner's perspective, are you more cautious about travelling?

CL: I think it's fair to say that this will probably change the way we look at traveling. I think it will cause us to rethink, at least for the next year, the possibility of playing overseas-exhibition games. This is kind of the new norm now. We've always had political issues going to different countries, but we've never had this kind of health issue. That's even a bigger, more important question than what we've ever had to deal with before. So although I'm not trying to get the cart in front of the horse, I haven't spent any time thinking about it and I'm sure the league hasn't. But I can certainly understand that this will always be now on the list of pros and cons. What is the risk factor? How many people do we bring and do we bring sponsor's fans to international exhibition games? All of those are questions – we're going to have to deal with that in the future, and we haven't had to deal with in the past. But we'll we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

GR: Leagues around the world have cancelled their seasons. If I remember back to 9/11, the NHL was the first major sports league that got back out there. I think a big part of the reason why they did was that we needed to return to normal life. Do you realize how important it is for the NHL to take the lead here and to get people back to their normal daily lives? 

CL: Those are really good, valid and important questions that we haven't gotten to the point that they're on anybody's agenda. I appreciate your comments about the NHL and league you're being out in front trying to bring everybody back together. But we want to get this pandemic issue behind us as fast as we can. Because of the window that we are in, which is, as you know, in the NBA and the NHL, this is kind of our important part of the year. If we, if we can jumpstart it and get it moving again and start playing, it's going to be good for everyone's psyche that we're getting past the negatives and the disappointments and the trauma of this pandemic. And I think if any sport can do that, I would believe the NHL can, and if that's something that the owners and Gary believe is a value, and I think we would, I think we should wait to the last moment until we consider cancelling the season. Right now, we're not considering that.

GR: Last question for you, Craig. How are you, Helen and your five boys doing during all this? 

CL: I think every home, every family is handling it a little differently. We are self-quarantined. We are in a home in a remote area of Florida, and we are staying in the home. We actually went out this morning to go to the grocery store. I have two of my sons and four grandchildren here. We don't go out, the beaches are closed. I have a high level of comfort, as does my daughter-in-law with the four grandchildren, that we're in a safe zone here.

My wife is running a couple of businesses ,and she felt like she had to be closer, so she is home by herself in the home with our five dogs. That's her life and at some point, she may be flying down here. But we haven't got that schedule out yet. I've got two other sons. One is going to college in Washington, and he's doing everything online now and trying to stay self-quarantined. My son down in Key West is working for an environmental company, and they are still working and going in the water every day. My guess is he's not self-quarantining like he should be. He's 26 and in Key West – need I say more?

We're taking this seriously, and I hope everybody else takes it seriously. We talk as an organization. So I'm talking to my key people every day over conference calls. And we go over the issues of the day and what's happening with the employees. Business doesn't stop. We're constantly on the phone and we're on WebEx. And as you know, I'm a dinosaur, but they did set the WebEx for me. We're trying to run the business, and we're trying to stay engaged and make it so all of our employees feel like we know what's going on. We're staying on top of the situation, and we're communicating with them.

Parts of this Q&A have been edited for clarity.

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