It’s a familiar refrain, as predictable as the changing of a season. Whenever an owner, general manager, or coach takes over a team, the first goal is always the same: Change the culture.
It was no different when Dean Lombardi stepped in as the Kings’ President/General Manager in 2006. Lombardi inherited a Kings team that, after finishing 10th in the Western Conference and missing out on the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, was in dire need of a makeover.
“It requires almost a cultural change, to get your staff thinking a certain way,” Lombardi said, shortly after taking over in Los Angeles. “That’s what we’re working toward.”
Lombardi was determined to create the kind of winning culture he saw in perennially contending teams in hockey-rich cities like Montreal and Philadelphia. Lombardi had worked for the Flyers as a scout before arriving in Los Angeles and had a first-hand understanding of the way a model franchise went about its business. Lombardi committed to instilling that same aura around the Kings, knowing the surest way to be successful is by being successful.
Although salaries have skyrocketed and media exposure has grown exponentially in recent years, Lombardi remains convinced that athletes have not changed. To a man, players talk about camaraderie as the thing they miss most about pro sports when they retire and Lombardi believes that inherent desire for brotherhood can be cultivated when building a team.
“It seems like society keeps on nurturing individualism at the expense of team,” Lombardi said. “There are so many influences now on young people that are anti-team. But deep down, there is no doubt in my mind that the athlete has not changed.”
As a sports fan and a history buff, Lombardi can find an inspirational success story while reading a book or watching another sport on TV.
“Tom Landry said, ‘you have to convince an athlete to do what he doesn’t want to do so he can become what he really wants to become.’ He was right. We keep throwing all these temptations out there at our athletes: money, flattery, the media, all this stuff. But, like Landry said, deep down, the athlete wants to be a winner. It’s just getting harder and harder to get to his soul,” said Lombardi.
In order for an athlete to give an organization both his heart and soul, Lombardi believes you must foster an environment where the athletes take ownership in the team. Lombardi knows that a player is more likely to put everything on the line for his teammate than he is for his boss. That’s why Lombardi brought the Kings core – players like Anze Kopitar
, Dustin Brown
, Jonathan Quick
and Drew Doughty
– together as youngsters and allowed them to mature together.
Lombardi believes that once a team begins winning, the culture of success perpetuates itself. Especially when a team learns how to win together and takes accountability for its own success.
“Once your players feel they own the team, you’ve got it,” said Lombardi, who has no trouble citing examples of teams that have instilled a winning culture from the inside out.
“The Patriots did it,” Lombardi said. “The Yankees did it.” Lombardi is convinced the Kings can do it, too. And once a team has an established culture, a talented player who might not fit the mold can be shoehorned in.
“If (Anze) Kopitar and (Drew) Doughty and (Jonathan) Quick and (Jonathan) Bernier and all these guys become the equivalent of (Derek) Jeter and (Mariano) Rivera and (Jorge) Posada and (Andy) Pettitte, you can now venture out and bring in a guy with a little less character because he is going to fit in,” said Lombardi.
Lombardi is well aware the Kings don’t have a legacy like the Yankees. But, as a student of history, he also knows that those who do not learn from it are destined to repeat it.
“I am kind of a history buff from all angles, Lombardi said. “I had done some research before I came here and I remember looking at the Kings’ history. It was 10 years before a first-round pick – Jay Wells - played for them. You have got to try to mess up your drafts to go 10 years before your first first-round pick plays for you. They either traded the picks to Montreal, or made bad picks. Then they had a little period where they drafted well, but they traded Larry Murphy. They got Wayne Gretzky and that was successful, but it had no staying power.”
Before his stint in Philadelphia, Lombardi had built the San Jose Sharks into an annual Stanley Cup contender while calling the shots in Silicon Valley from 1996-2003. But that was different. Lombardi joined the franchise that had a mere three-year history, which made things easier. There were fewer mistakes to clean up and no longtime culture of losing to erase.
“When I took over in San Jose,” Lombardi said, “it was the fourth year of that franchise. It had bottomed out, so it was very similar with (Patrick) Marleau, (Scott) Hannan and (Evgeni) Nabokov. Having been through that building process helped. Here, however, you are dealing with fans that have been waiting for 44 years, fans who have the right to be impatient. In San Jose, we were very lucky with the Russians, but then we went back and built it the traditional way. Once you have that in place, you are going to be good for a long time.”
Los Angeles, with a franchise that has been around since the NHL’s first expansion in 1967, comes with an invested fan base, and that presented Lombardi with a whole new set of challenges in his quest to create a winning culture.
“It was much more difficult here,” Lombardi said. “The people are much more knowledgeable about hockey. I think the fans are as passionate as I’ve ever seen, including the major hockey cities.”
Lombardi believes Kings’ fans are among the most loyal in all of sports.
“The fans are as much a motivating factor as anything,” Lombardi said. “It’s like my players, when you have guys that stick it out, grind it out, aren’t fair weather, they deserve it. If there is any core group of fans that deserve a winner – in any sport – our fans are right up there with the (Chicago) Cubs.”
When Gretzky was a King, he liked to say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Lombardi, too, knows establishing a culture can’t be rushed.
“It’s going to be hard,” Lombardi said. “You are not going to hit at the draft table every time. You are going to win some. You are going lose some. But that’s the only way I know how to build what we really want, which is to be a contender year-in and year-out.”