Dean Lombardi’s corner office at the Kings’ El Segundo headquarters is the kind of working office that favors function over form. There are multiple photos of Wayne Gretzky, and a hockey card of Bob Pulford is tucked into a corner of the desk set, but those mementos are overwhelmed by scores of notebooks and research materials.
Talk to Lombardi for long, however, and it becomes clear the room’s inspirational centerpiece is a Bobby Clarke Team Canada jersey that hangs from a bookcase directly across from his desk.
Clarke famously willed the Philadelphia Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75, and took home the Hart Trophy three times. His most famous play – whacking Soviet star Kharlamov across the ankle with his stick – came while Clarke was playing for Team Canada in 1972. Not the Canadian National Team, and not Canada Hockey, but Team Canada.
As a kid growing up in the hardscrabble Boston suburbs, Lombardi watched and admired Clarke. He went on to work for him as a Flyer scout for four years and is now assembling a team that pays homage to his spirit in Los Angeles.
“When I worked for Clarkie,” Lombardi says, “I would sit with him every morning and our conversation couldn’t go 10 minutes without the word ‘team’ coming out of his mouth.”
When Lombardi was named Kings President/General Manager in 2006, he left Philly determined to take the spirit of the Flyers’ leader with him to Los Angeles. He has built the Kings roster with a fondness for team-oriented character players. Guys who play the game the way Clarke did.
Lombardi prefers a team of homegrown talent that has come of age together. But when selfless center Mike Richards was available this past summer, he parted company with a pair of homegrown players; prized prospect Brayden Schenn and popular Wayne Simmonds were sent east to bring the former Flyer captain to Southern California.
“It’s hard to trade a Wayne Simmonds,” Lombardi says. “It’s hard to trade a Brayden Schenn. It’s not that any player can’t be traded, it’s just that it has to be the right player. There are very few players I would have traded (Schenn and Simmonds) for; Mike Richards is one of them.”
“Bobby Clarke West,” is how Lombardi refers to Richards.
That’s shorthand for a leader who is relentlessly passionate, unapologetically demanding and brutally honest. Those were the traits that made Clarke a success as a captain and an executive in a market that demands all three. Because Clarke was equally successful in a business suit as he was in a uniform, Lombardi likes to call him the “Jerry West of hockey.”
He’s also the poster boy of the kind of old-time, team hockey that Lombardi champions.
“Clarkie would get angry if he saw selfishness,” Lombardi says. “Legitimate anger, no phoniness.”
Anything that happens within a hockey team, Lombardi believes, happens by design. There are no accidents. A team’s character and chemistry can be calibrated. Good leaders take control the room and show the way.
“People talk about the intangibles and wonder how you develop that,” Lombardi says. “It’s attention to detail, doing all the little things right.”
It’s also about doing things together. And not just at the rink.
“When you go out,” Lombardi says, “you all go out together or don’t go out at all.”
Accordingly, the Kings have placed an emphasis on chemistry while developing their core players. Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Matt Greene have played together for three years now. Together, the team’s leaders have taken the Kings from a team on the outside of the playoffs to one that believes it is ready to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Clarke isn’t the only hockey visionary who sees value in creating a bond among players. He isn’t the only one who had an influence on Lombardi, either.
“Lou Lamoriello was huge on this too,” Lombardi says of the Devils’ boss. “He talked to me about how he established that in New Jersey. New Jersey was looked at as a Mickey Mouse franchise before he took it over. He stressed infrastructure, attention to detail and having a plan that you stick with. I had some pretty good teachers.”
For strong role models, Lombardi needed to look no further than his own house. He grew up in blue-collar household of factory workers in Ludlow, Mass., and still sees himself through that prism.
“My father worked double shifts in a factory,” Lombardi says. “My grandfather worked in a rubber factory. You pick up that it’s about grinding it out.”
On the road to the NHL, Lombardi took his family’s factory work ethic and applied it to the classroom.
“My family also stressed education,” Lombardi says. “It was the same principal – you are going to go to school, you are going to work hard.”
He worked hard enough to play his way onto the hockey team at the University of New Haven, where he was the squad’s captain for two years and graduated third in his class. After graduating, he became the first member of his family to go to graduate school, earning a law degree from Tulane.
“My grandmother thought that was the equivalent of being a Pope,” Lombardi says. “That’s my grandmother, not me.”
Although his own idea of success always involved hockey, Lombardi was a good student. He graduated with honors, but has never placed much premium on individual accomplishments – academic or otherwise. To him, the greatest feeling comes when people accomplish something together.
“When you hear about players winning,” Lombardi says, “there is always talk about doing it together. It’s not the act of winning, it’s that you truly did it together. They say that’s the greatest feeling they have. It’s fleeting, they walk outside that bubble and it’s back to me, me, me.”
Lombardi says Tulane Law School shaped his life. It was there that he learned to ask the right questions. He also learned working smart is just as important as working hard.
“The best thing about law school is they teach you to use your mind,” Lombardi says.
In New Orleans, Lombardi was sequestered from the friends, family and game that had defined his life in New England. He immersed himself in law school.
“Going down south was a great experience,” he says. “I wanted to live it and I did. I was in study hall most of the time I was there.”
If Lombardi ever found himself tempted to disrupt his education with the offerings of the nearby French Quarter, he needed only to think about his family back in Massachusetts.
“It was hard going to school,” he says, “but it’s no different going to work everyday like my father and grandfather did. Whenever you think you have it tough, just think about my father going to work in the factory every day doing a double shift.”
While part of Lombardi saw himself returning to hockey, he loved the life of a law student.
“I found it fascinating,” he says. “You learn there is no right or wrong answer. You learn intelligence is asking the right question, not thinking about the answer. Probably the No. 1 thing I learned and I have carried that with me in everything I do. I wouldn’t trade those three years for anything. I met some of the sharpest people I have ever met and I still communicate with some of the professors there. It has nothing to do with the law, it was about using your mind.”
It was a new concept for Lombardi, who had grown up watching family make a living with strong hands and strong backs. After watching his father grind out a living, hockey never seemed like work to Lombardi.
“My father would work eight hour shifts at the Monsanto factory, come home for a short while, then go work the night shift at one of their adjacent buildings as a janitor. Every once in a while, he would take me with him to clean the offices. You want to see a guy grind it out like that.”
Given Lombardi’s upbringing, it’s clearly no coincidence that he has so much admiration for Bobby Clarke.
“I grew up in a house of 12, I grew up with my grandparents. My grandfather never missed a day of work in 30 years at the Uniroyal tire factory. It was unbelievable. When I think about why I admire Clarke, it probably starts there.”
Lombardi was 13 when Clarke led Team Canada to an epic eight-game series win over the Soviet Union in 1972’s Summit Series. In Game 6, Clarke used his stick to break the ankle of Kharlamov, the Soviet Union’s best player. Team Canada went on to win Game 6 as well as Games 7 and 8, thus taking the 8-game series 4 games to 3 (with one tie).
“I remember watching that,” Lombardi says. “I watched it as a kid, saw the tape and then listened to him explain what he did to Kharlamov. He makes no apologies. He puts into context – back then, the Russians were the devil.”
The series also had huge ramifications in Canada, where national pride was on the line.
“It had a whole national significance,” Lombardi says. “That was their war. It was fascinating.”
Los Angeles is not Canada, but Lombardi has seen a shift in the culture around the club’s El Segundo home base.
“Are we there yet?” he asks rhetorically. “No. Having a real culture is having expectations and dealing with it. Not Cinderella stuff. The Yankees are a great example of it. The Lakers are a great example too. If they don’t win a championship, they have failed.”
Someday, Lombardi believes, the Kings will have those same expectations. But they can’t get there alone. Instead, it will take everyone pulling together, the way they do in the factory town he grew up in.
“You can’t cheat in a factory because it’s all piecework,” he says. “If some guy is not carrying his load, there is no politics, it’s clear he’s not getting it done.”
If the job is getting done, it matters little who gets the credit. And, when you win, everyone shares in the glory.
“I’ve read a lot and I get a little philosophical, but the greatest happiness you can have is being happy for someone else,” Lombardi says. “If you are truly happy for they guy next to you, that’s as happy as you are going to get.
“That is the greatest happiness an athlete can get.”