Don Waddell has been the Atlanta Thrashers' general manager since the beginning, building the franchise from the ground up over the last eight years.
Waddell has spent more than 26 years in professional hockey as a player, coach and GM. In January of this year, The Hockey News listed him 30th in its sixth annual Top 100 People of Power and Influence. The 48-year-old Detroit native also has been active on the international scene, including stints as GM for the U.S. men's Olympic and World Championships teams.
In this installment of "Getting to know ...," Waddell talks with staff writer Christine Troyke on a variety of topics, ranging from his playing career to living in Gwinnett to the Olympic experience.
CT: Did growing up in Detroit make your stint (as assistant GM) with the Red Wings even better?
DW: Yeah, of course. When you grow up in a city and you idolize a team your whole life, then to go back and work with them and to win a Stanley Cup, it's the ultimate prize in hockey, so that was a true privilege and honor to do that.
CT: Is that your ring (the large ring on his hand)?
DW: No. I don't wear my Stanley Cup ring, it's too big. That's actually from the championship we won with the Chicago Wolves.
CT: You played hockey before getting into the management side. Would you have drafted you?
DW: (Smiling) Absolutely. Absolutely. A lot higher than what I was drafted (No. 111 overall in 1978 by the L.A. Kings).
CT: What kind of player were you?
DW: I was an offensive defenseman.
CT: Highly prized. I've heard many people in management say forwards are a dime a dozen, but you get yourself a good defenseman ...
DW: Just ask Jeff Pyle.
CT: Actually, having played with Jeff (Gwinnett Gladiators head coach) two years in college and a couple years in the (now defunct International Hockey League), what kind of teammate was he?
DW: Good teammate. Real good person. Worked hard. Good playmaker.
CT: Did you set him up on any plays?
DW: Oh, of course. I can't think offhand, but I was a point-producing defenseman so I'm sure I gave him a few passes at some point. He'd probably say not enough.
CT: Did you know management was where you wanted to go?
DW: I did. Right from my first year pro, I started to enjoy the business side of it. Actually, the last year I played, I retired at an early age for hockey. I think I was a first- or second-team all-star that year, but I knew that I needed the separation. Because if I was going to play, everybody always looks at you as a player. So I decided to retire as a player. I was 29 or 30 and I decided to wait a year and try to get into management.
It just happened that the next spring I got a call from a team and everything went from there.
CT: When you came to Atlanta, it was a new franchise, and you had spent the last seven years as an IHL GM.
DW: Yeah, actually from '88 to '97 in the IHL. Two years in Flint, five years in San Diego and two years in Orlando before I went to Detroit for a year.
CT: What was that like, the first NHL job, especially with a new franchise?
DW: The thing about it was I started two franchises in the IHL.
One in San Diego and one in Orlando. So that gave me a good base. Because all the same things have to happen, but at a much bigger scope here.
So starting those franchises was certainly a big assistance to me early on. Because even though I was hired a year out before we started, that year went pretty fast.
CT: You live in Duluth at Sugarloaf (Country Club). Why did you chose to live up here?
DW: I started in Alpharetta. Over in the Golf Club of Georgia and the commute between coming here (to the team's practice facility in Duluth) and downtown was just too much. So after two years of living over there, we moved over here.
Once we built the facility here in Duluth and spent time over here, my family really liked this community.
CT: Did your daughter (Chelsea) go to Peachtree Ridge?
DW: She did. She graduated from here last year.
CT: Their football team's doing pretty well.
DW: We're hosting them actually. They're coming to our game (tonight).
CT: How did you and your wife (Cheryl) meet?
DW: Oh boy, my brother was married to her sister. We met at the birth of their son. I was living in Flint at the time and she was living in Toledo, Ohio. We met there and we kind of hit it off.
Seven days later I got traded from Flint to Toledo. I know. How does that work? I just met her and a week later I was traded right to the city she was in.
CT: Well, that's surely a sign.
DW: Yeah, that had to be a sign there.
CT: Do you remember the first date you guys went on?
DW: Yes I do. The first official date we went to a Super Bowl party. I can remember because I had this older pickup truck and we came out and it wouldn't start. It was about zero degrees and the battery froze up. I had to call for assistance. I don't think it was too impressive to be honest.
CT: You've had years to make up for it, right?
DW: Yes. We've been married 20 years now.
CT: What was your first car?
DW: It was a '63 Rambler station wagon. From there I went to a '67 Falcon that had no back window. It was cold in the winter. It was great in the summer and drafty in the winter.
CT: You couldn't tape over it?
DW: We tried everything, but you've got to be able to see out of it.
CT: What was the Olympic experience like (in 2006)?
DW: It was tremendous. To be able to represent your country in that surrounding and for that type of tournament, I was very proud to be selected to be the general manager of the team.
To live in the Olympic village, I would never trade that experience for anything because being around all the athletes for all the different sports was very eye-opening. I truly enjoyed it.
We would have liked to have more success on the ice, but I would not trade the experience for anything. It was a tremendous opportunity and I really appreciated being part of USA Hockey.
CT: But that certainly wasn't your first experience at the international level having done World Championships and stuff like that before.
DW: Every time I've been asked to be a part of USA Hockey, I've taken it as an honor and a privilege. I've never said no to them and I hope I can always be able to say yes to them.
CT: Are there vast differences between the World Championships atmosphere and the Olympics?
DW: There is much more pressure to succeed. Because the World Championships, especially in this country, pretty much go unnoticed. The Olympics, everybody knows about the Olympics.
CT: Do some of the things players like Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk do amaze you as much as they amaze everybody watching from the stands?
DW: They do. First of all, Kovalchuk gets his shot off ... the puck barely gets to his stick and he's got it going in the other direction at over 100 miles an hour. It's pretty awesome to watch him one-time the puck.
Hossa just continues to amaze me how strong he is on the puck and how he can beat guys one-on-one. Very few players can beat a player when it's one-on-one combat. He's one that can. The strength of his puck skills always continue to impress me.