Don Waddell’s seen it. Lived it. And, asked if what’s happening in Carolina reminds him of what happened in Atlanta, he shoots down the premise before the question can be finished.
“Totally different,” he responds, during a conversation before the NHL’s Board of Governors meetings began Monday in Pebble Beach, CA. “The Thrashers were sold to a group of new owners (in 2003) and there was eight years of litigation. Not even comparable.”
Waddell, now president of Gale Force Sports and Entertainment (the Hurricanes’ parent company), was a Thrasher executive for every minute of the team’s on-ice existence. On the outside, we look at the empty seats in Raleigh and wonder if this will work. On the inside, he says league finances changed for the better since hockey departed Georgia in 2011.
“Since I left Atlanta, revenues are way up across the NHL,” Waddell said. “Revenue sharing has improved considerably. Teams can still lose money, but it’s nothing like it was from 2008 until the new CBA. We don’t own PNC Arena, but we operate the lease, and it is profitable for us. That’s an important factor, and it runs until 2024.”
Three weeks ago, the @SNStats Twitter account compared the Hurricanes’ attendance to the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. The junior team averaged 2,000 more fans a game. Seeing the empty seats, you couldn’t help but wonder if Carolina followed Florida’s move of eliminating free tickets to games. That always makes it look worse.
Waddell says yes, that happened.
“You can’t have a season-ticket holder hearing someone next to them got in for free. They aren’t usually quiet about it,” he said with a smile. “Two years ago, we were at 3,000 free tickets per game, last year was down to 1,400. Now it’s 650 comps, and those you can’t get away from, for staff and players. Our season tickets dropped the last five years, but did not drop this year. Paid attendance is flat, but the building looks worse for that reason. ”
“It was a tough decision, painful. But it’s the right decision for the long tun. People who get free tickets are not going to shell out $150 in the future. It doesn't happen.”
Owner Peter Karmanos desires to sell but wants a gradual turnover of power and influence, similar to what Charles Wang is doing with the New York Islanders. He is dedicated to the market; can’t stand relocation talk.
Anyone who watched the entire crowd stand for most of Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final knows there is a passion. But it’s eroded with just one playoff berth in nine seasons. The Hurricanes were 15th in the NHL in attendance the year after their Cup win, averaging more than 17,000 fans, playing to 93 per cent of capacity.
Both numbers were better than Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and Washington.
“It’s not all about wins and losses, but we’ve got to give our fans some hope,” Waddell says. The team is seven points out of the playoffs, with the youngest roster in the NHL. “Ron (Francis) is doing the right thing. We have two first-round picks this year, ours and Los Angeles’s.”
They also have Winnipeg’s third-round selection from the Jiri Tlusty trade.
“Ron is keeping our draft picks. They won’t all turn out, but you give yourself more of a chance.”
Now, the big question: will finances affect their on-ice decisions — for example, re-signing Eric Staal?
“No,” he replies, but due to the sensitivity of Staal’s local pedigree (and Cam Ward’s), he declines any additional specifics. What he does say is this: “In actual money, we’re going to have more than $20M coming off our cap, including retained salary to Jay Harrison and Tuomo Ruutu. Not everyone is going to be let go, you have to keep someone. But it will give Ron flexibility.”
“We’re a budget team, not a floor team. Our payroll is $60-61M.”
Can you sustain that number?
“Yes. We can handle that.”
And, as Waddell adds again, it is to be handled in Carolina.