I was just three-and-a-half years old when the North Stars packed up and left town.

Obviously, it was not old enough to have a memory of the team whatsoever. But it does not take much to see that their leaving left a large hole in Minnesota hockey.

As a kid of the 90s, I spent the latter part of the decade watching hockey in a hockey-driven family. Since there was no Minnesota NHL team to turn on, I became attached to a team that had been the byproduct of a few Disney movies and their best player. Not easy for a Minnesota kid to follow given the time difference, but I stuck with it.

Late in that same decade, a gentleman by the name of Robert Naegele Jr. stepped forward and led the charge to bring the NHL back to Minnesota. His efforts were successful following an $80 million expansion fee to the league with his team set to begin play in 2000 at a brand new state of the arena which later became known as Xcel Energy Center.

I myself thought, ‘Cool, but I’m still going to stick with the Mighty Ducks.’

The Minnesota Wild opened their inaugural season in 2000 against those very Ducks. That was exciting beyond belief. My favorite team takes on the local team in their first game. I even got special permission to stay up late and watch the game since it was out in Anaheim.

I can remember the Ducks scoring twice to go out ahead 2-0 – including a goal from a young Matt Cullen – before Marian Gaborik tallied the Wild’s first marker. The Ducks added another goal for good measure in the third as they cruised to a 3-1 win.

No, I wasn’t part of the 18,000-plus fans that filled the new Xcel Energy Center in down St. Paul for Minnesota’s home opener against Philadelphia the next week. Tickets like that were not quite in the budget, or most people’s for that matter. It was the hottest ticket in town.

However, just two months after the fact, I finally got my first big league hockey experience.

My father was a bus driver in the northeast part of the Twin Cities. It seems strange to think about it nowadays, but he really was loved by the kids he picked up every day and their parents. It was not that strange to me then because he had a knack to talk, and the man could just about sell you anything. More or less, he had a way with words, and everyone on his route was a big fan of him.

One of the parents on his route had season tickets for the Wild that first season. So on a cold December afternoon, they had asked him if he wanted two tickets for the game that night. Knowing his son would love to go to the hockey game, he accepted their offer.

The opponent that night was, of course, the Mighty Ducks.

Walking into the arena that night was the most surreal experience. Everything was bigger, brighter than any other arena I had ever been in. The seats were comfy, and the hot dogs were actually good.

Then came the in-game experience. The crowd, the goal horn, the music, the giant scoreboard and the high school jerseys that went all around the arena. Everything was perfect.

I never stepped foot in Met Center, but I can imagine I was not the only one blown away at the new digs for the NHL team that season.

Our seats were right in front of the goal. Of course, since it was the dead puck era, the offense was limited in this hockey game. But right in front of me took place the only goal of the game, which came in the overtime period. It was Anaheim getting the win, and then I fondly remember Jamie McLennan being so angry at the winner he snapped his stick in half.

Why am I telling you this? Because this game, this experience, sold me on Bob Naegele’s vision. I’ve never forgotten this experience, and will never forget it.

His vision came to reality and made a lasting impact on hockey fans everywhere in Minnesota – including this kid. I never had the chance to thank Bob Naegele for this experience, or bringing the NHL back to Minnesota for that matter. Without Bob, none of this ever happens.

For all the games I’ve attended in my life I never was fortunate enough to see Bob and thank him, as he was often visible at Wild home games. But I will do so now.

The state of Minnesota owes Bob Naegele so much for bringing the NHL back. As we mourn his passing on Wednesday night, let us all collectively say thank you for all he did for this state – including the Wild.

Thank you, Bob. You were an owner that made us all proud here in the State of Hockey.


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