When Dean Lombardi took over as the Kings’ President/General Manager in 2006, the most notable aspect of the team’s identity was its inability to establish one long term. Since joining the NHL in 1967, the Kings had tried just about everything in an effort to win the ultimate prize – the Stanley Cup. Over the years there had been good teams and reasons for hope, but the Kings were still looking for that intangible that all winning organizations have when Lombardi came on board.
Soon after he was hired, Lombardi determined the best way to make the future memorable would be by changing the organization's culture. Lombardi began by defining the kind of atmosphere he would create around the Kings.
“Having a real culture means having expectations and dealing with it,” Lombardi said. “Not Cinderella stuff. The Yankees are a great example of it. What better example is there than the Lakers? If they don’t win a championship, they have failed.”
After serving as a scout for the Flyers between his time in San Jose and Los Angeles, Lombardi had a good understanding of what a winning culture feels like.
“When you walk in those rooms in Philly, you feel it,” Lombardi said, speaking of the intangible, hard-to-define aura that exists when a team expects to win. “It’s unbelievable. What I’m feeling, I’m not sure. But you don’t feel it in many places.”
Lombardi would like his players to absorb that culture and exude character every time they set foot inside the club's El Segundo headquarters. That's how it works within organizations that demand their players compete for the highest prize on an annual basis.
Lombardi's obsession with a winning culture was stoked during his years in Philadelphia due, in large part, to the presence of Bobby Clarke, arguably hockey's greatest warrior, leader and winner. Clarke led the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups in the ’70s and, as a Senior Vice President, still has his fingerprints all over the franchise.
By the time Lombardi joined the Flyers staff, he had already established a winning culture in San Jose, where he built the Sharks into a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Before arriving in Los Angeles, he landed in Philadelphia, where he used his time with the Flyers as a graduate seminar in leadership. He absorbed all he could from Clarke, a man who is regarded as one of the NHL’s greatest leaders.
“We would talk about the intangibles,” Lombardi said of his daily conversations with Clarke. “How do you develop intangibles? It’s attention to detail, doing all the little things right. Every sign on the wall is a reminder that it is about the team. We talk about being brothers, or a wolf pack. When you go out, you all go out together or you don’t go out at all.”
When he came west, Lombardi brought an East Coast mentality with him. He and his staff soon after began the task of infusing the entire organization with a winning attitude. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“We are still in the process of building the culture,” Lombardi admitted. His plan will only come together if his team comes together. One of the reasons the Kings will ultimately be successful for years to come, he believes, is because they will have developed a bond while coming of age together. “I think there is a difference between great players and great teams,” he said.
Those great Flyer teams of the ’70s had Clarke imparting his determination on them. He could be as hard on a teammate as he was on an opponent.
“Expectations,” Lombardi said, reeling off the traits of the consummate culture of winning. “Believing in yourself. Being cocky without being arrogant. The Flyers had all that.”
All that, as Lombardi puts it, can be difficult to cultivate in today’s information age. But it’s not impossible to build a team that feels like a family. Society has changed but, Lombardi believes, athletes have not.
“It’s hard to find (what the Flyers had), particularly the way sports are today,” Lombardi said. “It seems like society keeps on nurturing individualism at the expense of team. There are so many influences now on young people that are anti-team. Deep down, there is no doubt in my mind that the athlete has not changed.”
Clarke is not the only great leader Lombardi studied while learning how to build a winner in the NHL. He has also borrowed from legendary Montreal tough guy John Ferguson, with whom he worked with in San Jose and Philadelphia, as well as New Jersey Devils CEO, President and General Manger Lou Lamoriello.
“Lamoriello talks about the little things,” Lombardi said. “Even how you ride the bus. Everything matters.”
When Lombardi wants to hear from the NHL’s ultimate voice on winning, he need only lob a phone call to Thousand Oaks, where four replica Stanley Cups - two more than Clarke won - sit on the mantle at Wayne Gretzky’s house. Those Cups were won in Edmonton, but Gretzky remains the most recognizable part of the Kings’ history and Lombardi is smart enough to tap into it.
“I talk to Wayne whenever he’s available,” Lombardi said. “I wish he could come around more often. Gretzky was clearly a winner. This was a guy that understood big moments. Critical moments.”
Gretzky fits into the elite group that Lombardi treasures most.
“When I was in San Jose,” Lombardi said, “I remember telling Teemu Selanne, ‘there are players, there are stars and there are superstars, but the highest species is a winner.’”
Lombardi will even look outside his own sport for inspiration.
“Being a winner transcends sports,” he said. “You can learn from Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan. It’s what they represent that goes beyond their sport.”
One of Lombardi’s greatest lessons in winning came from a man he never worked with, someone who never laced up a pair of skates.
“Longtime Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Tom Landry said, ‘convince an athlete to do what he doesn’t want to do so he can become what he wants to really become.’ He was right. We keep throwing all these temptations out there; money, flattery, the media, all this stuff. But, like Tom Landry said, deep down, an athlete wants to be a winner.”
Lombardi wants the same thing.
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