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Don Waddell: ‘It’s very important that we do this right’

With the new government mandate allowing for sporting arenas to allow up to 15% capacity, the Carolina Hurricanes will be one of those teams welcoming back fans into the building.

Kaydee Gawlik

The Hurricanes announced Wednesday that, in response to relaxed COVID-19 restrictions for the state of North Carolina, the team will begin allowing 15% of PNC Arena’s fan capacity to attend home games starting March 4.

General manager Don Waddell spoke to the media via Zoom about the challenges and logistics of allowing fans back into the arena, here’s a full breakdown of everything he had to say:

Opening Statement: Thank you for joining us here today. Just want to start off by thanking Governor Cooper and Dr. Cohen for their support and for giving us this opportunity to get our great Caniac fans back in PNC Arena.

On the priority of ticket sales: We’re sending out an email as we speak to our season ticket holders to see what their interest is in coming to games. We’re hoping to be able to offer tickets to all current season ticket holders including full season tickets if someone wants to buy the last 20 games. We’ll see what the interest is. We know there’s still a lot of people that are probably not going to want to take in a hockey game live at this point and we understand that. But we think we will have great support from our current STMs.

We’ve been working on this plan for six months probably. Larry Perkins, our VP of the Arena, has been working on a plan and everybody’s been involved the last couple of months. We know we have an opportunity to open the doors, so we want to prove to everybody and make sure that we are doing everything in a very safe manner, but more importantly for our customers to feel that they are being watched out for and so they feel like they can come back to a hockey game and enjoy it without having to worry.

On the financials of 15% capacity: It’s early in the process, but I’m not sure it helps us a whole lot if I’m going to be honest. The amount of staff that we have to bring back. You need your staff to… I’ve talked to all the other teams that have had fans and whether you have 10%, 15%, 25%, you need almost 75% of your staff back because in this situation, directing our fans throughout the concourses, opening all the doors. The expenses are still going to be high. Not saying that we can’t make a little bit of money off of it, but we’re still working through that. At 15%, I don’t see it helping us tremendously. I think what it is, is giving us the opportunity to prove that we can do it right at 15% and then at a later date make that percentage much higher.

On being able to get employees back to their jobs: It’s always good when you can welcome people back to the job that they love. People have been furloughed for a long time. We started bringing people back before the season started, because there were certain points of our operation that needed to be up and going. We just continued to add to that staff, but you always feel good when you can provide that opportunity for your employees. Besides our full-time employees, there’s also part-time employees that this will affect too, which I think is a nice story also.

On if the team had any prior knowledge on the new government mandates: We had no expectations. We knew there was a lot of talk going on. I sit on a couple of boards that had submitted proposals that were up to 25 and 50%. But from the Hurricanes’ and PNC Arena’s side, our expectations were anything better than what we have right now. When I talk about what we’ve been working on for a long time, we’ve known that at some point we’re going to be able to open the doors. A lot of protocols, not only from the state, but there’s a whole list of protocols from the NHL that we have to abide by also.

Being careful, but being watched by two different entities, so we’ve had those protocols for quite some time now. We’ve done it with the amount of fans that we’ve been able to have not only at our games, but at NC State basketball games, just in the concourse with directional signage. Just making sure we do everything possible to keep the traffic flowing in the right direction and making sure we aren’t crossing people over each other.

On this being a step forward but conflated with the losses from the virus: This virus has been devastating for not only this country, but the world. That’s the most important thing we have going on right now. Making sure we take care of the people that need to be taken care of. The vaccination is coming out and getting stronger in not only our market, but also throughout the United States, it’s going to be very helpful.

But we can be a bright spot for people, because people enjoy going to sporting events, going to live events at the arena, so if we can bring some cheer and a little excitement to somebody’s life, I think that’s important to do that. Given this opportunity, we’ve got to provide a very safe environment, but we also want to make sure that we entertain people as they come into the arena.

On the player’s reaction to getting fans into the building: I was walking around the locker room today, we’re getting ready to play a game, and our players were excited about it. The coaches were excited about it. Just getting people back into the building. We know it’s not right where we want to be, but we know it’s a start to where we want to get to. Everybody’s excited about it. I know certain places we’ve gone that have had fans, they’ve had a different atmosphere. Anytime you can bring the live bodies into the building, it’s going to be something that everybody enjoys a lot more.

On what he’s taken from other teams that have already allowed fans: Everybody’s biggest problem has been the suites. Teams have opened up their suites to some pretty high capacities and people get in those suites and think they’re in a safe environment. We know regardless of if you’re in a suite or seats, you’re going to need to be wearing your mask. That’s been the one challenge. We’re going in well aware of that situation and we’ll be very on top of it.

Other than that, the biggest thing is to try and keep it simple. Don’t try to do too much at the start. Like us, with concessions, it’s going to be a very limited menu just because we’ve got to walk before we run. Everybody’s on the same page though. We know we have this opportunity to show that we can do it and we’re going to make sure that we do it right.

On the conversations he’s had with other leagues: I can’t put a number on the amount of conversations we’ve had, but different departments have reached out. You have the ticketing department that’s reached out to lots of teams both NBA and the NFL, and you’ve got marketing from the arena-side doing the same thing. Different departments have had numerous calls with different organizations other than the NHL. The NFL was the first one for the most part that started with fans. We’ve reached out to a lot of our counterparts in the NFL to see how things went. A lot of them are outdoors, but there are some that play indoors. I can’t tell you the exact number, but I can tell you that it’s numerous.

On the specific safety precautions and measures the team will be implementing: It’s everything that you’re hearing from the governor’s office. You won’t be able to come into the arena if you’re not wearing a proper mask. There’s going to be things on that all over our webpage. North Carolina has said what masks are acceptable and what aren’t. We’ve also invested in over 250 hand sanitizers that will be throughout the building. We keep hearing about masks, washing your hands and social distancing. That’s going to be critical. Especially in concourses. We can control the seating bowl, because we can put people in the seats that they have to be in.

We’ll have that manifest and people won’t be able to move around like they may have in the past. Those three things are vitally important, but it’s the other things. Right now, we have the concourses as one-way traffic, split up in half by dividers. One-way only. Each side will be one direction and you’ll have to get on the other side, to come back. The cleaning and sanitizing crew is going to be triple what we normally are. People will be stationed right at restrooms, concession stands. Just staying on top of it. Again, it’s very important that we do this right. I’m not concerned about the costs of doing it right, I’m worried about doing it right. Proving that we can do it right, so we then have the opportunity to expand our capacity and that’s what we all want to get to.