NHL Free Agency 2012: Is Craig Leipold a Master of the Dark Arts?

A hypocrite? Oooooh reeeeally?

The number of stories, articles, blog posts, and Pinterest pins* about the Minnesota Wild is off the charts right now. With the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild are, as we say in the business, relevant. It is impossible to ignore the story, and it has reach national levels in both the US and Canada, being a main topic of discussion everywhere from TSN to Puck Daddy to ESPN (for about 10 seconds).

When the number of stories reaches the level it has, the angles taken on the story begin to diverge from the main topic a bit, and move into the subtext. What does it mean? Why is this OK? Are Oilers fans really that annoying? With the CBA negotiations taking place, and a lockout pending, the questions only compound themselves.

One of the storylines is that Wild owner Craig Leipold is a hypocrite, and as our friend Greg Wyshynski put it today, a "master of the dark arts." Is this the case? Let's take a look.

*I have zero idea if this is true.

Is Leipold a Hypocrite?

By definition? Yes, he most definitely is. As Wysh, and now Russo, have reported, Leipold made some comments back in April that the Wild were losing money, that the system was broken, and needed to be fixed. That's paraphrasing. Here is the quote they are using:

We're not making money, and that's one reason we need to fix our system. We need to fix how much we're spending right now. [The Wild's] revenues are fine. We're down a little bit in attendance, but we're up in sponsorships, we're up in TV revenue. And so the revenue that we're generating is not the issue as much as our expenses. And [the Wild's] biggest expense by far is player salaries.

This is a quote from April, 2012. As in... three months ago. This is what sets up the belief that Leipold is a hypocrite. He said that salaries are the biggest expense, and that they need to "fix how [they] are spending right now," then he turns around and drops $196 million on two players.

I get it. There is a strong dose of hypocrisy there. Wysh even notes that, sometimes, hypocrisy is needed. I agree with Wysh on this, to a point. Leipold's actions are, most certainly, hypocritical. What they are, to me, are a classic example of how priorities can change when you are presented with the temptation of getting something you want (or need).

A Master of the Dark Arts?

Today, Russo has the explanation given from Leipold at the presser yesterday:

Listen: We've been losing money and the way we were going, we were going to have another year of 'keep losing more money and more money and more money.' So if I'm going to make the kind of financial commitment to keep this team and move this forward, I'd rather do it growing it.

"Ultimately that was the decision. As a result of this move, it's not going to cause us to be financially stable. I believe it will be within a year or two. This is a move to get us out of the hole that we've been digging. And as I spoke with some other owners in the league as to why I did it, they totally get it. They understand it. At some point you have to make that kind of commitment in order to turn your franchise around. If we didn't, then we would just keep losing more going forward without any plan of changing it

Wysh makes the comment (which I love by the way) that:

Conditions change. Opinions change. The Wild were doomed by player salaries, and then spend $196 million on two players, and Leipold's right: It could mean a better financial picture in the long term.

But what isn't cool is complaining about player salaries, dabbling in the dark arts of long-term contracts that probably won't exist under the next CBA, and then calling the same system deficient. If it is, it's by the owners' own hands.

This, right here, proves that Wysh gets it. While the truth of the matter is that Leipold's actions and comments don't mesh, they do still make sense. Sometimes in life, we have to be hypocrites. We have to own it and move forward. Smoking a cigarette while telling your kids not to is a prime example. Sometimes, you know things are bad or wrong, and you are stuck doing them anyway.

Leipold cannot pretend the CBA doesn't exist. He also cannot pretend that he can compete in the NHL while other teams "dabble in the dark arts of long term contracts" in order to attract the best talent. You see, in this situation, Leipold may very well believe that the system is broken, and use that system to his advantage at the same time. Does it make him a hypocrite? Sure.

You know what else it makes him? A damn fine businessman and realistic NHL owner.

Leipold, and the Wild, want to be taken seriously. In the hockey world, that means winning. In order to win, you have to combine strong drafting and development with making the right moves at the right time to secure the best talent. That's what Leipold did. He saw an opportunity to better his franchise for more than a decade, and he took it.

If anything, he is a master of the dark arts of conducting proper business practices, even if they are bad for business in the short term.

The Reality

  • The moves vaulted the Wild into the national spotlight, something Leipold has been trying to do since he took over. He wants the Winter Classic, and you have to have stars, recognizable stars, to get that. You also have to be a competitive team. These moves do both of those things for the Wild.
  • From a PR stand point, the moves are genius. Fans are more excited than they may have ever been. 2000+ new season ticket holders? Yeah, that'll do. Even if 2000 season ticket sales doesn't pay $196 million off, it is something they were struggling to do, and that problem is now solved.
  • It is completely allowable under the CBA. A week and a half ago, I was lectured that Justin Schultz was doing no wrong, as the CBA gave him the right to do what he was doing (despite me never saying the CBA said otherwise). Leipold, and the Wild, did nothing wrong under the CBA. In fact, they used the language of the CBA to their advantage and milked it for all it was worth. So if you are on the "Players have the right to do [insert career move here] under the CBA, then you can't get overly upset about when the owners do it.

    If you do, it makes you a... wait for it... hypocrite.
Long story short, Craig Leipold did, in fact, make himself a hypocrite last week. I also bet that he would do it again everyday of the week and twice on Sunday. What he did, he did because he had to. He wants his team to win, and he wants his team to be profitable. Those two things, under the current CBA, are at odds. There are ways to make money in the NHL, and being mediocre in a hockey crazed area is the best way to do it. Ask the Maple Leafs.

Craig Leipold wants what every owner wants. He wants to win, and he wants to make money in the process. I can't fault him for that. Hypocrite or not, his actions are justified, and completely within the rules. Good on him for not being so rigid in his beliefs that he passed up the opportunity to better his team for his fans.
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