A busy man with a busy job
Former NMU defenseman Waddell discusses his many duties in his job as president and GM of the Carolina Hurricanes
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Carolina Hurricanes GM and former NMU defenseman Don Waddell. Part 1 was in Saturday’s paper.
MARQUETTE — For Carolina Hurricanes president and general manager, and former Northern Michigan University hockey player, Don Waddell, the days are long and constantly busy.
An NHL GM of the Year finalist last season, Waddell says his day starts very early in the morning and that he tries to mix in time with the players as well as his primary duties.
“On a typical hockey game day, I try to spend the morning down around the coaches and around the players and when they get through with practice and they leave at noon or so, then I come up and spend the rest of the day on the business side of what I’m doing,” he said in a phone interview earlier this week.
“I’m an early morning guy and I’m usually in my office sometime around 5 a.m. There’s late nights in our business. I’m driven, I have great passion and I love to work. So to me, getting this opportunity, there’s 31 NHL teams and 31 general managers and 31 presidents. I’m very fortunate and lucky to have actually two of those jobs. I feel very satisfied in how my career has gone, starting with my days at Northern.”
When people think of a GM’s job, the first thing that probably comes to mind is making trades, and Waddell says there’s a process that goes along with that.
“The game plan is that you identify who you want to go after,” he said. “Sometimes you hear of players being shopped around the market and then if you have an interest in a player, you want to go in knowing what the player’s value is to you. Player value could be a lot higher in their minds and that’s what you can’t get caught up in. That’s when you make bad trades if you get caught up in that you have to have that player. You got to put a value on them and you put a value on what you’re going to give up and the end of the day, you hope it’s equal. If it is, and the other team wants to do it, you make a trade. Some things come up pretty quickly. I’ve done trades where I’ve heard about a player in less than a half hour, but most trades take some time because teams are shopping players. They want to get the best deal for their players, so they’ll make multiple phone calls before they make a decision. Staying in touch, that’s one of the things that I take a lot of pride in, is calling other GMs on a regular basis. Staying in touch with guys to see who is doing something. You might call Edmonton and find out that Colorado is trying to move a player that you didn’t hear about. So you try to stay in touch with your people. We all have people we count on around the league and we all share notes on a pretty regular basis.”
Free agency is another story, but compared to trades, it’s a simpler process for Waddell and the Hurricanes.
“What we do is we have a free agent list and we rank them all,” he said. “We rank all the free agents and if we’re looking for a left-shot defenseman, we’ll start at the top and as it skips on, we scratch them off. We pretty much stay to our list until you get past maybe the top six or eight guys. Then it might be more of a need; if you need more of a defensive guy than an offensive guy. When you go into free agency, you want to be very well prepared and free agency can be one of the worst deal phases of the year. Sometimes you let your emotions get into it too far and you end up extending yourself further out with time, or actually money too. We rank all the players and we put a value next to what we think they’re worth. If a player is worth $5 million, we’re not going to pay him $6 million. You try to be as organized as you can, but saying that, there’s always things that are thrown at you at the last minute or something that you have to make quick decisions on. You try to prepare as best you can going into it and then let the chips fall as they do.”
When it comes to the NHL Draft, Waddell says it’s a different experience and he says it’s a lot of fun going through the process, even though it may seem exhausting.
“That’s one of my favorite days,” he said. “We made the most trades at the draft this year, trading picks. We ended up with 12 picks, the most in the draft. We started off with seven picks and we ended up with 12 because we moved down a couple times and still got the same guy we would’ve got when we were going to pick, but picked up an extra pick. That’s always a fun day to try to shuffle around. The more players you can draft, the more chances you have to get some players out of that draft. You draft seven players and you might get one, or maybe two at the best. This year, we draft 12 and we’re hoping we can get four or five guys out of the draft. It’s a numbers game. The more darts you can throw at the board, the better chance you’ve got of them sticking.”
Then there’s the concept of offer sheets. They aren’t a common occurrence anymore with the last one happening six years ago, but Waddell had to match an offer sheet earlier this month. The Montreal Canadiens made an offer to Carolina restricted free agent Sebastian Aho and predictably, Waddell and the Hurricanes matched it and kept their star forward.
“The last one happened in 2013 and I knew the day before that Montreal was clearing some cap space,” Waddell said.
“We didn’t know exactly who they were going after, but we thought they were positioning themselves for an offer sheet. Early in the morning on Monday, I got a call from their GM trying to make a trade for Aho and he’s our best player. We weren’t going to trade him and the GM said ‘Well I’m going to call the agent and see about putting an offer sheet in.’
“We told them and everybody else all before that we’re going to match any offer. But they went ahead and decided to put the offer sheet in and we waited our seven days or six days and then matched the offer sheet. Which we had said we were gonna match it once we got the offer and I knew 100 percent at that time. I got it at 2:40 p.m. that Monday and I knew by 2:41 that we were matching the offer, but we also wanted to play out a little bit.”
Waddell has to make a lot of tough decisions and not all of them might be popular with the media or the Hurricanes’ fans.
However, he doesn’t pay attention to what people say or think of him, or his choices.
“I shrug it off,” he said.
“I learned a long time ago that when things are going well, I don’t read the media. When things are going bad, I don’t read the media. It’s just the way I am. My daughter keeps me informed with things that she thinks I need to hear, good and bad. It’s kind of funny because she’s such a big fan and follows everything. But I just don’t get caught up in it because what will happen is at some point, I’ll read about another team and I’ll say ‘That’s interesting that they’re doing something.’ Then I’ll read a story about us and I’ll say ‘That doesn’t make any sense what they’re saying.’ If it’s not true about my team, why am I going to believe it about some other teams?
“I just learned years ago, I went through a pretty difficult situation for a while in Atlanta where we were going through some ownership situations and I just learned at that time to just shut it down. Sure, I’ll watch hockey highlights on TV and what’s going on in the NHL, but not sit down and read the social media stuff and that.
“I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t have a Facebook account. I don’t have any of that stuff. I don’t feel like for me it’s valuable for me to have all those things.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to find that Waddell’s schedule keeps him extremely busy and he said he rarely gets to step away from his job.
“I get out of the office some, but in this business, the phone rings every day,” he said.
“It might be another GM, or it might be agents calling. So there’s no real off days. There are times where you can shut it down some. But right now, we just went through free agency and we made a couple trades. Now we have two players that have filed for arbitration. It’s coming up actually, 10 days is the first one, it’s on the 20th I think, so our preparation right now is we’re working on our arbitration cases along with we still have four or five players to sign for this year. So it just keeps going.
“I’m not one that can shut it down anyway. It’s not in my DNA. I’ve got to keep moving all the time. So like I said, I enjoy it. It can be very rewarding. This year, I took over for the first time as the GM here in Carolina and going to the (Eastern) Conference Finals, and we came out of nowhere. We surprised a lot of people and it was very satisfying to have those results.”
Based on what the Hurricanes did last season and Waddell’s high work ethic, there’s a chance that Carolina could have an even bigger season this time around. The difference is that this time the Hurricanes won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2020.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.