Hockey has been called the fastest game on earth. Pucks fly at upward of 100 miles per hour, players dance across the ice like bolts of lightning, and breathtaking goals are scored in the blink of an eye.
Developing players to play the world’s fastest game, however, comes painstakingly slow.
For every Drew Doughty
that makes an impact in the NHL as a teenager, there are countless others who must gain experience and maturity before they can take a place among hockey’s elite.
The process begins when a player slips on a Kings jersey at the annual NHL Entry Draft, and ends when he slips into that same jersey at STAPLES Center.
What happens in between, when a young prospect is groomed for the NHL, can make or break a player. And the organization for which he plays.
When Dean Lombardi took over as the Kings President/General Manager in 2006, he implemented a slow growth, draft-and-develop philosophy that had never before been tried by the Kings.
“I am kind of a history buff from all angles,” Lombardi said. “I remember looking at the Kings’ history when I first got here and realizing that it was 10 years before a first-round pick played for them. It was Jay Wells. You have got to try to mess up your drafts to go 10 years before your first first-round pick plays for you.”
Much of the Kings’ plight stemmed from impatience. Eager to provide a quick fix, previous managers had a tendency to lose sight of the organization’s long-term goals. Lombardi has studied enough history to know the perils of repeating it.
“They either traded the picks to Montreal, or made bad picks,” said Lombardi, who decided the organization’s course needed to be changed.
While Lombardi believes in building from within, he readily admits that developing a Stanley Cup contender is far from an exact science. But he also knew he stood a better chance of being successful if he implemented a system and stayed faithful to it.
“You are not going to hit at the draft table every time, you are going to win some, you are going lose some,” he said. “But it’s the only way I know how to build what you really want, which is be a contender year-in and year-out.”
Under Lombardi’s stewardship, draft picks are no longer traded for veterans in Los Angeles. A premium has been placed on young players who can grow into a cohesive unit together. Lombardi believes a player will show more loyalty to the organization that drafts him than he will to an outfit that trades for him.
“When a player is drafted by a team and comes up through an organization,” he said, “there is a much stronger affiliation with his team than a player who has been traded two or three times. When players start moving around, they start realizing it’s a business, as opposed to when they come up through an organization.”
Lombardi believes the allegiance a player feels toward the organization that drafted and developed him cannot be recreated. It must happen organically.
“It’s almost like a military person fighting for his country – you can’t change sides,” he said. “If you have a bunch of mercenaries, they don’t fight as hard as if they care about the colors; that’s what led to the downfall of Rome and it will lead to the downfall of your team.”
Lombardi says that, like Rome, a dynasty cannot be built in a day; that’s why he has opted for slow-growth and loyalty.
The Kings’ core players all have closets lined with silver and black gear and little else. Anze Kopitar
, Dustin Brown
, Jonathan Quick
, Jonathan Bernier
and Doughty were all drafted by the Kings; Jack Johnson has never played for another NHL team.
Together, the team’s nucleus has come of age. Both as hockey players and as people. And that makes for the kind of bond that cannot be manufactured.
“If you get a lot of guys in the same age group,” Lombardi said, “they are not only growing as hockey players and athletes but they are growing as men. We bring these kids in at a very young age and there is still a lot of that period where you can build relationships that last a lifetime. They don’t have wives and they don’t have kids, so they focus on their teammates and have fun.”
They also learn to deal with adversity, often enduring setbacks during a methodical climb to hockey’s summit. The Kings made early playoff exits in each of the past two seasons, losing to Vancouver and San Jose in the first round. But by keeping those teams largely in tact, Lombardi believes the Kings can reap the benefits of hard lessons learned in defeat.
“The bulk of most teams that have won Cups,” Lombardi said, “were in that 27-30 years of age range. They had learned through the ups and downs, had learned to come together and had learned through their failures.”
Nowhere have the Kings’ development failings been more glaring than at the goaltending position. Rogie Vachon, the club’s best goalie ever, became a King via trade. So did Kelly Hrudey, who backstopped the team on its run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. Mario Lessard was a homegrown All-Star, but lasted just six years in a Kings’ uniform.
In Quick and Bernier, it appears the Kings have finally groomed goaltenders with excellent long-term prospects.
“I would like to say I’m a genius because we never had goalies before,” Lombardi said, “but you have to look at the infrastructure.”
Nelson Emerson serves as the Kings’ director of player development while Kim Dillabaugh is in charge of developing goaltenders. But the infrastructure Lombardi speaks of exists throughout the organization, from the far reaches of the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, to its ECHL team in Ontario, Calif., to the home office in El Segundo.
Today, a goalie’s road to Los Angeles goes through Vice President/Assistant General Manager Ron Hextall and Goaltending Coach Bill Ranford. Both have Conn Smythe Trophies on their resumes and both have brought unparalleled integrity to the organization’s commitment to the position.
“When you talk about Ron Hextall, nobody has more credibility,” Lombardi said. “I don’t know how many talks he’s had with Bernier over the past four years about mental toughness. When he’s talking to you, you tend to listen because he’s been there.”
In the development process, teachable moments can come on the ice or on a bus.
“Whenever you’re dealing with kids,” Lombardi said, “there are critical learning times. It’s not always over a desk. It can be a pat on the back or a look in the eye. That’s where you really need these good people like Ron and Billy.”
The Kings’ development process is still in development.
“We have made our mistakes, like everyone else,” Lombardi said. “I’ve got enough skeletons in my closet to fill a Halloween party. Anybody who tells you they don’t have skeletons isn’t telling you the truth. But you can increase your odds when you have good people.”