Minutes after being named general manager of the United States for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey on Thursday, Dean Lombardi sat down with NHL.com for an exclusive question-and-answer session and shared his thoughts about the appointment and his plans for the team.
NHL.com: Your introductory speech was so powerful and rich with USA Hockey history and American history today. You stressed things like burying the ego and being a good teammate first and foremost. I'm curious where that came from for you?
Lombardi: Probably two things I have to say. I'm just so proud to be an American and have this job. Secondly, it's something that I believe in wholeheartedly. Like I said, I believe those are things that are going to be critical and the things that make this such a great game. When you have it, it is incredibly powerful. The thing is too, I don't think players, coaches, management appreciate it enough probably until we are gone, so to speak, is that you channel those emotions that I spoke about in the right direction and you are going to form bonds that last a lifetime. There is no price tag that is going to bond you to other individuals like channeling your emotions in one direction in that vein. I believe it on so many fronts. I also know when I say that, that if you do that, you are going to have bonds for life and I know I am right. Just look at the players that are retired, whether it is the NFL, baseball, hockey, and they don't talk about, "I miss the money, I miss the fame." They are always talking about how they miss the locker room: "I miss the bonds." There's your evidence, so let's stay focused on that, because in the long run that is where you are going to want to be. Plus, I guess I'm a big George Washington fan.
NHL.com: Is there a history course load in college or something?
Lombardi: No. No. It's a true fact. That is who George Washington modeled himself after, [Roman general Lucius Quinctius] Cincinnatus. If you look at a lot of [Washington]'s statues and things, his poses are based upon Cincinnatus. He's the only one that ever walked away [from power]. [Julius] Caesar and all those guys, they said, 'Hell with that; give me more.'
NHL.com: You talk a lot about that 1996 World Cup team and what they accomplished and what you would like to emulate. You have been around those guys your whole life. Is there a piece of DNA and you just say that is what they have, that is what we need?
Lombardi: I've been around those guys since they were 17. Boy, I firmly belief what I said again. Don't forget, they were the children of [the] 1980 [team]. They were in that age group where it really propelled them. [Keith] Tkachuk said that is why he wanted to play hockey after that. It's an interesting way of phrasing that and it is a good character, of DNA. The competitiveness of that group just remains with me. There was a competitiveness and a toughness to them. They weren't prepared to play underdog anymore. I remember Tkachuk at a World Junior tournament stand up to [Canada's Eric] Lindros as an 18-year-old. That was unheard of. If you watch that [World Cup] series closely or get [Paul Holmgren] talking about that series, he was on the bench (as an assistant coach), that was an absolute war. That was a man's game. That's what resonates with me, just how hard … when I say "hard," it got a little dirty, but that was just hard. I just think so many of those players had that, even the talented ones. You look at [Mike] Modano, he was an American kid that went to go play in Prince Albert and be a top player; you talk about breaking barriers. How tough do you have to be to do that instead of taking maybe a much easier route than going up to Western Canada to learn your trade? Even Brian Leetch, as good as he was, you could not intimidate him. He just kept playing. You go right down that roster, there was a mental toughness that, and I like your term, DNA, that maybe I should use that in the future, but that is what they needed to have to be such a good group.
NHL.com: Then you look closer to home to the 2014 Olympic team and the 2010 Olympic team. Do you do a lot of forensic work with those teams to try to figure out what happened and what went wrong?
Lombardi: I call it "debriefing." We started that process a couple of weeks ago, talking to some of the players, coaches, [USA Hockey's Jim Johannson]. That's the way we approach it. We are not looking to point fingers, blame people or anything else like that. We weren't satisfied, and that is the way you learn to get better. They'll do the same for me in two years and ask what we could have done better. You don't take it personally. It's all about learning the good and the bad. That is one of the things we did first, looked at what we did well, what we have to do better. We talked about the process. What's the best way to select a coach? What's the best way to make our scouting better? These have already been discussed. I use the word "debriefing" because that is what it actually is. You start saying, "Do better," and people think you are assessing blame, and that is not the case.
NHL.com: Have you had a lot of those conversations with [U.S. Olympian] Dustin Brown from your team?
Lombardi: I have had a few with him, but I have also had discussions with other players. I talked to Johnny Quick. It is certainly worthy to hear from their perspective, and that is true with my team in L.A. as well. But, in the end, it comes back to you. That's where you have to be careful. The ultimate responsibility lies in that [dressing] room. I've always said, "The players run the show, then the coaches and the management, their dream is having that team on auto-pilot because the room runs itself." That is the ultimate team. If a player has an opinion on something, yes. We could have done better, but what could you have done better? You just have to be careful because that can get into, "That's his fault," and it is a dangerous line.
NHL.com: So in that vein, when you talk about your guys and you are thinking best players and you are thinking team fit, those guys will have to have proven that they are up to keeping a team together?
Lombardi: It could be. We are preparing ourselves not to take the easy way, looking for some players that are ready to take higher roles and some guys that have higher roles but are willing to adapt lesser roles. Sure, you are going to have top players and you select those players and say, "All right, we are going with these guys as our core." So, it doesn't matter yet how they fit. You have to fit the other players around them. Now, the next group that comes in you get a little more leeway. They are all top players, but the issue of fit comes in a little bit more as well as the intangibles come in a little bit more. Now, you are hoping the guys in the core have the right intangibles, or you are not going to be successful anyway.
NHL.com: You have coaches in mind. What is going to be the overriding factor in your selection?
Lombardi: It's common sense, but until you kind of talk to people about it, it doesn't really resonate with you. People say a coach can wear on his players, they'll get sick of him. It's a common criticism. It's not really a negative in a short tournament. If he can give you the other things you might need, then the fact that he might wear on people a month or a year or two years or three years is irrelevant, so take it of the board. Now, does he bring those other things? I think one thing is you have to command instant respect. It doesn't mean you have to have 10 Stanley Cups or whatever. You certainly want someone who has a presence, someone who can give your team an identity in a hurry.