He knew the name of every Wild employee, down to the ticket takers. He made dozens of calls every holiday season to thank his friends and business associates and wish them a Happy New Year. His motto: "Gratitude unexpressed is ingratitude."
Robert O. Naegele Jr., who brought the National Hockey League back to the State of Hockey as the first majority owner of the Wild, died Wednesday surrounded by family at his Edina home of complications from cancer. He was 78.
"Of all the people I knew in sports, he was the best," said former Gov. Arne Carlson, who was involved in the deals that brought the Wild to St. Paul and built the Xcel Energy Center, the team's home arena. "I have nothing but the highest opinion of him."
The city and state had gone through some tough negotiations with prospective owners of NHL franchises, Carlson said. But when Naegele got involved, he said, "It was like sunshine coming into the room."
Naegele had a deep love of hockey, having played goalie at Minnetonka High School and Dartmouth College. He was born into a prosperous family; his father, Robert Sr., founded Naegele Outdoor Advertising, whose billboards could be seen all over the Twin Cities.
Yet Naegele took pride in working his way up in the family business, said former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who represented downtown on the City Council during the Wild's early years.
"He always told me he started off as a billboard salesman on the East Side of St. Paul. He was very proud of that," Coleman said. Naegele later became the majority owner of Rollerblade Inc., the iconic in-line skate company founded in Minnesota.
When Naegele sold Rollerblade for about $200 million in the 1990s, every employee got a bonus check based on their tenure, said Pam Wheelock, who met him when she was deputy mayor of St. Paul and later worked for him as an executive with Minnesota Sports and Entertainment (MSE), the parent company of the Wild and Xcel Center.
"And he did the same thing when he sold the Wild," Wheelock added. "Now who does that?"
The NHL announced the expansion franchise for St. Paul in June 1997. The expansion fee was $80 million, and the Wild debuted in the 2000-01 season at Xcel Energy Center, a $135 million arena to which Naegele's group contributed $45 million.
Naegele was majority owner until the NHL Board of Governors approved Craig Leipold's purchase of the team and MSE in April 2008. MSE operates the Xcel Energy Center, though the city of St. Paul is technically its owner.
Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, who as mayor of St. Paul spearheaded the campaign to land the Wild, called Naegele "one of the most profoundly decent men that I've ever met" and said he talked with Naegele a little more than a week ago.
"He's dying, but all he wants to talk about is me, how am I doing, all the details of my son's wedding," said Coleman, who is undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. "He was going to meet his maker with a smile on his face."
Norm Coleman and sports lawyer Jac Sperling set the table for the Wild and a new arena, but they needed a lead investor. Naegele, Coleman said, was the first to step up.
"It was not a sure thing," Coleman said. "I needed someone to convert that vision into reality. He was willing to do what needed to be done. … I could see the twinkle in his eye, and I went back to Jac Sperling and said, 'I think we found our owner.' "
Wheelock said she'll never forget the discussions that led to the Wild's arrival.
"First Bob was in for so much, and then for so much more, and then he had a substantial portion," she said. "He was just lionhearted about being willing to put so much of his assets behind an idea that had a lot of risk.
"His passion for having an NHL franchise in Minnesota knew no bounds."
And though the Wild have yet to win the Stanley Cup, Naegele always had his eyes on the prize.
"My favorite story is, I was sitting in my chambers on the City Council, and Bob walks in," Chris Coleman said. "I noticed this fella behind him wearing white gloves. And I said, 'Wow, is that a replica of the Stanley Cup?'
"And Bob said, 'That's not a replica.' "
Naegele had recently retired and moved to Florida when hockey beckoned in the late 1990s.
"Mom and Pop were happily on the beach in Florida enjoying the start of retirement in 1997 when the opportunity arose to bring an NHL franchise back to Minnesota," said his son, Bob Naegele III, in a statement released by the Wild.
"When [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman said, 'We love your market and your investor group, we never wanted to leave Minnesota, but I need one person I can call when I need to get decisions made,' Pop stepped forward and said, 'OK, I will do it.'
"From Day One, for him, it was all about the fans and the amazing Minnesota hockey heritage. It is a testament for how he lived his life."
In the same release, Leipold said: "From the first time that I met Bob … I was impressed by his passion for the game and his love of his home state. A piece of his heart and soul will remain forever as a part of the Wild."
Naegele won the NHL's Lester Patrick Award in 2008 for service to hockey in the United States.
In addition to his son, Naegele is survived by his wife of 58 years, Ellis, and daughters Jennifer, Jill and Trisha.
"He was just a great man — the way he treated us, as players and our families," said Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who was drafted by the team in 2001.
"I had a chance to meet with him a couple weeks ago. What I told him was that he really created a safe environment for the players to come in, and I think that's the best way to describe him — what he meant for the players and the families that were on the team."
Staff writers Chris Miller, Sarah McLellan and Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. John Reinan • 612-673-7402