Q&A with Don WaddellPosted: Thursday December 26, 2002 11:37 PM
Updated: Friday December 27, 2002 1:34 AM
The Atlanta Thrashers fired head coach Curt Fraser on Thursday after a 8-20-1-4 start to the 2002-03 regular season. Fraser leaves with a record of 64-173-31-15 in his three-plus seasons, and general manager Don Waddell will take over the team on an interim basis. Waddell spoke with CNNSI.com's Jon A. Dolezar on Thursday about having to dismiss a good friend and his own return to the bench after a decade away.
CNNSI.com: How hard was it to fire such a good friend?
Waddell: It was hard, but I've said all along that in this business you have to be able to separate your personal feelings from what it is in the best interest of the hockey club. When it comes to dealing with players and staff, it's tough at times. That's why after we started 0-8-1-1, I started thinking about it.
But I know Curt was working at it and I felt I owed him another chance to try to put this thing together. Then we had a pretty good November and went 6-6, but here in the last 10 games things haven't gone in our direction, so I just felt that it was time to make the change. It's always tough to make it, but it's not personal. It's nothing against Curt Fraser as a person. He's a great person and a good friend of mine. But for our hockey club, we just needed to go in another direction.
CNNSI.com: How close were you to doing it earlier in the season?
Waddell: I think you start thinking about it, but I never got to the point where I went to my boss, Stan Kasten, and said that I wanted to make a coaching change. It was nothing like that. I started thinking about it and pondering if it would help us if brought someone else in.
You start asking yourself a lot of questions. You go through the coaches, you go through the players and look at what we could change to make a difference. We went and added a few players like Marc Savard and Byron Dafoe -- we were trying to do anything we possibly could to get us out of that and make our team a better hockey club.
CNNSI.com: Did Curt see it coming after Monday night's game in Toronto?
Waddell: I think so. When we talked today, he certainly wasn't surprised. It was very emotional for both of us because of our relationship. But I don't think he was surprised. When I watched him after the game Monday night, he'd been taking these losses very hard. He's been killing himself over this thing. I just got to the point where I felt it was the thing to do.
CNNSI.com: When did you meet with him today and for how long?
Waddell: We met about 9:30 this morning for about a half hour.
CNNSI.com: Was he at all surprised?
Waddell: No, when he sat down and I told him it was time to make a chance, he said, "Yeah, I knew this was coming." He felt bad that he couldn't, in his words, "get the job done." But I told him that 3 1/2 years with one franchise is pretty good in today's world.
Coaches tend to get fired as soon as teams lose a few games. So I told him he had nothing to be embarrassed about and that we were proud to have him as a member of our staff. To me, he's still a member of the Thrashers. He's not the head coach of the Thrashers, but he's still a member of the Thrashers organization to me.
CNNSI.com: Did you really tell the team that they got a good person fired?
Waddell: I did, absolutely. I told them that excuses are all behind them. A good man lost his job today, and I have to hold everybody in that room accountable, including myself. There are no excuses now. We have to go out and get the job done. And if not, then we start looking at other things we need to change.
CNNSI.com: What was the team's reaction when you said that?
Waddell: When you are addressing 25 players like that, there's not a lot of emotion at that point. When I finished talking, I opened up the floor and some of the veterans were very vocal. One unnamed veteran, in particular, was very vocal and said: "Everybody in this room should be embarrassed. We are responsible and it's a mark against us for getting a coach fired. Coaches don't get fired unless the players aren't doing their jobs. We have to go out and make things happen." So the players realize it.
CNNSI.com: Are you excited to coach again or are you nervous because it's been 10 years?
Waddell: I'm not nervous. The excitement part comes because I just want to get things going. It was the right thing to do at this time. I'm not nervous about it because I'm around our team so much and I know our team very well. I've seen every game this year and I haven't missed anything, so I feel like short-term I'm best prepared to run the bench. And we'll just see what happens.
CNNSI.com: What are you going to change in your defensive style?
Waddell: We're just going to be a little bit more responsible in collapsing a fourth man. Instead of playing a three-on-three down low, we'll collapse a forward down there so we outnumber the team. If we give anything up in our own zone it's going to be a point shot. We're going to have to rely on our goalies to make those saves, but we just can't get beat with men standing alone in front of the net or get beat out of the corner where a guy has a clear break at the goal. If need be, we'll drop that fourth guy down there to help out.
CNNSI.com: What do you have to do to turn around this season?
Waddell: I told the guys to forget about the first 33 games right now. Let's take one game at a time, because we have 49 games left. It's a new season for these guys. A lot of guys have had not very good seasons and they can start their season anew tomorrow and salvage it. Just thinking out loud, if we can play .500 hockey from here on out, that would definitely be a step in the right direction.
CNNSI.com: Are the playoffs even still in the realm of possibility for you guys?
Waddell: You look at it and we are 16 points out, but there are so many games left. We have a tough schedule for the next four games, but then we get 10 of the following 14 at home. If the team is playing well and we are healthy, that could be a point where we could put a nice stretch together.
CNNSI.com: What do you hold yourself accountable for?
Waddell: Certainly we are all accountable for what we are responsible for. And right now we feel like we have a better team than our eight wins indicate. And I'm responsible for the player personnel end of this. We will find out if we are a better team in, not only the days that I coach the team, but more importantly once we hire a new guy and he's in here putting his mark on the team.
CNNSI.com: What free agents did you guys want to go after who you didn't get either for financial reasons or because they just wanted to play elsewhere?
Waddell: This past summer we pretty much determined we needed two forwards and two defensemen. The guys we were able to get in trades (Shawn McEachern and Slava Kozlov) answered our questions up front, because they have both played very well for us. This summer there wasn't a whole lot available. Yanic Perreault was a guy we went after two years ago [and didn't get], but we weren't in on it for any of the big names this past year. None of the $8-$10 million players last year were coming to Atlanta.
We felt we had some needs and we felt coming out of the summer that we had met those needs. Unfortunately Richard Smehlik has been hurt quite a bit. He's a defenseman we were counting on. And when he's been healthy he's played very well, but injuries do play a part in it. We can't hide underneath it, we just need other guys to pick it up and play better.
CNNSI.com: What has Stan Kasten told you about your job security?
Waddell: There's no issue. He never said anything to me. I think he feels the same as I do, that we are a better team than we have shown. With a lot of good young players, we need to find a way to get it going.
CNNSI.com: What are you looking for in a coach?
Waddell: I think the timetable is pretty much up in the air based on when we can get the right person in here. I think it's important for us to get the right person. We're not in a hurry to name a head coach. We're in a hurry to get the right person for this job. We want someone with some NHL experience who has been around and knows the league. We'll need them to jump in and not have a big learning curve with our players. That's the most important thing at this point of the year.
CNNSI.com: Could you see yourself finishing out the season?
Waddell: No, that's not what we are looking at, but you never know what happens in this game. We're after a few people that we have to get permission to talk to. You may not get permission in certain situations, or it might not be a good fit once you get into talks. So you never want to say never, but that's not the plan as we speak. Right now it's to pursue a couple of guys and see if we can come out with the right guy.
CNNSI.com: Do you already have your short list together?
Waddell: Yeah, we have a few guys that we want to talk to. I'd say three right now.
CNNSI.com: Have you already made contact with them?
Waddell: No, we haven't. We have asked permission from the teams to talk to them and we are in that process right now.
CNNSI.com: Does the possibility of the labor situation two years down the road affect a coaching search at all?
Waddell: No, not at this point. For the amount of money that coaches make -- and don't get me wrong, they make a lot of money -- but what we're talking, we need to make sure we get the right guy. If it means we have to commit longer term than what we need to, then so be it. So no, that really doesn't come into effect.
CNNSI.com: Do you have to pay a buyout to anyone who is with a team right now in addition to paying Curt's salary for the remainder of this year?
Waddell: Usually if a team is paying another person, there is always a deal to be worked out. It might be someone who is working within the organzation that is not under a coaching contract, but who is under a different kind of contract. All those things are just things you need to work out with each individual team.
CNNSI.com: What about Barry Smith, whom you worked with in Detroit?
Waddell: I'm not going to get into names right now. That's not fair to the guys we are trying to get permission to talk to. If guys are working with other teams right now, it's not fair for me to comment about.
CNNSI.com: What about the guys who aren't employed right now like Bob Hartley and Darryl Sutter?
Waddell: Well, they are not employed, but they are employed because they are still under contract. And any coaches who were working this year but aren't working now are still being paid, so you still have to go through the process of getting permission.