Five Questions: Lombardi talks Cup win and beyond
NHL.com periodically will be doing a series called "Five Questions With ...," a Q&A with some of the key movers and shakers in the game today, aimed at gaining some insight into their lives and careers.
This edition features Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi:
Winning the Stanley Cup certainly hasn't mellowed Dean Lombardi.
For nearly 45 minutes Tuesday afternoon, Lombardi, who was asked only five questions during the entire interview, discussed with passion various topics. He barely took time to catch his breath.
He talked about his research into the histories of how teams fare in the season after they win a championship. Lombardi discussed his hands-off approach with Kings coach Darryl Sutter, his own emotions both before and during games, what he perceives to be the hardest part about being a general manager in the NHL today, and what he's learned from his father-in-law, Hall of Fame player and coach Bob Pulford.
Lombardi, always talkative and never lacking an analogy, compared Sutter to Stonewall Jackson, the Kings of today to the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, and, on several occasions, reaffirmed his belief in what he learned from Lou Lamoriello and Bobby Clarke when he was a young general manager.
Here are Five Questions With ... Dean Lombardi:
Has winning the Stanley Cup changed you at all?
"I guess I'm trying to think here how it would change me.
"A lot of times you go through life and say, 'Well if I could ever meet this rock star or have this car I'd be totally happy,' but it's ironic that 99 times out of 100 when you realize that or meet this person it's disappointing, it never meets your standard because your standard is so high. How many times do you see that in life, where it's great but it's never as great as you thought? But winning the Cup, that night was better than I had imagined. And my day with the Cup was better than I had imagined. That doesn't happen too often.
"But I don't think I'm going to change, because it didn't take long to move to the next challenge. This is new turf to me. I built a team from scratch in San Jose and essentially took over a rebuilding project in L.A. and finally got there. That said, it's not only to win it once, it's those franchises that grow over time. The Patriots have it now. The Yankees have always had it. The Red Wings. Those are the franchises that transcend time. The time with those players right after, I will never forget and nothing will ever surpass that. Once that [dressing-room] door opened, it was over.
"You want to be looked at as one of those great teams, so it didn't take long for me to have my PR guys research over the last 20 years what teams did after they won their first championship. Then when I saw the history of it, it was really ironic. I talked to a number of people on those teams going back to the '80s, what happened the year after, what did you do right and what did you do wrong. You always hear it's hard to repeat, you can't repeat. Everybody talks about why you can't do it. I found it interesting in talking to some of these people. John McVay, the GM of the 49ers in the '80s, said you've got to start looking at why you can do it.
"I went back and read the book 'Team of the Decade' [about the 49ers' dynasty in the 1980s]. If you look at their first championship, it's unbelievable the parallels to our team. Their best players were young in Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Roger Craig. The next year there was a strike-shortened season, they're 3-6, out of the playoffs, and then they rebounded and became team of the decade. John McVay put me in touch with Ronnie Lott. He talked to me for two hours about what they did wrong that strike-shortened season. His insight was off the charts.
"Digging into this is new turf for me. When you're driven to work it's one thing, but now that you're in new territory it can be frightening or stimulating. Once you think you have all the answers, then you're an idiot. No man is a fool until he stops asking questions, and there was a load of questions I asked. I found what these men have done and found I'm a long way to go before I figure this out. I already filled a notebook."
As the GM, how much say do you like to have or want to have with the coaching staff regarding on-ice strategy and how players may be used?
"Say in the actual use of it, to me, is just a suggestion. You have to have that guy in the field who you totally trust when you send them out there. You devise the grand plan, but once that guy rides off you have to totally trust him in terms of the way he uses his men. I think overall you have to be on the same page with your coach on what you believe in and what wins in this League, and once you agree on that then the players have to fit within that mold. But you still want to stay within a concept of an identity that you and your coach agree in.
"To get into playing this guy 10 minutes or 15 minutes, now you're usurping your guy in the field, and if your players see that then they're not going to believe in the leadership. Look at Terry Murray and Darryl Sutter -- these are two guys with big-time conviction, and that is something you need in your coach. When you go protect your flanks or cannons, he has to make that decision. Darryl reminds me of Stonewall Jackson."
What do you do to keep your emotions in check when you watch the Kings play?
"I'm actually better once the game starts than prior to, but you know what? That is something -- the ability to stay on an even keel -- that you're constantly learning. I think that's critical. You look at the guys who I was close to when I started out in Lou Lamoriello and Bobby Clarke, their ability to remain on that even keel, that's something I have to keep getting better at. I've come a long way -- but let's face it, this is an emotional game and my emotion can be my biggest asset like you want in your players, but it's a process. I think I've learned that.
"Your job is not to get emotional like a fan. Your job is to evaluate and critique what is going on out there so you can make your adjustments. A GM has to see the big picture, and if you're not emotionally stable at that time you're not doing your job. Everyone is very emotional, and you have to be the one in the middle so you can do your job and not make an emotional decision. That's a tough thing to do these days given all the things around the GM."
What have you found to be the hardest part of your job?
"Nowadays? Oh boy. Let me say it in a nice way: When I started in this job it was similar to San Jose -- build through the draft, take a step at a time, the learning curve does not go straight up. We're going to get younger every year, and generally when you get younger there will be pitfalls, but stay with it and if you believe in the character of your players you'll get there. You lay out the diagram of your team and put it out there for your owner, but there are going to be some swings.
"So I would say the hardest part of the job, particularly when you're building, the way we had to do it, is keeping everybody on the same page. This was Lamoriello's huge thing. There is a plan in place, and I don't care if you're building a business, conducting a war or building a hockey team, that plan is going to have ups and downs and it's going to waver, but it's not going to require you to change course. If you do change course you're going to fail, and that's why franchises go a long time without winning anything.
"Keeping everybody on the same page and getting those sectors -- amateurs, pros, development, minors and Europe -- to play within their roles, integrate and stay on board with the overall philosophy. That goes from your owner right down to the guy who sweeps the locker room. I think that's the hardest thing for a GM today."
Since your father-in-law is Bob Pulford, the Hall of Fame player and coach, we have to ask what are the conversations like when you guys talk about the game?
"There is always one line that resonates, Pully's line is, 'Well, one thing you have to remember about this job is when you're a GM, you've got the one job everybody in the world thinks he can do.' I have always thought about that, and there is very little respect for what GMs have to do on a day-to-day basis. The perception is all we do is sit around and talk about trades and if we're not making trades we're not doing anything. But the job is every bit as analytical as being a lawyer and it has a skill set, it's a profession. There are no radio call-in shows for the lawyer who messed up and didn't object at the right time. Pully is dead on. There is very little appreciation for what we do.
"My father-in-law told me this too, 'Whenever you start thinking you're smart, just remember that a GM is only as good as your players. Don't you ever think you're out there winning games.' It's about character, hard work, and it's about your players."
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