The Hockey Writers’ Tim McNiff had a recent opportunity to speak with Minnesota Wild President Matt Majka on navigating a strange new world without hockey.
How do you stay ready to resume a season that may or may not have a conclusion? Go inside the Wild for a look at how the team is responding, with a collective goal of coming out better for having gone through the experience.
The Hockey Writers: How have you guys spent the time since the suspension of play to where we are right now? And how would you describe your present situation?
Matt Majka: We’ve been sorting through, like every other business, the initial impact of this for us. That means not playing hockey games in the near term. And so, there are all sorts of implications ranging from financial to employee base to the emotions of our employees and fans. So, there are all sorts of implications in the wake of the league’s good decision not to play the final games of the regular season, at least for now. But it creates all sorts of complexities for us and for any business. But again, I want to emphasize that I am supportive of the league’s decision and I also support all the other sports leagues who have made similar decisions.
Following NHL Lead
Can you speak to the process right now in terms of communication and planning with the league?
We know for now that the league has paused our season, a good decision which prioritizes the health and safety of our community. I expect that the league will continue to make sound decisions based on data and following the wisdom of medical experts and our government. But I leave those decisions and that commentary to the NHL. That’s all for the league to answer and not for the Minnesota Wild.
Do you have regularly scheduled briefings from the league?
I’ll say this, the league is doing an excellent job of communicating with the teams in various ways and on a daily basis, actually.
Navigating Uncharted Waters
Is there anything from the past that really could have prepared you guys for what you’re going through right now?
Yeah, I’ve been racking my brain on that question. There are some parallels. Unfortunately, the work stoppages we’ve been through in the past have informed us a bit in our thinking now. There have been some reminders of 9/11 in terms of the impact on the business. But there’s nothing that is exactly like this. We are in uncharted territory, and like everyone else, we will figure this out and we will be stronger on the other side of this when we get through it.
Is there one thing that really jumped out at you this time around that you didn’t see coming and really kind of took you by surprise?
Well, I think I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been numerous things that have caught me by surprise. I don’t know if any of us could have predicted the speed and acceleration of COVID-19 and the associated impacts of those somewhat unpredictable events.
Can you speak to what your day looks like now? Do you even have a typical day?
We, like most businesses, had implemented a work-from-home policy and most all of our employees were adhering to it. Now, of course, Governor Walz has mandated “Shelter in Place” so we are essentially shut down. But, in terms of a typical day, we’re on the phone a lot with each other.
We’re using video chat platforms constantly, which I think have been a savior for all businesses, that we can be in close communication with each other and I actually think the impact of video platforms really enhances the quality of communication quite better and differently than a simple phone call. So, I’m grateful that we can stay connected in those ways and we absolutely are. In a typical day, there’s lots of phone calls and video and staying in close touch with the employees that I work most closely with.
Competition Brings Out the Best
So, now you’re in this situation where all the teams are technically idle, but you’re really still competing with the other teams, in a sense, are you not?
That’s an interesting question. You know, in some ways, I guess that’s true. For example, teams are still allowed to sign college free agents right now, OK? So, that’s one example that would support what you just said, that we’re competing with the interests of other teams for college free agents right now. But I have to say quickly that the cooperation between the teams right now is encouraging to me. The sharing of information and just the compassion that teams in the league are showing for each other is really a nice study in human behavior and it is encouraging.
You really have had consistency behind the scenes where the Wild front office is concerned. How has that benefited the Wild as you now find yourselves in this uncharted area?
I think the continuity of our employee base and, in particular, our management team is a huge positive right now. We’ve worked with our owner Craig Leipold, who has been great through this, for over 10 years now and that familiarity is really valuable. I would add that the hiring of Bill Guerin has been an incredibly positive impact for us from the day Bill arrived in late August of last year.
From the moment he walked in, he established a rapport with the employees, the players, the entire staff here that we needed and Bill has continued to build on that. And it has shown up in a lot of different ways throughout the organization with positivity and a constructive approach. It also, I believe, showed up a lot in the way our team played this year.
We have become a hardworking team that I think, reliably competes most nights. There’s going to be the odd night, every now and then, where for any NHL team it just doesn’t work. But, most nights I think you could see Bill’s impact, and the coaching staff working together to create a team that was reliable and hardworking and successful for the most part other than a very difficult first month. But beyond that, Bill’s impact has been outstanding and we are very lucky to have him with us.
I think the phrase (Wild assistant G.M.) Tom Kurvers used is, “Bill doesn’t walk into a room unnoticed.”
Bill has a magnetic personality and he is a lot of fun. He is really gregarious. But when it’s “go-time,” Bill is intense. And that dichotomy of his personality is among the many interesting things about Bill. But boy, I’m glad he’s on our team.
Confronting Virus Head On
What should Wild fans know about how the team is handling this, from a front office perspective?
So, from early on when this thing came at all of us, we established an internal task force, like I’m sure many businesses have, to confront this virus and its impact and that task force has set up sort of some guiding lights.
First, we want to be calm. We want to do our best to have an even-handed, measured approach to things, even when it’s difficult. And that’s not always an easy thing to do right now. Two, we are trying to rely on data and facts. And that, too, is hard to do. There’s a lot of information out there. Some of it’s very concerning. Data and facts I think, are a good place to ground ourselves right now.
And finally, it’s to be supportive and considerate of our workforce and the community at large. And we’re also doing that on a daily basis, we believe, and we’ll continue to see this through. So, as I said earlier, we’re going to get through this and we’re going to be stronger on the other side of it. All of us are. And we look forward to that day.
How much do you miss hockey?
You know, like many folks out there, I’ve turned on some of these games that are being replayed, Wild and NHL games that are being replayed. And when I really get caught up in a game that I know the result of and I’m like, gosh, I really miss this because I’m actually getting psyched about this game and I already know what happens!
It’s crazy, but when you do this for a living and it’s in your blood like it is for a lot of Minnesotans, that is, the sport of hockey, you do miss it. And especially because we’re at the time of year right now when it’s at its best, you know? Leading into the playoffs and the playoffs themselves. This is the time when we all want to watch NHL hockey and we’re all missing it.
Season Paused During Wild Surge
So, I’m probably just being way too much of a beaten-down Minnesota sports fan when I say this, but I just couldn’t help but see the irony in the fact that the team really seemed to be finding itself and playing its best hockey, and then they go and turn off the light switch, and it was over?
Well, I mean look, the team was playing great and so, to have a disruption is unfortunate, but the bigger misfortune is the safety and health of our community. So how our team was playing takes a back seat to everything else at the moment.
That said, I felt like other than the first month, we had settled into a team with a personality that was going to show up every night. And that’s what I know Bill is trying to implement and will continue to implement. So, when we get back, I have every reason to believe that we’re going to be that team that’s hard to play against, that other teams don’t want to come into Minnesota and play. And, we were playing great hockey when the lights went down, but we’re going to get back to it and we’re going to be that team and better with Bill leading the charge, and there’s gonna be a lot of fun in our future at Xcel Energy Center.
When you have something like this pandemic you’re concerned about your children and you’re concerned about your employees, is it difficult for you to keep things in a proper perspective?
Not really. Winning hockey games and getting to the playoffs, and even the associated financial outcomes are important for the business and for our fans. But, measuring that against the health and safety of our community, the health and safety of our community comes first for sure. And what we’ve done right now, the league’s decision to pause our season was the very right decision. People come first. Safety and health come first. And we are 100 percent behind that reality.
Message to Wild Fans
Is there anything that they have not asked you about that you think is important to convey to Wild fans?
We’re going to come through this. There’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end to this and we’re going to come through it as a human race. We’re going to be better off, and somehow or another we’re going to be stronger. And that’s true of the Minnesota Wild and for us as human beings.