A man who starts new things
Carolina GM, former NMU defenseman Waddell reflects on hockey career
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 in a two-part series on Carolina Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell. Sunday’s article will involve a closer look at his duties with the Hurricanes.
MARQUETTE — If there’s something that appeals to Don Waddell, it’s starting something new.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a new idea or a new franchise, the president and general manager of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes loves to create things.
And he’s been doing that for years. Waddell got his hockey start at Northern Michigan University where he was part of the inaugural roster back in 1976-77 and he also scored the first goal in program history, a feat that he’s treasured for more than four decades. Four years later, Waddell and the Wildcats made it to the NCAA National Championship game.
“I was very fortunate to score the first goal in NMU history,” he said in a phone interview earlier this week. “We had our first two games at home and we lost the first game 5-0 (to St. Louis). I scored in the third period of the second game to make it 5-1 and you would’ve thought we won the championship because we thought we scored a goal.
“Coming in as all freshmen and one sophomore because of his age, and then watching the process, and going through the process and making it in four years to play in the NCAA Division I finals, that has to be, overall, the best memory and best accomplishment from a team standpoint for sure.”
Waddell hoped to make a career in the NHL, but unfortunately, he only played in one regular season game for the Los Angeles Kings. However, it was a memorable experience because he ended up suiting up against one of his former NMU teammates, Tom Laidlaw.
“It was in January of 1981 and I got the call the night before at about 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “I had to fly across the country amd get to L.A. I got in L.A. at noon or so and I went right to the rink. Got my stuff ready, went out and played that night. It was the fastest and most exciting 24 hours of my life for sure.
” I stayed around for four weeks or so and there were some guys that were coming back from injuries, but that was the only game I got to play in. I look back at it and there’s so many guys that never make it. So I feel very fortunate to at least say that I did play a game in the regular season there.
“I remember when I came out for warmups and I was skating around, and here comes Laidlaw playing for the (New York) Rangers. He skates by and said ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I said ‘The same thing you’re here for,’ or whatever words I used. We had a small talk there. So he was totally surprised. I knew we were going there when I got called up, that the Rangers were on the schedule, so I’d get to see him. It was a great opportunity and a great experience to remember.”
Waddell also said that he wasn’t able to find his jersey from that season for a long time, but after a long search, his wife found it and it became sort of a Christmas miracle gift.
“My wife bought me a replica jersey that had my name and number on it, and gave it to me one Christmas,” he said. “Somehow, she went on a mission to try to find the original one and it took about nine months, and sure enough, she had help from Jack Ferreira, who was the assistant GM out in L.A. and he contacted one of the old trainers, and he told him who he sold it to. And this guy went through boxes of jerseys and sure enough, he found it. So my wife was able to get that jersey from him. Now, it’s hanging in my office here.”
After his playing career ended sooner than he’d hoped, Waddell got his second chance to be part of something new as he got to help start an International Hockey League franchise out in San Diego, both as a coach, vice president and general manager.
“I was very fortunate to get a coaching job after playing,” he said.
“My first year, I coached in Flint out of the IHL and then I went and started a franchise in San Diego. I was the GM there for five years, but I also coached for one year. Then obviously, I worked my way to Detroit (as an assistant GM) to win a (Stanley) Cup.
To me, coaching is very similar to playing. You’re right in the action. You’re right on the bench and everything happens quickly and you’ve got to be quick-thinking on your feet. There’s always something going on that you’ve got to be aware of. Coaching puts you right in the action. I actually enjoyed it because it brings you back to your playing days. I enjoyed it, but I always knew that the front office was where I wanted to be.”
Waddell became the first general manager for the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets), so he got to be part of something new for the third time in his hockey career. After a stint as a scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Waddell was named president of Gale Force Sports & Entertainment (the Hurricanes’ parent company) in 2014 before eventually becoming president and GM of the Hurricanes last year.
During his first year in charge of the Hurricanes, Waddell had an interesting situation to deal with when Hockey Night in Canada analyst Don Cherry decided to weigh in with his opinion on Carolina’s postgame celebrations after wins. He also said he stayed out of the celebrations for the most part except for one that involved former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.
“Don Cherry called us ‘a bunch of jerks’ on national TV in Canada and we heard it that night at about 8:30 (p.m.),” he said. “We had a game that night and by 1 o’clock in the morning, we were printing T-shirts. We knew we were going to capitalize and my marketing team did a great job of turning around quickly. The only thing that came up the next day was that someone nicknamed me the ‘head jerk.’ We had the ‘bunch of jerks’ and we had the ‘head jerk.’ We had a lot of fun with it and we capitalized on it from a marketing standpoint. It lived through the rest of the year and we’re still selling T-shirts and hats and everything else on a daily basis. It’s got a shelf-life I’m sure, but for right now, it’s still got some life.”
“I stayed right out of it. That was a player thing. I was involved with one of them. They asked me because Evander Holyfield was coming to town here and he had done a bunch for me in Atlanta when he was living in Atlanta.
“So they asked if I could get him to the game and I got him to the game and they set up this little routine with him where he came onto the ice after a game and boxed one of our players.”
After many decades in the hockey world as a player, coach and in management, Waddell knows that he won’t be a GM forever. However, he doesn’t see himself officially retiring and leaving the sport he loves.
“It’s funny because I didn’t know at Northern, but my first year of pro, I was intrigued by the business side of our sport,” he said. “You dream about getting that position, but realistically, there’s only so many of these jobs. It’s not like there’s hundreds of these jobs. There’s 31 of them. My advice to people all the time is I tell a story back in 1990. I turned down a job with the New York Rangers to go start the franchise in San Diego. I knew I wanted to run my own team for a while and I was still young. I think I was just 30 years old or 32 years old and I knew I wanted to run my own team. People thought I was nuts to turn down an NHL job to run a minor league team, but I felt that I wanted to get the hands-on experience of making those final decisions and being that guy at the top. Because it’s all the same thing. You’re signing players, you’re trading for players and looking at value. You do all the things that you’d do in the NHL. My career path is a little different than most guys, but I took the stuff that I thought was the right stuff to prepare me to potentially get there one day.
“That’s what I tell people. Don’t be in a hurry to get someplace you’re not ready for because the climb can be high, but the fall can be steep. You might only get one shot at it. If you get an opportunity and you’re not prepared for it and it doesn’t last long, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re not going to get a second opportunity. That’s been always my advice for younger people getting into this business. Don’t be in a hurry to get some place you’re not prepared for because if it doesn’t work out, you may not get a second chance.
“So I took my time. I had two years in Flint, five years in San Diego, another two years in Orlando (with the IHL’s Solar Bears). I started that franchise with the DeVos family. So I had nine years in the minor leagues before I moved on and went to work for Kenny Holland as his assistant general manager in Detroit. I was fortunate to only be there one year and win the Cup and then I got the chance to start the Atlanta franchise.”
Overall, Waddell is happy with his career and he’s hoping he can be part of the business side as long as he can.
“I’m very pleased with how things have gone,” he said.
“I’ve been very fortunate. I worked for good people and with good people, and I think that’s the bottom line. You’ve got to enjoy what you do and surround yourself with good people. If you can do that, I think the rest will take care of itself. I’ve been in some difficult situations. I had a player in Atlanta (that was) killed in a car crash. You never know what you’re going to deal with. Every day, I’m thankful for how it’s gone for me and my family and being able to provide for my family by doing something I love to do. I keep saying one day I’m going to have to wake up and get a real job. I just hope it’s not sometime soon.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is email@example.com.