COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS: How much truth is there behind Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi’s claim that, “…it ain’t me,” when discussing his role in his team winning two Stanley Cup Championships in the last three seasons? One look at the Kings’ team culture, which extends well beyond the dressing room, and has become just as important as the talent level of the team, will provide much of the answer. Final installment of a three-part series.
EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — It didn’t take Dean Lombardi very long after his arrival in Southern California to lay out his plan for building the Los Angeles Kings into a perennial Stanley Cup contender. But what would probably surprise many, as reported in Part 2 of this series, acquiring high-end, skilled players was not at the top of the to-do list, even though that would have to happen at some point.
Instead, Lombardi stressed that his team would be built by drafting young players and taking the time to develop them—their skills and their character—in the minor leagues. He would build a team in which, as he said when he was hired on April 21, 2006, “…every one of them who puts on a Kings jersey, no matter where they go, feels ‘once a King, always a King.’”
As the Kings fought their way through the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, overcoming adversity became a common theme. Indeed, they had to claw and scratch their way back from a 3-0 series deficit in the opening round against San Jose to win that series, 4-3. They won three seven-game series in which they faced elimination, and they came back from two-goal deficits to win games time after time after time.
Kings players often pointed to the strong bonds between them as the reason they were able to overcome adversity so many times.
“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,” center Mike Richards said during media day for the 2014 Stanley Cup Final on June 11, 2014 at Staples Center. “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.”
No doubt about it.
“We all care about each other,” center Jarret Stoll said on June 11, 2014. “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.”
Even the young players see it.
“When we have an event, like a Christmas dinner, everyone is there,” defenseman Jake Muzzin said in a June 2014 interview. “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,” Muzzin 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.”
It took several years after Lombardi was hired for that team culture to develop.
“We’ve kind of created a culture here, as an organization, and now, it’s trickled down to the players, which is, ultimately, what you want,” said forward and captain Dustin Brown. “We have a certain way we do things. The best way to put it is [to look at] the evolution of the team. Four or five years ago, the coach, GM and [ownership] were trying to push us in the right direction. But now, the players are pushing each other and holding ownership to more of what we want to do, as a team.”
“A lot of it is the leadership and ownership of the team,” added Brown. “Four or five years ago—it’s progressed tremendously since then, in the sense that if you don’t want to do it our way, it’s generally the players in the room who are telling you to figure it out.”
There’s that extra five or ten percent advantage over their opponents that Lombardi spoke of when he was introduced as President/General Manager on April 21, 2006 (and as mentioned in Part 2 of this series).
“You’ll never convince me that emotion isn’t a huge part of this game, more than in any other [sport],” said Lombardi. “In hockey, you know. If you have two teams, [one is clearly better than the other], but [one] team is emotionally charged, they can close that gap in hockey more than in any other sport.”
“Unlike in baseball, where [you have] the [New York] Yankees and the Kansas City [Royals], [the Royals] could be as emotionally charged, but how much can [they] really close that gap? I’d say the same thing about basketball, to a certain degree,” added Lombardi. “But in hockey? It’s huge.”
Winning certainly helps create and strengthen the bonds between the players.
“I think the players know now, too, the advantage of winning [is that] they know how it feels, and it’s worth it,” Lombardi noted. “It’s so obvious, too. Whenever you watch NFL Films, or you read the books about the [Pittsburgh] Steelers or the [Dallas] Cowboys? What are they constantly saying? Every chapter ends the same [way]. It’s a guy standing there, not talking about the money, not talking about the fame. He’s talking about the bonds he felt with these guys that’ll last forever. So it ain’t me. It’s there.”
“Show me one great film of a guy saying, ‘it was great! All the money I made,’ and they don’t talk about the championship rings,” Lombardi continued. “I mean, they are literally in tears. Have you ever seen the Dallas Cowboys films, the ones with Charlie Watters? It’s unbelievable. I’m starting to cry. There it is folks. We’re not leading you down the wrong path when we tell you this is important and will last a lifetime. The evidence is overwhelming that this is the way it should be. That said, we’ve got all these influences that come in, but the beauty of these guys is that it’s too late. When they hug each other? Go ahead. Beat that. The only thing that’s going to come close to that is your first-born. I don’t think you’re going to get that anywhere. The only other thing is in the military, right?”
“The greatest line I’ve heard was after the Battle of Hue, when that guy stood up and said, ‘we took that thing, and we look back, it wasn’t how many Viet Cong we killed. It wasn’t that we even raised the American flag. It was that we did it together.’ Again, there’s the bonds. That’s where it comes from. Just look around you. It’s there.”
The fact that those bonds are so strong makes it easier for new players to fit in, contrary to what many might think. Cases in point: Jeff Carter in 2012 and Marian Gaborik in 2014.
“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 during an interview on June 11, 2014. “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,” Carter told the media in New York on June 10, 2014. “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.”
Those strong bonds also make it nearly impossible for a new player to adversely affect the character of the team.
“It starts with having the same people here, year after year, and having those people be the right people,” said Brown. “Four, five or six years ago, [Matt Greene] and I decided to have workouts in the summer here, and pretty much, everyone showed up. That was the start of players taking ownership of the team.”
Winning makes it difficult for any player to come in and try to do things their own way.
“When you win, it’s really hard to argue when player X comes in from, [as an example], Pittsburgh,” Brown noted. “We have a certain way of doing it, and if he doesn’t want to do it, it’ll be the players saying ‘this is how we do it, or we’ll find someone else.’”
“It starts with a handful of guys who have that mentality,” Brown added. “Then, once you add people to that mix and you win, it’s a lot easier for the other people who don’t understand what it takes or why we do things [a certain way] around here when you’ve won two out of three years. It makes it a pretty open-and-shut case for those guys.”
Brown pointed to the trade that sent defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky to the Edmonton Oilers on June 29, 2008. The deal brought two key leaders to the Kings, center Jarret Stoll and defenseman Matt Greene. They came in and gave the building of their team culture a tremendous push in the right direction.
“It started a year or so after we made the Greene-Stoll trade,” Brown explained. “I always say those two guys are a huge part of our room and what we’re about. You’ve got to have the weight in the room to tip the scales. Until you have the right guys who are willing to make a change, you can make all the changes in the front office, and the coaches. But [without] the right players in the room? That’s why some teams succeed and some teams don’t. The difference is in the players, ultimately, and getting those two guys in was a big part of our overall success.”
Stoll recalled a meeting with Lombardi shortly after he was acquired.
“I don’t know what it was like before I got here, but that was the first meeting Dean, Greener and I had here,” said Stoll. “The main word was, ‘culture.’ It has to change. There has to be a different attitude around here—that we want to win, and not just get into the playoffs, but win playoff series.”
“Work ethic was one [of the things they discussed], and it was off the ice a little bit, too,” added Stoll. “We started training together [back] then, in the off-season, down at the beach, and the first couple of summers, we had a lot of guys training. With a lot of teams, you don’t get that. Guys like to go where they’re from and to their summer homes.”
“That’s great, but when you train off the ice together, it’s another level of commitment to your teammates and getting to know them a little bit better outside of the rink. Now we do a lot of things outside the rink together. Whether it’s at home or on the road, we do a lot of team events. It’s good to get guys together. We are a big family. We all care about each other a lot and it shows in how we play, it shows off the ice.”
As mentioned earalier, it took a few years after Lombardi took over for that culture to develop.
“It takes time,” said Brown. “I can’t sit here and say that we understood, as players, when he first got here. We didn’t. But what we’ve gone through and what we’ve been able to accomplish helps solidify that belief system and that culture. When you’ve won, when rookies come up, or when new guys come into the organization, it’s ‘fall in line, or you’ll be passed over.’”
Stoll echoed Brown’s remarks.
“We’ve got good guys in the room,” Stoll told the media in New York on June 10, 2014. “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.”
“Everybody who comes in to be a part of this group understands that, and if they don’t understand that, they’re not going to be around,” Stoll added in an interview on September 21, 2014. “It comes from management, down to the coaches, and down to us players.”
Years ago, Lombardi talked about the players taking ownership of the team, as part of the team culture. As this story indicates, the players now dictate how things go in the dressing room—the team culture emanates from them and pushes its way into the hearts and minds of every player, not just the captain and alternate captains.
“There’s a lot [of voices in the dressing room],” said Stoll. “Nobody’s afraid to say or do, or speak their opinion, and say what they feel, whether it’s positive or negative. I think you need that on any team that’s successful.”
“That’s important,” added Stoll. “We have ten [leaders], at least. Maybe more. Some of these young guys like [Drew] Doughty—he’s coming into his own with that. He really is. I can see [Alec] Martinez and Muzzin, guys like that, take that next step, too. I’m sure they will.”
Just what the doctor ordered.
“I think, collectively, there’s so many leaders in different ways in there,” said Lombardi. “How do you find Justin Williams rising to the occasion? Is that a form of leadership? You talk about an older guy like Robyn Regher fighting [San Jose Sharks forward/defenseman] Brent Burns at a critical moment in that series. That’s a form of leadership. Jarret Stoll—you see this guy, the way he comes in, so you go right down the line.”
“The thing that’s interesting is that you’re starting to see some allies in [Anze] Kopitar and Doughty.” added Lombardi. “Kopitar’s growth has been huge, and now you’re even starting to see Drew, which most people would’ve thought, ‘uh uh.’ That’s the way Drew was. But when you see that Chicago series and how wired he was falling off the bench, that’s pure emotion. That ain’t fake. That’s a guy [who’s] committed to the team. That’s the thing, too, when I talk about Gaborik, getting him into the fabric—Carter and Richards take that upon themselves. When [Tyler] Toffoli and [Tanner] Pearson come in, Brown embraces Toffoli and tells him, ‘here’s what you’ve got to do.’”
“I think that’s always been the mark of really good teams. It’s hard to single out one guy a lot of times. Even Bobby Clarke will tell you that about those great Flyers teams. Clearly, he was the focal point, but he’d be the first to admit the impact of [Ed] Van Impe, [Joe] Watson, and those guys. It’s not a cliché to say that you’ve got a lot of leaders in there.”
Although the Kings have several leaders in their dressing room, there is no disputing who leads the way for everyone.
“We all know what type of player [Brown] is,” said 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.”
Brown’s leadership qualities were coveted so much that despite being in the midst of what may have been his poorest regular season in the National Hockey League, USA Hockey selected him to represent the United States at the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Brown was, for all intents and purposes, guaranteed a spot on Team USA’s roster, regardless of his play.
“Brownie is a great leader, a great captain,” Doughty told the media in New York on June 10, 2014. “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,” Greene told the media in New York on June 10, 2014. “Hard, physical forward 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.”
In looking at how much truth there is behind Lombardi’s claim that, “…it ain’t me,” yours truly reported that he’s right. It is not about him. As players like Brown and Stoll indicated in this story, the players now have a strong sense of ownership, and they are the ones dictating what happens off the ice.
Nevertheless, as this series has shown, Lombardi laid out a plan to build the Kings into a perennial Stanley Cup contender that has been unbelievably successful, and he exerted the necessary influence to get his players to buy into his plan and build the team culture that is so apparent today. That culture is so strong that the players own it. They are in control of the dressing room, not Lombardi. As such, Lombardi was right when he said, “…it ain’t me,” as the players now handle the leadership responsibilities on their own—they are now the ones building and strengthening the team culture.
However, at one time, as Brown and Stoll indicated, it really was all about Lombardi after he took over as President/General Manager, and it was about him for a few years, as he worked to get his players to buy into his plan, especially the team culture.
In other words, don’t be fooled. Although Lombardi’s “…it ain’t me” comment is true, this is mostly him being modest, deflecting credit, as the team’s culture dictates. To be sure, it was about him just a few years ago. In fact, even with the players now being the ones responsible for maintaining the team’s culture, from top to bottom, Lombardi’s fingerprints are all over every aspect of the Kings’ recent success. The fact that not one part of Lombardi’s plan, aside from drafting, was present prior to his arrival in Los Angeles shines an even brighter spotlight on Lombardi and his plans.
In other words, it may not be about him now, but that is by his own design. Lombardi is, quite obviously, the architect of the Kings’ recent success.
Dean Lombardi Series, September 2014
- A Look Back At Dean Lombardi’s Plan To Build The LA Kings Into A Perennial Stanley Cup Contender
- Dean Lombardi Says “It Ain’t Me.” But How Much Credit Does LA Kings GM Really Deserve For His Team’s Success?
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Great article, Gann. One minor point, though: besides the Taylor & Lombardi eras, the Kings also got religion about keeping all of their draft picks from 1984-88 (the first half of Rogie Vachon’s GM tenure). Of course they abandoned that when they acquired a 27-y.o. Gretzky and had to surround him with good veteran talent immediately to take advantage of his finite window of remaining eliteness (that kind of ran out after 1994), but the franchise did at least recognize the reason for their 1967-1984 mediocrity and tried to remedy it.
The fact that they abandoned it when they acquired Gretzky supports what I wrote, and what Lombardi said: they never actually rebuilt the team from the ground up until Lombardi took over. The fact that the Kings didn’t have a first round pick play for them until Jay Wells in 1979 also supports that.
That 4-year period you mentioned turned out to be nothing, when you think about it. Turned out to be lip service, which was par for the course for the Kings when it came to drafting and development, at the time.