Here is the transcript from my interview with Atlanta Spirit co-owner Bruce Levenson done Wednesday night after the franchise promoted Don Waddell to president, promoted Rick Dudley to general manager and did not retain its coaching staff.
Q. Why the organizational changes? Why now?
A. We obviously had this in mind when we brought Rick [Dudley] in a year ago. We thought it was a wise investment to have another voice at the table that had achieved a fair amount of success in this league. We wanted to get to know him and it was an opportunity to do that. He’s a rink rat and I mean that in a very flattering way. It was an opportunity for him to do that and see how it goes. We talked about it over the course of the year and in recent weeks it just all came together. If we were going to do this, this was the time. Way ahead of the draft. The decision was made to go into a different direction with the coaching staff and we wanted Rick to head up the effort in putting a new staff together. The timing just seemed right. Over the year, I had the opportunity to see Rick in action. Trade deadline day. It was an opportunity for me to watch him up close over the course of the year. The whole [Ilya] Kovalchuk negotiation and ultimately the trade. I had a really, really good feeling about this and so did Don.
Q. How soon after the season did you decide to go in a different direction with the coaching staff?
A. There is an on-going assessment of this coaching staff throughout the season. At the end of the season, there is a more thorough assessment that culminated in a discussion Monday in which this was the recommendation of our hockey operations people and I agreed with that recommendation.
Q. Waddell has taken a lot of criticism as GM. What was the thinking of moving him to the business side? Was it as much to get him out of the GM position or keeping a loyal person who has worked for you as long as you’ve owned the team?
A. I get a lot of e-mails from fans and season-ticket holders, all very passionate about team and wanting as much success for the team as I want. The e-mails, I’ve never done an actual count as there are hundreds and hundreds of them, run about 50-50 with some saying if you don’t remove Don as GM I’m not going to renew my season tickets. And there are others that say if you do remove Don as GM I won’t renew my season tickets. It’s kind of 50-50. Don has burned a lot of bridges in this town and his built an enormous amount of bridges. I’ve been around professional sports for a couple of decades and of the general managers that I have gotten to know, he brings a pretty unique skill set. He has the hockey personnel piece and he also has a business side to him that I haven’t seen in any other GM. It started to make sense. We need to rebuild both here. We need to rebuild the business side and we obviously need to rebuild the on-ice product. But are pointed in the right direction now and Don has a terrific relationship with our business partners. I spend a fair amount of time with our business partners with Don. So I’ve seen the relationships he’s built over all the years here. Nobody wants more for the success of the Atlanta Thrashers than Don Waddell. We think this is an opportune time for him to channel that passion and his business experience into bringing fans back into the stands. It obviously has to go hand in hand with the on-ice product that we can be proud of and our fans can be proud of.
Q. How will his role be different than that of Bernie Mullin?
A. Since Bernie left, Don took on some of Bernie’s responsibilities. This is really a focus. We have to focus our sales, our marketing, our sponsorship relationships, our season-ticket plans. All of that now is going to get a focus at the very top of the organization. I think that’s needed if we are going to turn this thing around.
Q. How frustrating is it as an owner to see where the Thrashers are as compared to where the Hawks are?
A. It’s been six years [since Atlanta Spirit has owned the franchises]. We have learned an enormous amount. We came in as rookie owners six years ago. We’ve learned an enormous amount about building a sports team. We’ve made mistakes along with way with both teams. We also did some positive things with both the teams. The goal from the beginning, and we said this then, was to bring a quality product on the ice and a quality product on the court. We understood that was what was needed for us to achieve success here. It is gratifying on the one hand to look at what we’ve done with the Hawks. I’m extremely proud of that. We’ve had an improved every year that we’ve owned the team. I don’t think any new ownership group in the history of professional sports has had the string that we’ve had on the Hawks side. That’s gratifying. But yes, it’s been unbelievably frustrating. I can look back at mistakes that we’ve made and wish that we haven’t made them. But it’s been extremely frustrating. After we got as far as we got (in making the playoffs) we hit a wall. We had to start over. Nobody likes to take two steps back, but we had to take two steps back. I’m a three-quarters full guy. I don’t want to overhype the direction I think we are headed in, but based on what we’ve learned over the six years, I feel good about the direction that the hockey team is headed right now.
Q. Do you consider this one-step back?
A. I think this is an important step forward. I think we now have a guy that’s going to be focused on the business side and I know from working with him very, very closely over six years that he’s very good at that. And we have a guy that’s going to be focused on the hockey side, on the personnel side that A has a resume, but resumes and only take you so far but B I’ve had the personal experience of working with him for a year whom I also feel very good about.
Q. How is the ownership currently working? There is still the on-going litigation. Can you also speak to how the search for investors is going?
A. It’s working as its worked. And it has worked. It’s worked fine. It has not had any impact. I can understand how a fan could look at it and say Geez, this is dysfunctional group, a bunch of wealthy guys fighting with each other. We have a legitimate dispute between two sides that’s been working its way through the legal process. I would dare you to find one example where that has impacted any of the decisions that we have made on the Hawks and in hopefully rebuilding the Thrashers. It doesn’t impact. It has no impact. It will ultimately come to a conclusion. It’s pretty much disappeared, I think, from the public psyche. It just never did have an impact. We have been ideally looking for an investor to come in and play a role in the Atlanta Thrashers – ideally a local investor who would give us more financial muscle, if you will, in this community. We haven’t found that person yet but we are continuing to look.
Q. If that person comes in, is it to keep the team here? Or could that person come in with majority ownership and move the franchise?
A. We bought the Atlanta Thrashers. In doing that we signed agreements with the NHL. Even if we wanted to talk to somebody about moving, we are forbidden from doing that under our agreements with the NHL. Even if we wanted to talk to somebody who wanted to move it, it’s clearly stated in our agreements. We are forbidden from doing that. We’ve never had those discussions. Every rumor that’s been published, and I’ve seen rumors we were moving to Quebec, to Hamilton, to Winnipeg, Seattle, they’ve been 100 percent unfounded and unfair.
Q. You have 10 unrestricted free agents, how do you see the payroll changing? You are in the bottom third in the NHL in payroll. Do you expect it to stay there? Is there a budget in place?
A. We were running right near $50 million. I hope we can achieve with the Thrashers what we’ve been able to achieve with the Hawks — to build a winning team in a financially responsible manner. That’s what we’ve done with the Hawks. There are ways to measure that like payroll dollars per win. We are at the very top of the NBA and there are a lot of jealous owners with what we’ve been able to accomplish there. I hope we will be able accomplish that. We don’t have an unlimited budget here unfortunately to spend on players. That would make it much easier so we are going to try to do that in a responsible way.