Don Waddell was working as a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins four years ago when he received a call from an old hockey friend.
It was Pete Karmanos, then the Carolina Hurricanes owner, ready to make an offer. Come work for the Hurricanes, Karmanos said. Be the president of Gale Force Sports & Entertainment, the Canes’ parent company. Run the business side.
“He’s the one who gave me the opportunity,” Waddell said Wednesday.
Four years later, Waddell has a dual responsibility. Tom Dundon, now the Canes’ majority owner, has named Waddell the team’s new general manager while also retaining his position as president.
“We thought about that since the beginning,” Dundon said. “I was willing to make sure what else was out there, but I think there was always a chance it would end up this way.”
As general manager, Waddell is replacing Ron Francis, a Hockey Hall of Fame member well-respected throughout the NHL. Francis was demoted to hockey operations, then eventually fired by Dundon, a move that generated considerable criticism.
“I don’t worry about things like that,” Waddell said. “These jobs, they happen all over professional sports. The good news is we have good people to work with and will continue from there.”
Waddell, 59, said he previously had negotiated with 26 of the 30 NHL general managers in the league. His hockey connections after 38 years in the business run deep.
“And one GM that I didn’t know, I made my first deal with, with Arizona,” he said.
The Canes traded center Marcus Kruger to the Coyotes for forward Jordan Martinook last week as Waddell and Arizona GM John Chayka worked the deal.
But Waddell is aware that the handling of Francis didn’t sit well with a segment of Canes fans as well as some former Canes players such as Jeff O’Neill, who created a stir recently when he said he was embarrassed to be a Hurricanes alum.
“You don’t treat people like that,” O’Neill said in an interview Wednesday. “If you want to fire Ronnie Francis, go ahead and fire him. But to delay it and tell him not to come into work … you don’t treat people like that."
O'Neill applauded the Canes for hiring Rod Brind'Amour as the new head coach. As for the decision on a new GM ...
“I wouldn’t have minded seeing Ronnie (Francis) given the opportunity with more money to work with," O'Neill said. "Give him some better players. He was operating on a budget that’s not up to snuff with other teams in the league.”
The Canes have had one of the lowest payrolls in the league — at $59.2 million in 2017-18, Carolina ranked ahead of only the Coyotes.
But Waddell said Wednesday that Dundon will give him the financial resources needed to build a winner.
“I truly believe that,” he said. “I think if a free agent comes available who should make $4 million, we’re not going to pay him $6 million to get him. But if it makes sense, Tom is competitive. He wants to win.
“What I’ve learned about him, everything is about winning. If there are opportunities there, we will be able to take advantage of that.”
It’s not all about free agency. Dundon has mentioned shaking up the team after the Canes failed to reach the playoffs for a ninth straight season. That has Waddell working the phone, looking to make trades, seeing what's available.
It’s not a new thing for Waddell. In 1998, he became the Atlanta Thrashers’ first general manager before later serving as president as Rick Dudley took over as GM. Waddell moved behind the bench in the 2008-09 season as interim head coach.
The Thrashers closed up shop in 2011 and were relocated to Winnipeg, becoming the Winnipeg Jets. But Waddell said the organizational structure was much different from Carolina's in that the Atlanta Spirit group that owned the Thrashers also owned the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
While Waddell was GM of the Thrashers, the team made just one playoff appearance, winning the Southeast Division in 2006-07. In May 2011, the franchise was sold to True North Sports & Entertainment, then moved to Winnipeg.
“In Atlanta we were owned by nine individuals,” Waddell said. “We have multiple, multiple, multiple bosses. Here we know who the boss is. It’s a much different situation.”
But the Canes also offer something different. There’s a maverick feel to Dundon as a new NHL owner, a willingness of the Dallas billionaire to go against the norm. While Waddell is the general manager, Canes management will be a collaborative effort, Dundon has said often.
“The actual ideal of what a GM should be, to the rest of the (hockey) world, may be different than the way I think the role should be handled,” Dundon said Wednesday.
Waddell, who was serving as interim GM, joked Wednesday that while he once insisted he was not a candidate for the GM job, that changed when the Canes won the NHL Draft Lottery, earning the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NHL draft after being slotted to pick 11th in the first round. That could change the team dynamic.
In the end, the phone call from Karmanos in 2014 changed everything for Waddell, a Detroit native who had USA Hockey connections to Karmanos. At the time, while a Pens scout, Waddell also was a consultant for USA Hockey and formerly GM of the U.S. teams in the 2006 Olympics.
“I love what I do,” Waddell said. “I’ve had 38 years in professional hockey. I keep saying one day I’ll wake up and have to get a real job. I feel very fortunate.
“And I like our situation. Tom brings a different type of ownership to the table. He’s very passionate, very driven to make sure we get the results. It makes it fun to work with someone like that.”