Waddell honored by peers for his work as Hurricanes general manager

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Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, left, and general manager Don Waddell asked the Centennial Authority for changes to the team’s weight-room area at PNC Arena last year.

Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, left, and general manager Don Waddell asked the Centennial Authority for changes to the team’s weight-room area at PNC Arena last year. Chris Seward

Don Waddell may be the first award finalist recognized for generally managing his owner as well as his hockey team. The Carolina Hurricanes general manager ended up being Tom Dundon’s choice for the job almost by default after a lengthy search, continuing to serve as franchise president while putting together the hockey team.

Thursday, he got some credit for it.

Waddell was one of three finalists for the NHL’s General Manager of the Year award, recognition from his peers — who have 31 of the 41 votes — for his work taking the material Ron Francis left behind and forging it into a conference finalist while serving as the nexus of a management team that solicited input from everyone from the owner to the assistant coaches, somehow balancing the differing opinions of the analytics people and the hockey people while doing two time-intensive executive jobs and coming out the other end with his sanity somehow intact.

“I think some of my peers know what this year’s been like,” Waddell said. “It’s all about managing your time and surrounding yourself with good people. I’m fortunate, and Tom has told me this, I don’t have a life outside hockey.”

It’s been a long, busy, trying and exhausting season for Waddell, 60, who has been trying to capitalize on the team’s postseason success from a business perspective while still pushing the few buttons left to push on the hockey side.

Still, it’s how he wants it: The team president since 2014 and full-time general manager for the past 53 weeks, Waddell says there have only been three days since then he hasn’t gone in to the office, usually at 6 a.m. and often until 10:30 p.m. or later. His daughter and her children live in Atlanta, his wife is often visiting them or at their house in Michigan and Waddell is often in the office or on the phone.

“He works his butt off,” Dundon said. “And he was able to work within a system that’s a little different by NHL standards and hopefully works. He’s had a huge impact.”

Waddell is one of three finalist, along with the Boston Bruins’ Don Sweeney and the St. Louis Blues’ Doug Armstrong.

The timing of the award is slightly awkward: Waddell is one of two dozen hockey staffers who don’t have a contract for next year, a group that includes just about everyone but the coaching staff. That didn’t seem like a pressing issue in March, but as the playoffs drag on, the time left for everything from the draft to free agency to contract negotiations with current players starts to compress dramatically.

As for Waddell, specifically: “I’m not looking for anybody,” Dundon said. “He’s going to be around.”

Waddell remains committed to the project, whether as president or general manager or both, and it’s hard to imagine Dundon functioning without Waddell, whose counsel has been indispensable, in one or both jobs.

For the moment, it’s a bit of a victory lap for Waddell, who was taking his first crack at putting a roster together since things fell apart for him with the Atlanta Thrashers so many years ago. Given how closely fans in this market watched that franchise collapse and move, there was considerable trepidation over Waddell being given the permanent keys last spring.

But Waddell’s patience and ability to listen served him well, and he was able to serve as the hub of the Hurricanes’ new decision-making apparatus, managing many different constituencies while mining his long-established contacts with the rest of the NHL. Meanwhile, the arena had its best concert year ever.

He put together the big draft-day deal with the Calgary Flames and, in a heist worthy of its own movie, plucked Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for the listless Victor Rask.

Behind the scenes, Waddell’s stabilizing influence was invaluable. When Scott Darling got hurt, there was considerable debate within the Carolina front office over which Toronto Maple Leafs goalie to claim off waivers – or whether to make a claim at all, and rely instead on Alex Nedeljkovic. Waddell’s insistence that claiming Curtis McElhinney was the right move might have been the singular moment in the Hurricanes’ entire season.

They don’t get to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals without McElhinney, who, coincidentally, started Thursday night’s game as the Hurricanes attempted to avoid elimination at the hands of the Bruins.

That, as much as the recognition by his peers, is rewarding in itself.

“No one person can do it by himself,” Waddell said. “It’s rewarding for the organization, for everybody to say you’re one of the final four teams playing. There are 27 teams at home right now. We’re not satisfied with that, but that’s where we are.”

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.