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Waddell has Thrashers flying on right path

Sunday, 01.20.2008 / 9:00 AM / 2008 NHL All-Star Game

By Dan Rosen - Senior Writer

Don Waddell has done a masterful job in getting the Thrashers back into the playoff hunt this season.
The pool table sat in the warehouse for the entire season, the green felt still covered and pristine.

Don Waddell, the Atlanta Thrashers general manager, had purchased the table during the team’s inaugural season in 1999-2000 with a promise that if the team won three-straight games at any point during the season, the table would find a permanent home in the players’ lounge.

Atlanta won two in a row twice. Not good enough.

“I could have easily brought it in, but that was the reward,” Waddell told “The second year, when we won our third game in a row, I came into the locker room after the game and there were players asking; ‘Do we get our pool table now?’

“I know winning three games in a row isn’t a big deal, but at that point it was for our franchise. They got it because they earned it.”

They earned it because Waddell never surrendered to temptation.

Eight years later, his persistence and patience still is paying major dividends for one of the League’s rising franchises, the same one he’s lorded over since a pool table was their Stanley Cup.

“You want to take care of your players, but you want to make them earn things,” said Waddell, now Atlanta’s interim coach, as well. “Sometimes in sports these athletes are given too much right away. There has to be a payback from their end.”

The Thrashers, albeit an altogether different group than the one that played for the pool table nearly a decade ago, paid Waddell back last season by making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history after winning the Southeast Division title.

They were swept in four games by the New York Rangers, but getting to the postseason meant Waddell’s construction program was a success, that hanging the pool table out as a carrot wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“My goal is to stay here forever,” Waddell said. “The only way to stay in place for a long time is to have success.”

Waddell already had a knack for building franchises in non-traditional hockey markets prior to arriving in Atlanta. He built International Hockey League clubs in San Diego and Orlando from 1990-96.

Waddell led the San Diego Gulls to their first playoff appearance in 1992 while serving as vice president, general manager, and coach. He twice was named the IHL Executive of the Year.

“All the things we did here had to happen there, but just at a smaller scale. We had to build a team and build a market place,” Waddell said. “That was one of the big reasons I got the opportunity here, too.”

The Thrashers won just 14 games in their inaugural season and 23 the next, but the franchise’s biggest victory came on April 10, 2001, when there was no ice in sight.

Then, the Thrashers won the NHL Entry Draft lottery. The prize was the first-overall selection. Waddell turned that into one of the NHL’s uber-talents, Ilya Kovalchuk, the prized Russian sensation who has 239 goals since coming into the League at the start of the 2001-02 season.

Waddell said he passed on numerous offers from other teams willing to dole out a veteran or two in favor of that coveted pick.

It remains the best move he never made.

“The day that we won the lottery was the biggest day of this franchise and I still maintain that,” Waddell said. “It’s very rare that you get the opportunity to get that kind of player. This guy loves to score goals, but more importantly he loves to win games.”

Buoyed by Kovalchuk’s offense and Waddell’s other prominent moves, such as drafting Kari Lehtonen and Tobias Enstrom, signing Johan Hedberg, Bobby Holik, Eric Perrin and Todd White, and trading for Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov, Niclas Havelid and Alexei Zhitnik, the Thrashers again are a playoff contender.

Atlanta is one of the rare NHL teams which has improved every season since 2001-02, when they finished with just 54 points. The Thrashers finally made the playoffs last season thanks to their franchise-best 97 points, good enough to win the Southeast Division title.

Don Waddell is the man who as GM drafted all-star forward Ilya Kovalchuk first overall in 2001.

“It has been a little bit of a longer road than maybe we have hoped here in Atlanta, but we are starting to get more of a reputation to where we can attract some of the more elite players to come here and stay here,” said Thrashers defenseman Garnet Exelby, who Waddell selected in the eighth round of the 1999 Entry Draft. “That is something we need to keep pushing towards, to get that respect, and make a couple of trips to the playoffs to prove ourselves as a serious franchise.”

Success, though, hasn’t made things any easier in Atlanta.

If anything, living up to expectations has been a thorn in the Thrashers’ side.

Atlanta got off to its now-infamous 0-6 start this season, forcing Waddell to let go of Bob Hartley, a former Stanley Cup-winning coach in Colorado whom he hired on Jan. 14, 2003 to lead the Thrashers’ surge into the next level of the NHL.

“We thought we were a better team than we were last year, so never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be making a coaching change six games in,” Waddell said. “It all reflected back to last year’s playoffs. It’s not that we went out in four straight; it’s how we lost, and for a lot of guys that carried over into this year.”

So Waddell took full responsibility and inserted himself behind the bench to straighten out the mess.

Ever since, the Thrashers not only have soared into playoff contention, Waddell and the players also have established a deeper bond, one that only can exist in the player-coach relationship.

“He’s really brought a positive influence to the team and the organization, which maybe I didn’t necessarily know was there before because I didn’t get to spend this kind of time with him,” Exelby said. “Nobody really had that kind of relationship with him before because he was solely the GM and in and out all the time, but now that he’s with us all the time you realize how genuine a person he is. You can talk to him about anything you need to, and he’s always very receptive. We’re getting treated like professionals, like men.”

Only, now there’s a little more at stake than a pool table in the players’ lounge.

A Stanley Cup is next on Waddell’s checklist. He has a plan for that, too.

“Look at Anaheim; in only their 14th year they won the Stanley Cup,” Waddell said. “To me, that tells it all.”

Contact Dan Rosen at

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