By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Dean Lombardi hasn't forgotten his mentors. He'll have to go through one to win his first Stanley Cup.
If not for the advice of steady-handed Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello in 1996 and the friendship and eventual job offer from fiery Philadelphia legend Bob Clarke in 2003, Lombardi might be somewhere back in Massachusetts, putting his Tulane University law degree toward something far more safer -- but far less rewarding -- than he is right now as the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, who are four wins away from their first Stanley Cup championship in the franchise's 45-year history.
Six years into his job in L.A., Lombardi has turned his team into a championship contender following the organizational philosophy of these two distinctly different members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Clarke has won the Stanley Cup twice, both as a player. Lamoriello is going for his fourth Stanley Cup championship as the Devils chief executive.
"Those are two special people with special franchises," Lombardi told NHL.com. "I was very lucky to have two people like that."
Lombardi's connection to Lamoriello started in the late 1980s when he went to the Minnesota North Stars to become an assistant general manager to Jack Ferreira, a Providence native who knows Lamoriello well. Lamoriello is also close with Lombardi's father-in-law, Bob Pulford, another member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
When a 39-year-old Lombardi was hired as the new general manager of the still fledgling San Jose Sharks in 1996, he turned to his fellow New Englander for advice.
Lamoriello invited Lombardi into his office in New Jersey and proceeded to unload all of his trade secrets on the young, brash, bold and quick-thinking new member of the NHL's fraternity of general managers.
"I'll never forget him taking me into his office, missing his own team bus, and putting up his organizational chart and explaining to me how an organization has to have structure if it is going to succeed," said Lombardi, now in his sixth season as the Kings' GM. "He gave me his blueprint. It was amazing. He wasn't even talking about his team, he was talking about his organization. But his point was if you're going to have a winning culture, this has to be in order. I still have the files, the quotes he gave me."
Lombardi still keeps those files in his office at the Toyota Sports Center. He still has the memory of Lamoriello telling his own public relations guy that the team bus headed for Philadelphia could leave without him because the meeting with Lombardi was too important.
Who knew that that meeting would eventually lead to them going head-to-head in the Stanley Cup Final 16 years later.
"I do remember the meeting very clearly," Lamoriello told NHL.com. "He just wanted to ask me some questions, and I enjoyed it. Whenever you can help someone out, you do it. Dean is a good friend. He wanted to know if I would share my philosophy with him, and I had no problem doing that. We spent a great deal of time talking."
Lombardi said one of the sections in the file is filled with quotes from Vince Lombardi.
"Lou said, 'Whenever you get in trouble, just take this out and read it,'" Lombardi said.
He does, though he hasn't had to in the past few months.
"That happens in life; there are always people that reach out for you and you are forever indebted to them," Lombardi said. "Hopefully I can do that for some young people down the road."
Seven years later, after Lombardi was fired late in 2002-03 for one bad season after six good ones, each better than the next, another hockey legend gave him his second wind at the age of 45.
Clarke, then the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, called Lombardi every week after he was fired to make sure he was OK, that he was getting along.
"I was at the lowest point in my life," Lombardi said. "At first when you get fired, you get calls -- but then they stop and you're all alone. This guy would call me. 'How are you doing today? How are you doing today?' I was beat up, but he picked me up and called me."
Clarke, who got to know Lombardi at the annual meetings of the general managers, just wanted to make sure Lombardi knew he had a friend.
"Every manager seems to be fired somewhere along the line, and the protocol is usually to call the guy, tell him the organization made a mistake, but within a week it's like you never existed," Clarke told NHL.com. "It can get to be a very lonely place when your whole life is hockey. I knew he was hurting, and I just called him to talk hockey because we were friends.
"Hockey was his whole life. It's not like he was just passing through. He was devastated."
The day finally came when Clarke phoned with something far more tangible than another "keep your head up" message. He had a job offer for Lombardi to come be a scout for the Flyers.
"He called and said, 'Enough pouting, it's time to get up. That's enough. You come work for me, get back to work,'" Lombardi said. "Talk about critical moments in your life."
Lombardi became the Western Conference scout for the Flyers.
"One thing is we were friends, but we had a lot of faith in his hockey judgment and we had a position for him," Clarke said. "He knew the players in the Western Conference, he loved scouting and he had to get back in the game. I knew scouting wouldn't be the end for him, but he had to get back in the game, back to being around hockey people."
Lombardi wouldn't trade his three years with the Flyers for anything. They helped him get to and appreciate where he is right now.
"It really opened my focus," he said. "It was great to go into the rinks and just have to focus on hockey. Sometimes as GM we have so much on our plate that we don't get to watch hockey like we should. Then Clarke would always bring me in every 90 days to go with the team and then sit with him.
"Sitting in his office was a great education. Every third word to come out of his mouth is 'team.' If you ever want to see venom come out of his mouth, just talk about something that is selfish. There is nothing that irritates him more than selfishness. It's pure anger."
Lombardi wouldn't say he has used the Flyers as a model for how he's built the Kings, but he has used them as an example of culture -- and why building a culture is so much more important than just building a team.
"When you have a culture, it transcends generations," Lombardi said. "It's passed on and everybody feels it."
It's no surprise that he has ex-Flyers goalie Ron Hextall as his assistant GM and that so many former Flyer players are currently starring for the Kings.
"They're the only team other than the Flyers that I like and want to see win," Clarke said of the Kings. "Dean is bright. He's intense and he's very inquisitive."
He's also four wins away from calling himself a Stanley Cup champion, just like his mentors.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl