The Thrashers don’t have many fans, which is a problem. Except in his own organization and, we assume, his own household, Don Waddell had no fans. That was a bigger problem.
Even those few folks disposed to support this hockey team couldn’t bring themselves to endorse the Teflon Don. And there wasn’t much to endorse. In place since 1999, he’d presided over one playoff appearance and no postseason victories. He’d traded away the two best players in franchise annals because they wouldn’t re-up. Yet he clung to his job like grim death.
As of Wednesday, the Teflon Don clings no longer. The Thrashers positioned his move to president as a promotion, but it’s way more than that. It’s a re-branding.
Advertising 101: When you’ve got a faulty product, fix the bugs and change the name. The Thrashers feel there’s nothing wrong with their personnel that a bit of seasoning can’t remedy. Said Rick Dudley, now the second general manager in team history: “We’re a pretty good hockey team in position to be a really good hockey team.”
But would enough folks in Atlanta have dared to embrace a team with the toxic Don as its point man? He’s not an objectionable human being, and he’s not, contrary to popular belief, a dolt. He had, however, come to symbolize all that was wrong with the Thrashers in the same way Willie Martinez had become the flashpoint of Georgia football.
In other news, the Thrashers fired coach John Anderson on Wednesday. “We thought we had a good enough team to make the playoffs and we didn’t,” Dudley said. “Someone has to take the blame, and he did.”
The same never applied to Waddell, and nitpickers among us will say that his move upstairs is yet another instance of ineptitude gone not just unpunished but applauded. Those nitpickers need to find a new nit. The Thrashers just stopped being Waddell’s creation. He’s no longer the go-to guy in the organization. He’s just another guy with a nice title, same as Rich McKay.
Rich McKay used to be the Falcons’ GM. Late in 2007 he became team president. The Falcons as a competitive entity are overseen by new stewards — Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith — and the credit for those long-sought consecutive winning seasons has gone to Dimitty & Smitty, not the guy who does with whatever it is team presidents do. McKay is still part of the organization, but he’s not a part the public sees.
And that’s how it will be with the Thrashers. They’re Dudley’s team to run, and this will be Dudley’s draft to wrangle. Waddell, who was apparently very skilled at saving his owners money, gets to work full-time on the business. “This has been going on for some time,” Waddell said Wednesday, speaking of the transition. “My plan was to get Rick in here and let him get his feet wet, and then put him in [the GM's] spot.”
Why the flurry of moves? Said Waddell: “There’s no better time than to make all the changes at once.”
The purported skill of this team notwithstanding, hockey in Atlanta is at a perilous place. The Thrashers just dumped Ilya Kovalchuk, missed the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons and finished 28th in attendance to boot. Waddell insisted again Wednesday that this team won’t be moving, but at the moment there doesn’t seem much reason to keep it here.
But this is sports, and things can change. The last-place Braves imported a new GM from Kansas City in October 1990 and played in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. “We’re at the point where Chicago was,” Dudley said, speaking of the NHL team that couldn’t draw flies six years ago but enters these playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
Rick Dudley might or might not be the Thrashers’ John Schuerholz, but he’ll at least be afforded the benefit of the doubt. Too many people had stopped wondering about this team’s charter GM. Too many people made up their minds about the Teflon Don long ago.