For the last three years, Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi has loaded his franchise's system with numerous first-round draft picks and other top prospects. With many of those youngsters finally blossoming into NHL-ready players, the Kings are being picked by many hockey pundits as a team ready to break out and make the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02.
But while Lombardi, a native of Ludlow, Mass., is excited about the prospect of his scouting and hard work finally coming to fruition in Los Angeles, he promised in a recent interview with NESN.com that he will never forget his roots. He said he will always remain grateful to those who helped him along his journey to becoming one of the most respected GMs in the NHL.
"I would not trade the family and friends in my hometown for 10 first-rounders," Lombardi said. "I also have a lot of people along the way that I am forever indebted to. It's a long road to the top in this business and you don't make it this far without the help and tutelage of others."
Those are strong words coming from a GM looked upon as a pioneer. See, Lombardi has made waves by utilizing the draft as the major tool in building a contender, both via his own draft picks and by trading picks and other prospects for veteran NHL players. Those players have helped hold up the fort while the younger prospects develop into NHL players.
Born in Holyoke and raised in Ludlow by a hard-working Italian-immigrant father, Lombardi first left his close-knit community to attend the University of New Haven (Conn.). It was at New Haven that his passion for hockey developed. He played four seasons for the hockey team, was captain of the Chargers his final two years and was the school's Student-Athlete of the Year in 1985.
But Lombardi's on-ice career came to an end after college as he went on to earn his law degree with honors from Tulane. Lombardi figured his hockey days were over since he wasn't going on to play at the pro level. But his passion for and knowledge of the game eventually kept him involved in an off-ice capacity.
"I remember getting out of law school and heading to interview for big firms in Boston and New York," Lombardi recalled. "Someone looked at my resume and noticed [that I had played] hockey. They asked if I was interested in representing players. They referred me to one of the biggest hockey agents at the time, Art Kaminsky. I got the job and worked with Art, learning the ins and outs of the hockey business."
Lombardi would eventually move over to the management side, becoming the assistant GM of the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, just the second agent to make the jump into management. During his time with the North Stars, Lombardi worked closely with GM Jack Ferreira, and after two years he followed Ferreira to San Jose, where he kept the same title. He was promoted to vice president and director of hockey operations in 1992.
"I remember coming from the mess there in Minnesota with the ownership situation and the team being sold," Lombardi recalled. "Some guys stayed and others went with Jack [to San Jose]. I was one of the latter because Jack had taught me so much in those two years. To go and have that opportunity to build a franchise from the ground up was a great challenge I wanted to be part of."
In 1993-94, he helped the Sharks put together the greatest single-season turnaround in NHL history. That year, the Sharks amassed 82 points and scored the franchise's first postseason berth, improving by 58 points from the prior season.
Lombardi took over as Sharks GM for the 1996-97 season and then from 1997-98 to 2001-02 led them to the playoffs five straight seasons, all while implementing his model for building long-term success for the franchise.
Lombardi stuck with the process. With him in charge, the Sharks increased their point totals in six straight seasons, becoming only the second team in NHL history to accomplish the feat. Only Hall of Fame GM Bill Torrey accomplished the same feat overseeing the New York Islanders dynasty in the 1980s.
But in 2002-03, goalie Evgeni Nabokov held out and the Sharks got off to a tough start. After seven seasons, Lombardi was relieved of his GM duties late in the year, but was quickly hired as a scout by the Philadelphia Flyers. He held that position until becoming president and GM of the Kings in April 2006.
Lombardi believed in the importance of the draft and worked hard to make his franchise younger each season while maintaining success at the NHL level. But the former process was always more important to him, and sticking to it even during his final days in San Jose has helped him over the last three years with the Kings.
"Those days have been absolutely critical to what I've been able to accomplish in L.A.," Lombardi said. "I was very fortunate to learn from some great people like Bill Torrey, Harry Sinden and my greatest influence, Lou Lamoriello. These guys and many of the GMs were great taking me aside and showing me the ropes. Cliff Fletcher was also good to me. But to me, Lou was probably the most critical to my growth."
Lombardi recalled the time Lamoriello sat him down in his office and taught him all he could.
"It was a bit intimidating when you get hired and go see Lou Lamoriello in his office," Lombardi said. "He sat with me for four hours and taught me how to set up an infrastructure to make sure people are in the right roles and to make sure you have a plan. He really guided me in the right direction when we were going through a tough time.
"A lot of people were influential, but a guy like Lamoriello, you couldn't find a better guy. Oh, and by the way, he missed his team flight to finish this lecture with me.
"His record speaks for itself. I will never forget the advice he gave me and it was all about being prepared, being focused and sticking to your guns. If you are going to do it right, you are going to be criticized. There's a lot you may be doing right that people won't see so the fans and the media, they will criticize what they see and you need to be tough and take it."
As Lombardi pointed out, the successful teams — both before the lockout and after — always had solid infrastructures.
"When GMs take over a building process, people don't understand the importance of the infrastructure. And if you look at teams like the Devils and the Red Wings, that infrastructure has been together for years. You see there has never been a circus behind the scenes; there is unity with that entire infrastructure. You need to have people in specific roles doing their jobs simultaneously.
"Without this you will never win. And that is something Lou really taught me. I am forever in debt to him. We still bounce ideas off each other, but that time … it was so amazing to be able to learn from a guy like Lou."
One of the main reasons Lombardi took the job in L.A. was the challenge of building up a franchise that has never won a Stanley Cup, much like when he helped guide the Sharks toward respectability. He made it clear in his initial interviews with the Kings that he would use his model of building from within and focusing on defense.
"I told them right from the start that I wasn't even concerned with their current roster. I was more focused on what they had in the system," Lombardi said. "I said that if I am going to work for you, I need time and patience because if we're going to do this right we need to build this back up from scratch and we need to revamp the defense position."
Lombardi has done just that, using first-round picks to select defenseman Thomas Hickey in the 2007 draft and Drew Doughty and Colten Teubert in 2008. This past season, Doughty made the NHL squad out of camp and was in the top 10 for Calder Trophy voting. Lombardi also acquired a former first-rounder, defenseman Jack Johnson, in his first full season as GM of the Kings.
This strong defensive corps — along with a plethora of solid, young forwards like captain Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Alexander Frolov — has the Kings listed as one of the best up-and-coming squads in the NHL. Not only does Lombardi have a young, NHL-ready core, but the Kings also boast a farm system of prospects, and that convinced Lombardi it was time to finally take the NHL squad to the next level. Last month the Kings acquired veteran NHL forward Ryan Smyth with the hope that his experience and leadership could help the young players make the jump.
"Last month in development camp, I looked out there and I was so proud of the team and the scouts," Lombardi said. "In three years they have all pushed themselves and the team to a place where I think this is a group that can be one of the best in the league. At least now after three years of grinding and developing, there is an energy around here that we can finally see the light [at the end of the tunnel]. There is a lot more left to do, but we are finally seeing something starting to bloom."
Lombardi was home to see his Dad in Ludlow last week and he felt as if he had come full circle.
"You can't forget where you come from and it was great to spend some quality time with him because that can get away from you in this job," he said. "But I think remembering how he brought me up and [the role of] guys like Lou throughout the journey has helped me get to where I am now."