Lightning rarely strikes the same place twice. Especially when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup. It has been 15 seasons since the NHL has seen a repeat Stanley Cup champion; the Detroit Red Wing were the last team to turn the trick, winning their second consecutive Cup in 1998.
Since then, the NHL has crowned 11 different champions, including an assortment of seven winners over the past seven years. The current era of NHL parity stands in stark contrast to the days of yore when dynasties were practically passed off from one team to another like a silky smooth saucer pass.
The Montreal Canadiens won four straight Stanley Cups (1976-79) before passing the torch to the New York Islanders, who won four in a row (1980-83), before ceding their dynasty to the Edmonton Oilers, who then took home four-of-five Cups (1984-88).
In this day and age, however, winning the Cup in back-to-back seasons seems a monumental goal. Despite a deck stacked against a repeat, the Kings have no intention of relinquishing their throne. A return engagement with Lord Stanley’s Cup is the organization’s stated goal.
Before deciding the best way to stay at atop the hockey world, the Kings took a look at why so many teams have been unable to retain their perch.
“There are numerous reasons,” Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi says. “There are 30 teams now. The draft and the salary cap are factors. There is such a small difference between the teams. That (1976-77) Montreal team that only lost eight games (posting an NHL all-time best record of 60-8-12) was ridiculous. That team could bring its ‘C’ game and still win. It’s not like that anymore. Teams are so tight now.”
Today’s NHL comes with a salary cap that was introduced in 2005 as instrument designed to ensure competitive balance.
“What we are seeing in the NHL is similar to what you see in the NFL,” Lombardi says. “The purpose of the cap is to distribute talent. It’s the NFL model and it is designed to give everyone a chance. It’s our version of Socialism; some like it, some don’t.”
Regardless of your political preferences, the NHL’s salary cap has served its purpose. Since the cap’s introduction seven years ago, the NHL has crowned a different champion after each season. But the cap, and the equality it has created, is only part of what makes it so hard to defend a title.
“It’s such a grind,” Lombardi says of the Stanley Cup playoffs. “You play so many games in so many nights. The playoffs extend almost to the NHL Draft. It takes a physical toll. It’s a mental grind, too. It’s really hard to win the Stanley Cup.”
After witnessing his team’s historic ride through last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs, Lombardi has an even greater appreciation for the inherent challenges the Kings will face if they are to remain kings of the hill for a second season in a row.
“I had no appreciation for what players go through to win the Cup until I saw our team do it,” Lombardi says. The physical and emotional toll is so exhaustive that, “When we finally did win it, I had a feeling of nirvana and I didn’t skate a lick.”
Lombardi now knows how it is that so many teams show up to defend a title battling a post-championship hangover. An extended playoff run inevitably leads to a shortened off-season, and success can elicit complacency. But Lombardi is more interested in the teams that put all that aside and find a way to stay hungry.
“I think there is too much focus on why you can’t repeat,” Lombardi says. “I am more interested in how you can repeat.”
To find out how the do’s and don’ts of a title defense, Lombardi went to the source, interviewing scores of players, coaches and managers both from teams that repeated and those that succumbed to the dreaded hangover effect. A lifelong sports fanatic and Tulane educated attorney, Lombardi didn’t limit his research to his own sport.
Instead, Lombardi met with representatives from sports across the spectrum, looking for insight as to why some organizations have an insatiable thirst for success, while others quickly become one-hit wonders, drunk on the champagne of a single conquest.
Among the more insightful interviewees was San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, a member of four Super Bowl winning teams.
Lombardi had been an admirer of the 49ers and philosophies of football “genius” Bill Walsh while building the expansion San Jose Sharks into a Stanley Cup contender back in the ’90s. It was Lott, the former USC All-American safety, who taught Lombardi about the importance of perspective.
“Ronnie told me, ‘There is too much talk about why you can’t repeat,’” Lombardi recalls. “It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Lott’s 1982 49ers were in a situation very similar to this year’s Kings. After winning their first Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 1981 season, the 49ers began their title defense in a strike-shortened season in which each NFL team played a truncated nine-game regular season. Lott and the 49ers did not respond well, posting a 3-6 record in defense of their title while missing out on the postseason.
It’s how future 49er teams responded to that adversity that caught Lombardi’s attention.
“After that, they came back and won four Super Bowls (1985, ’89, ’90, ’95),” Lombardi says.
When someone tells Lombardi that his championship team might be too fat and happy to mount another run, he responds saying now the Kings now know how great it feels to win, they will want to do it again.
“It all depends on your perspective,” Lombardi says. “We know how great the feeling is at the end, so we can use that as motivation.”
Under Lombardi, the Kings are driven by a desire to be among the elite organizations in all of pro sports. So, while the Stanley Cup spent last summer hopping from the casinos of Las Vegas, to clubs of Los Angeles, to the backyard barbecues of the entire globe, Lombardi methodically went from championship organization to championship organization, probing some of the greatest sports minds in search of answers.
“I talked to Bill Stoneman,” Lombardi says, “who was with the Angels when they won the 2002 World Series. They came back and struggled the next year. The Patriots are a model franchise and I talked to people there. I admired the 49ers when I was building the Sharks in San Jose. I was trying to figure out Bill Walsh’s philosophy, so I met with (former 49ers director of football operations) John McVay. I talked to some people with the Yankees. This is new territory for me. I have never been here before. It’s a different challenge when you are trying to stay on top of the mountain.”
As for the Red Wings, Lombardi didn’t have to do a lot of research to understand what made them tick. As general manager of the Sharks, he competed head-to-head with those teams on the ice, at the draft table, and in the trade market. The Wings won those back-to-back Cups in 1997-98 by building a dynamic core through the draft, adding complementary players in trades, and establishing a culture of winning.
“It’s not rocket science,” Lombardi says. “They had great drafts and integrated players.”
In his quest to make Los Angeles the annual summer home of Hockey’s Holy Grail, Lombardi has talked to anyone and everyone who will listen. Along the way, he has heard the theory floated that the NHL’s four-month lockout might actually enable the Kings to circumvent the hangover that accompanies so many championship seasons.
“I thought maybe from a health standpoint, there might be something to that,” Lombardi allows. “But Kopie was hurt, so I don’t know.”
Then Lombardi put that Tulane Law School education to work and did his diligence. Precedent suggests opening a title defense in the shadow of a lockout might not be a built-in advantage after all.
“The Rangers won the Cup in ’94,” Lombardi says. “Then they came back in a lockout shortened season and went 22-23-3 and got knocked out in the second round of the playoffs by Philadelphia. So no, there is no history to suggest a lockout is good for a team coming off a Cup win.”
Lombardi, who spent much of his off-season studying the past, is now ready to move his team into the future. His organization’s goal is lofty, its target narrow, the potential payoff unique.
The 2013 Kings intend to make history by repeating it.