LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi’s Focus On Character and Leadership Is Paying Dividends
June 11, 2014 6 Comments
Indeed, leading the New York Rangers in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, 3-0 in the best-of-seven series, the Kings could win the whole enchilada as soon as tonight, when the two teams face-off in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York (5:00 PM PDT; televised on NBCSN in the United States and on CBC and RDS in Canada).
Character and leadership are usually not even a thought in anyone’s mind while watching their favorite hockey team, and especially here in the Los Angeles area, those characteristics were often scoffed at by pundits and fans alike, who believed that skill and talent were all that mattered.
In fact, in the first five years of Dean Lombardi’s tenure with the Kings, there was immediate skepticism of his emphasis on the character of a player, and that skepticism only grew as the team continued to struggle with one-and-done playoff appearances.
But now, Lombardi can go back to his first public statement when he was introduced as the Kings’ President/General Manager back on April 22, 2006, and say, “I told you so!”
Looking back, one of the very first things Lombardi stressed was the need to develop a culture.
“Building requires a vision,” he said. “Unfortunately, often times in this business, ‘vision’ is being able to see what other people can’t. But when you have a vision, you need a theme. That theme is simple. Everybody has to be on the same page. From top to bottom, from the assistant equipment manager right up to your owner, everybody must sing from the same hymn book. You go through the tough times together, but you stick together.”
“When you put it all together, then you’ve created something that will last,” he added. “You’ve created an identity of what you are, not an image of what you hope to be, and when you have that, you will have a franchise where your players—every one of them—who puts on a Kings’ jersey no matter where they go, feels ‘once a King, always a King.’”
Lombardi insisted that strong character and leadership would eventually create an environment where the players would play for each other.
“I wanted a team that was hard to play against,” Lombardi said about his time as general manager of the San Jose Sharks. “We believed that you could get by with special teams in the regular season, but the playoffs were a war, and if you didn’t have players with character who weren’t willing to go through a brick wall, you weren’t going to win in the playoffs.”
“Particularly in the era of the [salary] cap—the purpose of the cap is to distribute talent evenly,” Lombardi added. “So where do you find an edge? An edge is in your chemistry. The guys like coming to the rink. They like each other. I want to find out how many guys actually like hanging around together. If you get that, you’re going to get that five or ten percent on your competition that you’re going to need.”
Eight years later, Lombardi’s team has the character, leadership and chemistry he envisioned back in the Spring of 2006, and those characteristics are embodied in the team’s captain, Dustin Brown.
“We all know what type of player he is,” said center Jarret Stoll. “It’s pretty black and white. Hard, physical, leads by his play. He’s a big part of our team, huge part of our team. No other guy should have the ‘C’ on his jersey [for the Kings], that’s for sure. Big goals, big plays—he does it all.”
“Brownie is a great leader, a great captain,” defenseman Drew Doughty told the media in New York on June 10. “He does a lot of things both on and off the ice, especially on the ice. He works as hard as possible. He cares a lot. Great captain, great leader.”
“I think he’s done a good job being the identity this team is built around,” defenseman Matt Greene told the media in New York on June 10. “Hard, physical forwards with some skill. Very tough to play against. He was the driving force behind that. He delivers. He plays his game. He sets a tone for us. He’s forged an identity for himself and for our team.”
As Doughty indicated, Brown also leads by example off the ice—he has played a big role in setting the tone for how the players relate to each other away from the game.
“It was probably before we [started making] the playoffs [in 2010] when we had everyone come out to workout together for a few weeks,” Brown recalled. “That’s voluntarily coming out. We’re just close off the ice—it’s an extension of that.”
“It’s cliché, but when you talk about teams that are close, off the ice—part of it is that we’ve been together for years,” Brown added, “If you look back to when we traded for Stoll and Greene [on June 29, 2008], for [defenseman Lubomir] Visnovsky, since then, there’s been five or six…seven or eight of us who have been together. We’ve kind of added to that each year. It’s about this core group sticking together for many years.”
There is a clear family aspect among the players.
“Ever since I came to this team, it’s always been a team that has fun around each other, fun to go to the rink, enjoys each other’s company,” said center Mike Richards. “It’s no different to this day. We seem to be a big family.”
Over the years, many National Hockey League players have described their teams in similar fashion. But there is a difference.
“I know a lot of people say that [their teams are close, a family],” Richards noted. “I’ve been on some close teams, but this is probably the tightest-knit group that I’ve been a part of. I think it shows on the ice how hard everyone plays.”
That they care about each other and get along so well with each other is paying dividends on the ice.
“We’ve got good guys in the room,” Stoll told the media in New York on June 10. “We’ve got good people. We’ve got guys who want to play the right way—[they] aren’t selfish. There’s not one selfish guy in that room. We understand if there is a selfish guy in that room, we’ll either kick him out or he won’t play. That’s honestly the way it will work.”
“We all care about each other,” Stoll added. “There’s no cliques on our team. There’s no some guys going off here, some guys going off there. We all do things together on the ice and off the ice. We get together a lot. We all live fairly close to each other down at the beach, five, ten minutes apart. So that helps, getting together, doing things. We train together. We try to train together as much as we can in the off-season which, I think, also helps.”
Defenseman Jake Muzzin, who is in just his second full season in the NHL, shared a similar view.
“When we have an event, like a Christmas dinner, everyone is there,” he said. “Everyone wants to be there. Everyone enjoys each other. I don’t dislike one guy on this team. I love everyone, and it shows on the ice. The guys play for each other. They want to block that shot for each other. They want to take a hit [to make a play for each other]. We have a special group here.”
“There’s nothing sheltered in this room,” he added. “We’re all family. ‘C’mon over…have a meal,’ or whatever it is. For me, coming up, it was nice to feel like you belong.”
Feeling like he belonged right away may be the biggest reason veteran left wing Marian Gaborik, who was acquired at the trade deadline, was able to fit in so quickly. He now finds himself leading the NHL in playoff goal scoring (13 goals), and is a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded annually to the Most Valuable Player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“When you have a group of guys who get along really well, [for] a guy like Gaborik coming in [at the trade deadline], it’s easy to mesh him into the group because there’s no group of players over there, or a group of players [over here],” Brown noted. “There’s none of that on our team. On the road, we have a lot of time, but you’re not hanging out with the same two or three guys every time.”
“There’s no cliques on our team and that goes a long way,” Brown added. “When you have a new guy come in, he doesn’t have to go hang out with this guy, or go hang out with those guys. Just go with whomever.”
“It’s a pretty easy team to come into,” forward Jeff Carter told the media in New York on June 10. “Right from day one, the moment you walk into that room, you feel welcome. It says a lot about the type of people that Dean and the management, the coaching staff, bring in. Real character, quality people. It’s all about winning. The moment that guy walks in the room, you do whatever you can to make him feel comfortable, part of the team. You pull him along.”
To be sure, the vision and core values Lombardi expressed eight years ago are certainly shining in the spotlight now, and they could easily be the foundation for even more success in the next handful of years, and perhaps beyond that.
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