Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi had the perfect icebreaker for the noticeably pro-Boston Bruins crowd that came out to celebrate the public event he hosted Thursday during his day with the Stanley Cup in his hometown of Ludlow, Mass.
"It's all about you. It's about being able to give back to so many people who did it for me. I just hope you have a great time," Lombardi said. "There's only one problem. Every Bruins jersey has to go in the back."
Lombardi would end up hosting a five-hour photo session with the Cup. For the man known by his hometown buddies as Dean-O, it was just part of giving back to the community that helped raise him.
Local hockey fans gathered to celebrate Dean Lombardi's day with the Stanley Cup in Ludlow, Massachusetts. (Photo: Tal Pinchevsky/NHL.com)
That meant starting the day by bringing the Cup to two local children's hospitals. The incredible perspective that trip provided ultimately set the tone for what would be a day dedicated to the people of Ludlow.
"There was one kid. She was in intensive care and she got up and touched [the Cup] and smiled," Lombardi told NHL.com. "I got so wired I wanted to hit somebody. Sport is about competitiveness. You see kids like that, they send us a message about being competitive. That was really neat."
From there, Lombardi was a fixture at the public event held nearby at Ludlow's Polish-American Citizens Club. Through five hours of posing for pictures and handing out hugs and handshakes, the GM made sure to spend time with the childhood friends he has known for over 40 years. They're some of his most cherished friends, a tight-knit group of one-time hockey brats whose parents, like Lombardi's, worked at the local factories and mills that once dotted Western Massachusetts.
Even decades after first lacing up the skates together, they still laugh at one another's expense, still refer to one another by nicknames like Sponge and Stevie and Eddie Looch. And when Lombardi returned to Ludlow this summer with the Stanley Cup, it was clear from the start that this was a celebration for everyone.
"He never forgot his roots," said Steve Orlik, Lombardi's longtime friend and former minor hockey teammate. "There's an electricity here right now, because it's about the people."
But when the endless crowds finally stopped filing into the public event, Lombardi and his former mates, including a group that won a national championship in 1976 with the Springfield Olympics, took time to honor two people in particular.
The first was Tony Costa, a local legend generally revered around town as the godfather of Ludlow hockey. Lombardi was just one of hundreds of young kids Costa coached in the area over decades. When kids needed a ride, he drove them to the game. When they needed equipment, he found it for them. And when Lombardi and his crew walked the Cup right up to the home of their former coach, the 92-year-old local legend was waiting ecstatically for them on his porch.
"It's hard to describe back then in the Bobby Orr era, when every kid was starting to play. He [Costa] drove the bus, collected the money, got you to the rink, coached you. Everybody knew him in this town," Lombardi said of his mentor. "[We] never forgot what he did."
After spending time with Costa, the group reconvened with the Cup to make one last visit to a friend; a valued teammate who couldn't make it to the day's festivities. That last trip was to the grave site of Gary "Zun" Ziencina, a fixture in the community who lost his battle with cancer in April 2010. Zun's concern for others always stuck with Lombardi, who has tried to impart those values on his players.
"He was the guy who taught me that happiness in life is being happy for someone else. He was so beloved in this town. He would get 10 guys together, but if somebody wasn't having a good time, he wasn't having a good time. He just loved people," Lombardi said. "In life, you say, 'If I had that car or if I just did this or met this person, my life would be complete.' Usually you're disappointed. Winning the Stanley Cup that night was [actually] better [than expected]. He totally would have loved this."