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For agent-turned-Hurricanes assistant GM, nothing new about this team

Cam Ward, for many years the Carolina Hurricanes' franchise goalie, signed as a free agent with Chicago on July 1, 2018.
Cam Ward, for many years the Carolina Hurricanes' franchise goalie, signed as a free agent with Chicago on July 1, 2018.

For someone who has never worked for the team – for any NHL team, until now – Paul Krepelka's roots with the Carolina Hurricanes run deep. He drove back and forth to Greensboro with Bates Battaglia. The agency he worked for once represented more than a quarter of the roster, including the cornerstone pieces of the franchise: Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Jeff Skinner.

He has been a witness to as much of the franchise's history as anyone. And now he's a small part of it. Krepelka last week became the first front-office hire under new owner Tom Dundon, joining as an assistant general manager to handle contract negotiations -- coming aboard before a new general manager is hired to replace Ron Francis, who was finally cut loose entirely Monday after being demoted from the GM job in March.

After selling his piece of Bobby Orr's agency in 2015 and leaving the agent business entirely, burned out in his mid-40s, Krepelka had been teaching and coaching hockey back in his hometown of Boston when he asked interim general manager Don Waddell about a job in Dundon's new-look hockey department. When he interviewed, it was the first time he was back in Raleigh since the 2011 All-Star Game. There was a time where he wasn't away for more than a few weeks at a time.

“At one point, I think we had five or six guys on the team,” Krepelka said. “Obviously, when you have that many clients on one team, you become pretty familiar with one, the area, but two, the organization and the team.”

Battaglia was Krepelka's only client on the Hurricanes when Krepelka jumped to the Orr Group. Rick Curran was (and remains) the primary agent for Staal and Skinner; when Ward decided to change agents in midcareer, he picked Curran as well. Other agency clients included Glen Wesley, Cory Stillman, Frantisek Kaberle, Jay McClement, Manny Malhotra and more. When Krepelka was with the agency, Orr was primarily an executive and recruiter while Krepelka and Curran handled the day-to-day interactions with the players.

What does Battaglia remember the most about his time with Krepelka?

“That Boston accent of his,” Battaglia joked. “He was there for me from the very start. As a rookie, I didn't know anything. As a veteran, I didn't know anything either, but he was the first guy to show me the ropes and get me into the right situation. That was a huge thing. I was 20 when I met him, 21 when I came here, and he was a big help in just getting me where I needed to be.”

Krepelka enjoyed that part of it, spending time with people like the Staal family, attending all of the brothers' weddings (and cleaning up the mess when Eric's bachelor party was broken up by the cops). He lived the agent life, at one point making the tabloids after a blind date turned into a very public two-month relationship with model-actress Jenny McCarthy in 2011.

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Paul Krepelka

He did not, however, enjoy recruiting 12- and 13-year-olds – which is where hockey has gone for everyone: agents, junior teams, colleges – or dealing with increasingly pushy parents. What had once been, for him, a job built around personal relationships had become a grind-it-out business.

So he sold back his stake in the Orr Group and walked away from hockey. For good, he thought.

“I had been in it for 20 years,” Krepelka said. “It kind of ran its course for me. At that point in my life I wanted a change. I sold my ownership stake in the business to Bobby and Ricky. The timing wasn't the best for me, but what's done is done. I wanted to do something else. I was frustrated with what the agent business was turning into.”

Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon tells why he's not a big proponent of trying to build the team with free agents as he speaks at the end-of-season press conference in Raleigh on April 9, 2018.

Three years later, while a parade of NHL executives very publicly declared how they weren't interested in working in Dundon's decentralized front office, Krepelka quietly reached out to Waddell and met with both the interim GM and the new owner. He had thought for a while about getting into the team side of things – the negotiating of contracts won't be new to him, but the administrative side of it will be – and wasn't scared off by taking the job without knowing who his boss would be or Dundon's vision.

“He's bringing a different element and management style,” Krepelka said. “Traditionalists aren't used to it in the NHL. I hit it off with him. I liked his energy, liked his passion. I had no problem with any of it.”

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Bates Battaglia, a former Carolina Hurricane, now owns Lucky B’s in Raleigh’s Glenwood South neighborhood. He gets help running his business from his father, a longtime business owner himself. vbridges@newsobserver.com

The Hurricanes franchise isn't the only thing that's changed in the seven years between Krepelka's visits. Imagine seeing Raleigh today through his eyes. When he first started coming here, downtown was dead and Glenwood, with a mere smattering of eating and drinking options, didn't even have “South” appended to it yet. Now there are dozens of bars and restaurants, including one owned by his former client Battaglia.

Even since the All-Star Game, downtown and North Hills continue to blossom while the Hurricanes have, sadly, stagnated. Krepelka was there for Game 3 in 2002, there for the All-Star Game that seemed to cement the Triangle as the NHL's model southern market, a claim long since relinquished. He was here for the good times, an interested observer. Now he's a participant.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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