The man behind the man with the plan
Jack Ferreira, with 40 years of professional hockey experience, is a trusted adviser to Dean Lombardi
The teenage winger, as Jack Ferreira remembers him, didn’t have an abundant amount of offensive skill. The kid had leadership instincts but didn’t -- and couldn’t -- coast on skill. He worked for what he got.
For a couple summers in the mid-1970s, Ferreira coached a young fellow New Englander named Dean Lombardi, in what was essentially a pick-up league for high-school hockey prospects. It’s funny how life can come full circle. Now, more than 35 years later, Ferreira is coaching Lombardi again, so to speak.
When Lombardi took over as president and general manager of the Kings in 2006, and put together a staff, one of his first calls went to Ferreira, who gave Lombardi his start in the NHL and who had served as a friend and an adviser for decades. Ferreira’s title -- special assistant to the general manager -- is vague, but it’s far from symbolic. In many ways, Ferreira serves as Lombardi’s second set of eyes.
``Dean always tells me, `When you go and you watch and you work with these different minor-leaguers or the scouts, I want you to view it as though you’re the general manager. Ask the questions the general manager would ask,’’’ Ferreira said this week, between Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
It’s a standing question, when Ferreira sits down for dinner in the STAPLES Center press room: ``So, where have you been, Jack?’’ Often, it’s Manchester, to look at Kings prospects. Sometimes, it’s Quebec or Ontario, to watch junior players. On occasion, it’s Europe. Once in a while, it’s a combination of all three.
Ferreira isn’t strictly a member of the scouting staff, but he is -- pardon the expression -- a jack-of-all-trades, a hockey executive with 40 years of experience and the ability to step back and see the big picture.
``He’s got that sixth sense,’’ Lombardi said. ``He’s really good to talk to -- you know how analytical I can get -- he’s able to look at something and he has a feel for where the team is at and what it needs.’’
Lombardi has a deep and talented front-office staff, including assistant general manager Ron Hextall, but every good team has a wily old veteran, a wise-eyed longtime hockey man who has both the well-honed instincts and experience to provide counsel when tough situations come up.
It’s a position that requires a lot of trust, and Lombardi certainly has that trust in Ferreira. Their relationship goes back to Lombardi’s high school days, when the two first met.
Ferreira, then a New England Whalers WHA scout in his early 30s, was asked by an associate, a rink operator in Enfield, Conn., to coach a group of high school- and college-aged players during the summer. It was highly informal. The players would play a couple times a week, but wouldn’t even practice.
Lombardi, a native of Massachusetts, was playing in the New England Junior Hockey League at the time as a high-school junior, and ended up on Ferreira’s bench and ended up on a line with Paul Fenton, who would go on to play in the NHL and is currently the assistant general manager for the Nashville Predators.
``Dean was, you could say, a hard-working right winger that made you pay the price when he played,’’ Ferreira said. ``He wasn’t a natural scorer. He will tell you he was, but he worked for everything that he got. But he was really the leader of the team.’’
After two summers together, the coach and player parted ways. Lombardi played for Elmira College in New York, then transferred to the University of New Haven and served of captain of that team. After graduation, Lombardi went to Tulane University and got a law degree.
Meanwhile, Ferreira climbed the pro-hockey ladder. He became assistant general manager of the Whalers, then worked for NHL Central Scouting, then, throughout the 1980s, did scouting and player-development work for the Calgary Flames and the New York Rangers.
One day, while Ferreira watched some prospects play on behalf of the Flames, a young man sat down next to him. It had been approximately seven years since Ferreira and Lombardi had crossed paths.
``He was starting to be an agent,’’ Ferreira said. ``I was scouting at that time for Calgary, so I knew all the young kids. I would tell him who the good players were, and who he should look at. Then we kind of stayed in touch, because we were in the same business, him being an agent.’’
In 1988, Ferreira interviewed for the Minnesota North Stars’ general-manager job, and turned to Lombardi for assistance. Lombardi, with his law background, served as a mock interrogator. Lombardi asked Ferreira the questions he thought the North Stars might ask, and apparently, the drill worked.
Ferreira got the job. His first hire? A 30-year-old lawyer and budding agent. Lombardi became his assistant general manager, and being young and hungry, spent a couple months sleeping on the couch in Ferreira’s office at the Met Center in Minneapolis. Lombardi didn’t see himself as a future GM.
``At the time, to think that you were in the National Hockey League, that was enough,’’ Lombardi said. ``At that point, I would have swept the stands just to wear a logo.’’
Ferreira was wise enough to sense a changing landscape. The job of a GM was becoming increasingly complicated, with contracts growing bigger and with collective-bargaining issues looming larger. A year earlier, the Vancouver Canucks had hired a young, budding agent named Brian Burke to work in their front office. The North Stars, under Ferreira, followed suit with Lombardi.
``I wanted him to do all the contracts and be my assistant,’’ Ferreira said. ``Front offices at that time, in ’88, they weren’t too extensive. There were about five people in the front office. ... (Lombardi) went out and did some scouting with the scouts. He was just learning the business.’’
Ferreira quickly learned that he had a good student on his hands.
``The thing about Dean is, he’s a sponge,’’ Ferreira said. ``Nothing goes by him. All he wants to do is learn. He doesn’t read a book for pleasure. He reads a book to learn something. The thing that I liked about him the most was, he always thought outside the box.
``There were always issues. There was a time, I forget what year it was, but there was an issue in the CBA where, if a player was drafted -- a senior in high school -- and then he went into college the next year, you did not have to offer him a bonafide contract. But if he went to junior (hockey), you had to offer him a contract. So, Dean saw the bylaw. There had been some guys that had been drafted as juniors in high school, just because of their age. Dean said that they had to be offered a bonafide contract, and if they weren’t, they would go back in the draft. One of the players was Tony Amonte.
``We presented it to the league, and they didn’t know what to do. Finally, they came back with a ruling that, somehow or other, he still belonged to the New York Rangers. But I knew Dean had stumped them. That was just an example of how he was always thinking outside the box, and I really liked that.’’
Lombardi brought a fresh perspective to Ferreira, but in many ways, Lombardi became a student again.
Lombardi marveled at Ferreira’s instincts, his ability to make the correct call on players, and his willingness to try different things. Ferreira was one of the innovators, Lombardi recalls, of signing undrafted college free agents, and under Ferreira’s direction in Calgary, just to name one stop, players such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Brett Hull, Joel Otto and Gary Suter got their starts.
Ferreira would help build the framework for a Calgary team that won the Stanley Cup in 1989 and a Minnesota team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991, both after Ferreira had moved on.
``His insight into personnel is off the charts,’’ Lombardi said. ``He would go into a rink and look at an 18-year-old or 19-year-old, and he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t always right, but boy, you look at some of his drafts. ... It was about recognizing guys in the middle and later rounds, and college free agents. ... He spent a lot of time at it. He’s got a good mind. The other thing is, he’s got a really good feel.
``You look at what he did in Minnesota. That team that went to the Finals, he turned that thing around in 16 months. If people look at Mark Tinordi, nobody knew Mark Tinordi. Ulf Dahlen. He got criticized for that. Picking up competitive guys like Duchesne and Gavin. People can look at how quickly he turned that thing around. Finding a guy like Tinordi, he was the only one who knew Tinordi could play. He saw him in tier 2, and that’s the first thing he did when he took over. He said, `I’m going to get this Tinordi from the Rangers.’ He said, `They have no idea what they’ve got.’ And look what happened to him.’’
In 1990, Ferreira took over the expansion San Jose Sharks and brought Lombardi with him. Before long, Ferreira got fired and Lombardi -- after an unusual experiment in which San Jose essentially tried using three men as a collective general manager -- took over as the Sharks’ GM in 1996.
As the NHL goes, after a few years, both men were out of the general manager’s office altogether. In 2006, Ferreira did scouting work for Atlanta, and Lombardi scouted for Philadelphia. Just as in the late 1980s, Ferreira and Lombardi found themselves sitting next to each other at a game.
``Dean had interviewed with the Islanders and Boston,’’ Ferreira said. ``I knew he was going to be interviewed by L.A. We were sitting at a Ducks game. It was the middle of the second period. He writes a note and he hands it to me. It said, `Today, I was offered the L.A. Kings’ general-manager job, with a five-year contract.’ I looked at him and I said, `I hope to hell you took it.’’’
Lombardi did, and he wanted Ferreira, so when Ferreira’s contract with the Thrashers ended in Aug. 2006, he returned home -- Ferreira and his wife live in Riverside -- and joined the Kings.
``With the way you build a team, with the cap and everything, it’s certainly changing every day, but those core things that he brings, they’re still important,’’ Lombardi said. ``Now, you have to take that knowledge and apply it in a different setting than when he made his mark, but a lot is still the same, and it’s good to be reminded of that once in a while.’’
Lombardi’s attention to detail, and his tendency toward intense analysis and long-winded oratory, doesn’t exactly dovetail with Ferreira’s polite but frank bottom-line approach, but Ferreira said he appreciates the way Lombardi handles things and that he can offer a different perspective.
``That’s his training,’’ Ferreira said. ``I’m sure, as a lawyer, that you gather all the information and then you make a decision. Sometimes, I’m a little more impulsive. I just have this feeling. I know, in my mind, that something is right and that it’s what we should do. ... (Lombardi) will go through this long description and I will just say, `This is what you want.’ He will look at me and say, `Yeah, that’s it.’’’
Ferreira’s advice isn’t limited to philosophy. He will make specific recommendations to Lombardi, usually based on his scouting trips during the season. Ferreira has a good handle on which Manchester Monarchs prospects are fairing well in the American Hockey League.
``He was the guy who was banging on the table in October, saying, `Get those (bleeping) guys out here. Get (Jordan) Nolan and (Dwight) King up here,’’’ Lombardi said. ``It was, `What are you doing?’ Not only did he think the kids would make us better, but it was like a fit and a feel thing.’’
Sure enough, the arrival of King and Nolan is credited as one of the factors that helped the Kings turn things around. Few people outside the organization knew that, early in the season, Ferreira had written his projected line combinations on a piece of paper and handed it to Lombardi.
The lines included King and Nolan, neither of whom was thought to be NHL-ready. Lombardi grunted and handed the paper back to Ferreira, who kept it. More hockey instincts.
So while Ferreira’s job doesn’t include a high profile, it is fulfilling. Ferreira, who turns 68 next week, is behind the scenes -- he can often be found watching practice on the road, sitting quietly, working a crossword puzzle -- but is enjoying what Lombardi built with his guidance and assistance.
``It’s just great,’’ Ferreira said. ``When we came back from that trip overseas, we were playing Philly and I was so excited for that game, because we were going into a hockey environment. It was just a great place to play, and we won. To me, I knew we were starting to get on track. Then we got derailed a little bit. But this whole run, it’s just great. I’m just trying to sit back and enjoy it.’’