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Q&A with Lou Lamoriello

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

Lou Lamoriello is currently in his third season as Maple Leafs GM, but he has spent the past three decades as one of the NHL's most accomplished managers. As such, the 75-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer has seen it all and carved out a place for himself in the sport's history with his unmistakeably straightforward manner and relentless work ethic. 

Lamoriello spent time earlier this week to speak to on the current state of his team, changes in the organization, the growth of the American League's Toronto Marlies, and much more. Here is an edited version of the conversation: Over the course of your career, you've managed teams at all stages of the competitive cycle; where does this Leafs franchise sit in that cycle right now?

Lou Lamoriello: Well, first of all, you're always trying to evaluate your team at different stages, whether it be 20 games, whether it be 30 games, whether it be 40. But I think that where we are right now, we're in a good state, because I think that we have improvement in a good portion of our players. And when you're in a position where we are right now with reference to the standings, the light at the end of the tunnel is a little brighter. So I think we're still trying to figure out certain things, as far as how good are we, or exactly what have we learned from the past. But in my opinion we're in a good state going forward. What's been the biggest change in the organization from the time you've arrived until today? Is it the franchise's overall depth, or something else?

Lou Lamoriello: Well, I think there's been a lot of things that have transpired. If you recall, we went through a good number of players in the first year to try and find out exactly who wanted to be a part of the programme, so to speak. And I think the veterans who are here from that initial group have certainly held their weight and have been outstanding. And with the influx of young players - whether it be players that have been developed through the Marlies, or young players that came by way of trades - and the infusion of some veterans with outstanding experience and tremendous character, I think that right now we have a group that (A) don't have to do a lot of maintenance with; and (B) we don't have to do any major construction. 

And when I say that, I have to make sure I emphasize the job that Mike Babcock and his coaching staff has been doing with this group from Day One: working with the veterans to get them to understand what is expected of them as far as the style, and also working with the young players in the second year to get them to understand not only what's expected, but to get the first group to mesh with them. Now what we're doing is seeing how good we can be. Speaking of Mike Babcock and coaching, how has that job changed in your estimation? Sometimes I think of it like the old plate-spinners on the Ed Sullivan Show - having to keep all these different things in the air while keeping your eye on the larger picture. How has the position evolved in terms of relating to different players differently?

Lou Lamoriello: I think that, no matter where you coach and no matter what you do, I think you have to treat our players the same, but you have to handle them different. And the reason you have to handle them different is it's not all their fault - the programs that they come from, and the environment that they've been in, certain things are acceptable and certain things are not, so you have to bring them along, and sometimes it takes some a little longer than others. 

But the bottom line is, once you have your structure and you have your style, then you have to hold them accountable no matter who they are. But to get them to where they become core and veterans, not everyone will become that. That's why changes take place. But it's about staying on course, and that's what Mike does extremely well. Each and every day, he doesn't allow the day before to get in the way of what has to be done on that given day. You've worked more than 30 years at the NHL level; what is the most fascinating evolution in the game in that time?

Lou Lamoriello: Well, I think if you had to use two words, I'd say "youth" and "speed". I think that in the era that we're living in, which I think sometimes gets overshadowed, the training that the players are doing is 12 months long, and no longer are they participating in several sports. But this is not only in hockey - we noticed the baseball trend this year, you saw what the Yankees have done, and I think you can go through other franchises, and that to me what you see is about youth. 

And then after that is speed. With the rules that have been brought in over the last several years allowing speed to be there - most recently with (changes to the) slashing (standard) - that's allowed the game to be a little more wide open and free. And I think that right now - and I hate to say this - but if it wasn't for the goalie pads, I think the scoring would be up quite a bit. And so now what we have to do is watch the interference, because you see a trend now of the amount of traffic in front of goalies. So I touched on a couple things, but I think if you come down to it, it's youth and speed. You've been someone recognized as a key influence in the assimilation of athletes from the former Soviet Union into the NHL. How do you feel about the international influence, and where do you see it headed in the years to come? 

Lou Lamoriello: You know, when I hear that question, I say, "is there an international part of the game?" I think it's a worldly game right now, where we're pretty much close to playing the same. If you watch the European games, you see similar styles. The only difference is the larger rinks might allow certain players to do certain things they find difficult to do when they come here, and vice versa. But you see players coming out of leagues and into our league, and doing well, so I don't see much of a difference right now. If we can talk about the Marlies, they're once again in the midst of a very good season under (GM) Kyle (Dubas) and (head coach) Sheldon (Keefe). How do you feel about the job they've been doing in your time with Toronto?

Lou Lamoriello: Oh, they've done a tremendous job there. Not only Kyle and Sheldon, but the whole support group, the whole coaching staff and the research and development group that was put together prior to me, and the sports medicine group. Toronto is very fortunate to have an ownership group that allows the necessities to get you an edge, to develop and do better. That doesn't happen everywhere. 

And the communication between Mike Babcock and Sheldon, and Kyle and myself is certainly exemplary, along with (assistant GM) Mark Hunter. And we have the right type of veterans with the Marlies to to help along the young players who come in with the adjustment period right out of junior or college or Europe. So we're very fortunate to have the type of development process we do have. When it comes to video replay, the debate continues, and I've wavered on it in recent years. I do think it can help, but ultimately, the decision on any one play is going to be made subjectively by someone along the way, and there's never a perfect solution to please everyone. What are your thoughts on video replay's place in the league?

Lou Lamoriello: Well, let's put it this way and not waste a lot of time: video is here to stay. It's not going anywhere. So how can we define it in such a way that it doesn't impede progress, doesn't slow the game down, and does the right thing for the game to get the right decisions, and yet keep the human decision process on the ice? I think the league, the general managers and everyone is working very diligently towards that, whether it be with offside, whether it be with traffic in front of the net. I think we have to be careful how far we go with it. And I think we also have to look at the rules and maybe word them a little better, so that there's more clarity on some of the things that we're expecting the officials to call. 

We need more clarity through no one's fault, it's just the way these things come about. There's always going to be these extenuating circumstances and situations that come up. That's why you have a situation book. I go back to my other past (working in baseball), and some of the greatest humour I've found is reading the baseball situation book, Because you'd never think of some of the things that come up. And that's exactly what's transpiring in our game today, and it's because of TV. It's because of replay. It's because of the microscopic analyzing of the game, frame-to-frame. It's no different then the double play, or who's safe, or is it a touchdown. This is the world we live in today. With technology, you're going to be more subject to evaluations and criticisms, so if instant replay will help minimize that, you have to have it. Brendan Shanahan has been serving as president of the team for a year longer than you've been here, but he purposefully keeps a lower profile. However, nobody probably works more closely with him than you do. Can you speak to how hard he's working behind the scenes to ensure the franchise prospers?

Lou Lamoriello: There's no question. You have to start right with Brendan as far as what has developed throughout the Marlies organization. He was brought in and all changes started with him, certainly in the right direction. He put people that he had an association with in the past, and they trusted him, and he likewise trusted them. 

I speak to Brendan on a daily basis, sometimes two or three times a day on different subjects, no matter what they might be. And he's handling each and every situation the way I think the public would love to see them handled. He's a tremendous ambassador who has a tremendous knowledge of the game, and his success as a player speaks for itself. So there's no doubt there. He's been tremendous for this organization, and he got upset in a very positive way at the draft in Buffalo when I used the term "Shanaplan", but basically, that's what it is. Mike Babcock recently made a joke in a media scrum that he's learned to navigate traffic in Toronto a little better since he's been here, and knows the final block or two before Air Canada Centre takes about a half-hour to drive through. You've spent most of your career working in the United States, so what have you learned about Toronto in three years of being in the city?

Lou Lamoriello: I've learned really not only to embrace the city, but to love the city and the passion that the people have for their game. They love the game. From A-to-Z, no matter where you go, no matter who you cross, the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's their team. They don't mind telling you what they think, and they're extremely knowledgable, in fact. Which was not a surprise. 

But I've really enjoyed my time, and as I said, the people have been outstanding. It's hockey 24/7, and what's wrong with that?

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