Don Waddell has been around the NHL long enough to hear the alarm bells ringing before he even arrived in town. The man who oversaw the sale and move of a struggling Sun Belt franchise to Canada is joining the Carolina Hurricanes?
“That was the first thing I had to address with the staff,” Waddell acknowledged this week over breakfast, one of dozens of get-acquainted meals he has brokered since taking over as team president last month.
His message: Waddell is here to grow the franchise, not move it.
Waddell is best known as the longtime general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers, a job he held for 12 years, but he has considerable experience on the business side of things as well.
He at one point oversaw the Thrashers, Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena, before the hockey team moved to Winnipeg, ran minor-league franchises in San Diego and Orlando and served as a consultant for ownership groups interested in putting an NHL team in Seattle.
Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos originally said he would handle the team’s business operations himself in the wake of Jim Rutherford’s departure as president and general manager, but two months later hired Waddell, an acquaintance from the NHL’s Board of Governors who knew his days as a general manager were over and was looking to stay in the game.
Since then, Waddell has been making the rounds in the Triangle, meeting and eating with sponsors, politicians, businessmen, stakeholders and, on Thursday, the Centennial Authority, which oversees PNC Arena.
He knows the market as a visitor – both with the Thrashers and for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game, which left a lasting impression – but is now trying to learn it as a resident.
“This market has proven to be a pretty good hockey city,” Waddell said.
“We have some challenges ahead of us, but I don’t know of any opportunity where you’re going to take over and not have challenges presented to you.”
Waddell has been given the authority to evaluate every aspect of the franchise’s operations aside from hockey, which remains the exclusive domain of new general manager Ron Francis.
It’s really the first time such an appraisal has taken place since the franchise moved to North Carolina in 1997 – Waddell is the first person to focus solely on the business side of the franchise since Jim Cain departed in the fall of 2002 – and it’s probably long overdue.
Growing revenue from sponsorships and ticket sales is Waddell’s top priority, given the now annual drops in the season-ticket base during the team’s five-year absence from the postseason. Both Waddell and Francis are busy making calls to season-ticket holders both current and former.
“My focus is on revenue-generating departments,” Waddell said. “Obviously, I’ve still got lots of other departments that need time and service, but my biggest focus is how we’re going to generate revenue in the short and long term.”
In many ways, Waddell faces the same challenge on the business side Francis faces on the hockey side: Reversing the culture of complacency that has infected every level of the organization. Just as results on the ice have stagnated, so have the revenue streams that need to be keeping pace with the big-market teams that drive the continually increasing salary cap.
The team’s lucrative TV deal with FS Carolinas is in place and the Hurricanes will benefit from the NHL’s new national deals, but there’s plenty of work to be done elsewhere.
“I’m a no-excuse guy. Don’t use losing. Don’t use weather,” Waddell said. “The losing part, it’s frustrating for everybody. But out of 30 teams, only 16 make the playoffs. If you’re only going to base your business model on making the playoffs to be successful financially, you’re going to have a lot of teams that fall short every year.”