As the Maple Leafs prepared to take on the New Jersey Devils Tuesday at Air Canada Centre – the first game for GM Lou Lamoriello against the team he was synonymous with for decades – some of his current players and employees reflected on what it’s like to play for him now. And they’ll tell you not to believe everything you may have heard about the living legend.
“You kind of hear all these stories of Lou-run teams, almost like it’s military style, essentially,” said veteran forward Daniel Winnik. “I don’t think it’s been like that. It’s been very nice. We have our team rules, just like any other team, and I don’t think it’s run more strictly than other teams I’ve been on.”
“It’s night and day, because all the things I’ve heard about him aren’t true,” head coach Mike Babcock said of Lamoriello, who won three Stanley Cups in New Jersey over the span of some three decades running the team. “He’s just a great man, a good hockey man, he cares about people, cares about your family, and does everything he can to make you better. He’s been excellent to say the least, and I’ve enjoyed him a lot.
“As a GM that you’re coaching against, I got to know him best in the ’03 Cup Finals, just because you see the kind of program he’s built, and obviously built a real good program there. He’s just like me – he decided to take a change, and he’s brought a lot to the table, and obviously we’re going to see that over time.”
The Devils have surprised many this season who didn’t expect much from what looked like a patchwork roster. But their 14-10-3 record is a testament to the culture Lamoriello established there, and although his full attention is devoted to the Leafs these days, that association with New Jersey will always exist to some degree.
“It’s strange seeing anyone that’s been with an organization that long in a different uniform or in a different light,” said Leafs defenseman Matt Hunwick. “I know his track record in terms of all the success he had there, and it was obviously a good hire for us in getting him here.”
The Leafs are back on the winning track after handily beating the St. Louis Blues 4-1 Saturday, and with one-third of the regular season now complete, they’re turning their focus to the Devils. However, once that’s done, they’ll be able to enjoy a rare seven days off before playing again Dec. 15 against Tampa Bay. For some players who are a little banged-up, the respite represents an early Christmas present, but the team’s veterans understand the schedule giveth and taketh away at different points in the year, and they can’t look too far ahead in this business.
“You get a week to recover, and then we’re back and we play it’s five games in seven days after that,” Hunwick said, “but it’s nice to have a little bit of a rest before the sprint before Christmas.”
“I think the biggest part of midseason letdowns is everyone’s kind of looking forward towards the breaks,” added Winnik. “We’ll have a Christmas break and it’s two weeks until then, and when you get the lulls it’s because guys might be looking too far forward. It sounds cliché, but you’ve got to do it a day at a time.”
For now, though, the Devils are squarely in the Leafs’ crosshairs, and although the soft-spoken Lamoriello likely won’t admit to this game being different than any other, Babcock believes the first game against your old employer always is important.
“No different than when I played Detroit for the first time,” Babcock said. “When you play your old club for the first time, you want your team to play well and you want to be proud of them. So it’ll be no different for him tomorrow.”