TORONTO - Five or six days a week, New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra would work out at the New Jersey Devils' practice facility and chat up former general manager Lou Lamoriello and his players.
Lamoriello remembered his close friend, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, as a fan and a student of the game, someone who appreciated and enjoyed hockey almost as much as baseball.
"He was extremely smart with reference to knowing the details of games," Lamoriello, now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "When he watched a hockey game, he could talk about the details or talk about mistakes just like he could talk about pitches and if you're watching a baseball game with him, which I enjoyed quite a bit, he'd talk about pitch locations. He looked at it in detail.
"I think what you gain from him is that no matter what success you have, you have to love the game. And he loved it right to the end."
The Hall of Fame catcher was a hockey fan dating back to his roots in St. Louis, Lamoriello said. The St. Louis Eagles played one NHL season in 1934-35.
The Devils were Berra's team because he coached for the Houston Astros, who were owned by Dr. John McMullen, the businessman who bought the Colorado Rockies and moved them to New Jersey in the 1980s. Berra also lived in Montclair, N.J., near the Devils' practice facility.
Lamoriello recalled crossing paths with Berra in the early morning just about every day, having a cup of coffee with him and talking sports. They became friends and stayed in touch for decades, and Lamoriello said he saw Berra a few weeks ago.
"We spent a lot of time together," said Lamoriello. "I just enjoyed listening to his baseball stories and some of his experiences with some great players."
Lamoriello remembers Berra talking to star players like goaltender Martin Brodeur and defenceman Scott Stevens and the Devils' role players and knowing about how they played.
"He never spoke down to anyone, spoke with you, knew what you did the night before if a player had a good night he would say it, he would know exactly what you did," Lamoriello said. "He was very fond of the Devils and the way things were and really enjoyed our success because really he was a part of it."
Berra wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 2003 after the Devils' third Stanley Cup in nine seasons, praising the franchise's success, defending the team against critics and comparing the organization to the Yankees. He wrote that more people should appreciate the Devils, who get "criticized just for being good."
Lamoriello was singled out in the piece.
"He knows what it takes to build a team and keep it running strong, a lot like the way our old Yankees general manager George Weiss did," Berra wrote. "They both put a lot into scouting, instruction and the farm system. Weiss got young guys to come up the Yankee way and traded them for older veterans to fit in. The Devils do it the same way."
Lamoriello, who became a minority owner of the Yankees, said Berra knew what it took to win in sports and appreciated the Devils for that. Bringing the conversation back to hockey, he compared Berra to legendary Leafs goaltender Johnny Bower as a pillar of the community who's respected by players past and present.
Longtime defenceman Ken Daneyko was one of those hockey players who knew Berra and was in awe of his presence.
"Imagine as a young kid, getting to walk in the @NHLDevils locker room and seeing the Legendary Yogi working out every morning!" Daneyko said on Twitter, calling the memories "priceless."
As for Berra's infamous "Yogi-isms," there are too many for Lamoriello to name a favourite.
"All of his one-liners that are out there, some (are) exaggerated, some not, some real," said Lamoriello, who will attend Berra's memorial service. "When you read them, you get a kick out of all of them. They bring smiles to you and they're going to do that for years because he was just so genuine."
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