The reality of relocation hit Atlanta Thrashers President Don Waddell when the City of Glendale agreed to help fund the Phoenix Coyotes for another season. "When Phoenix looked like they were falling apart about six weeks ago, we thought we were off the table for moving this year," he said.
The Coyotes didn't move. The Thrashers weren't off the table, and their existence effectively ended on Tuesday when their relocation to Winnipeg was announced. (For the record: Waddell said the team can't be called the Manitoba or Winnipeg Thrashers, as the Atlanta Spirit ownership group owns the name.)
Also effectively at its end: The tenure of Waddell, the first general manager in team history and then its president of hockey operations, who said he's not moving with the Thrashers and isn't sure what the next step in his career will lead him.
"They have Mark Chipman up there running a very successful franchise in the American Hockey League," said Waddell on a conference call today.
"I'm gonna stay here through the close of business. When we hand the keys over to Winnipeg, we want to hand it over in the best condition that we can. Assuming that happens sometime after the Board of Governors meeting and after the Draft, then I'll explore my options."
For Atlanta hockey fans, it's a fitting end: The man so many see as responsible for the team's single, brief playoff appearance (and zero victories) in 11 years, going down with his Titanic. For Winnipeg hockey fans … perhaps a sigh of relief that it'll be GM Rick Dudley and not his predecessor that will be going north.
We asked Waddell how much the team's lack of success on the ice factored into its relocation.
"There's no doubt that if we had more success, maybe we would have had a better turnout at the gate. Something we always look back at: If we had duplicated when we won our division (in 2007) and went to the playoffs, we were set up to build the momentum in the marketplace. But that didn't happen.
"When you win more, you're going to get more excited fans. There are a lot of things that played into our lack of success (as a franchise), and certainly that would have to be at the top of the list."
But as the Thrashers move to Winnipeg with an all-time record of 342-437-45-78, has Waddell considered his own role in their demise as the team's chief player personnel man?
"You know, I haven't, and I'll tell you why," he said.
"We have a very competent staff. People who make decisions at the top, you're the one that's out there. Our staff … I've always said … not one person makes the decisions. We make decisions as a staff," said Waddell.
"Yeah, were there things that happened you'd like to change? Certainly. But we're all passionate about our jobs, and nobody wants to fail, I can tell you that. Nobody from the top down wants to fail. When you make decisions — when it's a trade, a draft or whatever it is — you truly believe, as a group, that it's in the best interests of the franchise."
This will be of little comfort to the Atlanta fans who blame Waddell's management for so many of the team's ills. As Jonathan Willis of Houses of the Hockey wrote about on Monday:
Waddell did a bad job. He accrued some elite talent — in players like Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), Dany Heatley(notes) and later Marian Hossa(notes) — but never complemented them with quality forwards sprinkled throughout the team. Goaltending has been an issue since the days of Damian Rhodes and Norm Maracle. Waddell also never succeeded in icing an above average set of NHL defensemen.
Unlike other general managers — Mike Milbury comes to mind — Waddell's failing was less in huge trades that went bad, and more in a simple inability to build a roster that could compete in the NHL. The fact that for the vast majority of his tenure his club played in far-and-away the league's worst division only compounds that failure.
Was the team's inability to retain Hossa in 2008 a turning point for the franchise?
"No, not at all. Not one hockey player ever makes a team. We tried to sign him. We did everything we could," said Waddell. "The bigger thing was that this was a player who was an unrestricted free agent, and he was going to explore that."
The same could be said of Kovalchuk, the star player who the Thrashers traded to the New Jersey Devils after he rejected a 12-year, $101 million deal with Atlanta. Another big name the franchise couldn't retain. Another definitive moment for the franchise.
But whatever Waddell's failings were as an executive, it's clear he was dedicated to the Thrashers and to hockey in Atlanta. In fact, he was working behind the scenes to put together an ownership group that could purchase the Thrashers and keep them local.
"I tried to 'marry up' people who were willing to put in place (up to) $20 million. At the end of the day, we couldn't make it work, but we did talk about it," he said, adding that in the end the team didn't have "one offer that was worth talking about" for the team before Winnipeg became the final option.
So what's the legacy for Don Waddell and the Atlanta Thrashers?
A missed opportunity, for one, as one playoff appearance and a parade of star players leaving for rival teams was no way to build a fan base in Atlanta.
There were also marketing misses (Blueland, red jerseys) and mistakes (the alleged acquisition of black players to reach out to Atlanta's African-American population). There was also an ownership squabble that paralyzed the franchise. There were also ice girls. We'll miss them most of all.
But what Waddell hopes, at least in part, is that the Thrashers left a legacy among the young fans that now find themselves without a favorite team.
"We had less than 200 kids playing youth hockey when we got here. We have over 3,000 now," he said. "I think hockey's going to continue to boom here, from a youth standpoint. Us coming here was a big part of that."