Neal Mchale The Hockey Writers
Lamoriello Brings Legacy to Toronto
For years Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils were the smart kid sitting in the back of the classroom. Tightly budgeted, yet no shortage of success–three cups, 21 playoff appearances, five cup appearances to be exact. His arrival to Toronto, made official on Thursday, July 23, moments after Lamoriello resigned from the Devils signals a multitude of things: culture change, era change and the Shero-exclusive era for New Jersey.
That era probably began a little while ago when Lamoriello named Ray Shero the GM of the Devils on May 4. The announcement, departure and now open office inside Prudential Center are finalized formalities of what seemed quite apparent, it’s a new era and transition for the organization–the same organization that Lamoriello built up from relative mediocrity and obscurity to quite possibly one of the faces of success and professionalism in the NHL for the last two and a half decades.
In his 28 years at the helm of the New Jersey Devils, Lamoriello developed a reputation as a punctual, thorough and crafty GM who rarely blinked in contract holdouts, was never afraid to make a change behind the bench or on the ice–even with just games left in the regular season and was always looking for players that made the team better–with emphasis on team.
The 15-year deal for Ilya Kovalchuk was seen as a shocker around the hockey and Devils community for the fact that Lamoriello had OK-ed the deal. It went against type. It wasn’t in support of the front of the jersey comes before the back mantra and financially it disputed all of the things that were New Jersey: defensive structured, tightly budgeted and low spotlight. And yet, Kovalchuk’s departure came as a huge loss to the Devils, not only because of the offense but because in his three-plus seasons with the New Jersey, the once shaky defensive player with some discipline issues turned into a team-oriented leader who scored, killed penalties and envisioned team success. Perhaps that is the most underrated part of the Lamoriello excellence and legacy: players buying into the system, and on multiple occasions returning for more.
It wasn’t uncommon for coaches and players to return to the organization, even if that meant making a trip to the barber before arriving to work. Lamoriello sent players packing if they questioned the team’s direction or philosophy–a notion that’s compared the Providence, R.I., native to television fictitious New Jersy boss, Tony Soprano. Lamoriello was indeed the boss, one who treated his players with respect, but demanded accountability and adherence to the plan, sometimes meaning less money and point totals. For all the frustrations of playing in New Jersey–players stayed loyal. Winning helped, unparalleled structure to anything in professional sports was another part of it. Players who worked under Lamoriello were protected and if that bothered the media–take a number. The outside noises in N.J.–contract disputes, changes in ownership, financial issues, lawsuits with Newark–it was all irrelevant. The only thing that was important was the day-to-day operations on the ice.
Lamoriello won’t be short distractions in Toronto, nor will he be heading into a media market that gets any easier. The usually secretive Lamoriello, who was known to nix deals if the press or anyone else leaked it will have a lot more hiding to do, but if Lou insulates his staff and players the same way he did in New Jersey, there’s little who doubt he can’t do the same with the Maple Leafs.
While the hire was somewhat shocking, its logic begins to make more sense. Brendan Shanahan, a 1987 draft pick of Lamoriello in New Jersey knew his team had some pain ahead–new head coach Mike Babcock knew the same. The team has struggled with its identity, with its leadership and with its ability to chase the ultimate goal. In the latest hiring the team welcomes someone with experience in developing an identity and culture as well as a pedigree of success despite having limited financial resources. The latter won’t be an issue with a strong ownership group and the richest team in the NHL. Every tool a general manager could need or want will be available, Shanahan is trusting that Lamoriello is the best person to hand over the toolbox to and build a foundation that can sustain success for a long time.
Other GM’s have emerged over the last decade and change and the smart kid in the back of the classroom has been competing with both minds he’s mentored and those who have other unique experiences in a multitude of hockey environments–some with budgets, others with relatively none. What Lamoriello brings to Toronto is experience, obviously and he’s had perhaps one of the more unique resumes of a hockey executive.
In 1987 the Devils hired Lamoriello, a former athletic director, hockey coach and math teacher from Providence College to be the team’s president. Just prior to the start of the 1987-88 season, he named himself the team’s general manager. From there he made multiple strides in building an identity to a largely comical hockey franchise: He helped break the Iron Curtain of Soviet hockey players coming to the NHL as Slava Fetisov would leave Russia (with Lamoriello’s aid) and come to the United States to play for the Devils. Years later after star player-turned Leafs president, Brendan Shanahan signed an offer sheet with the Blues, the Devils were involved in an aggressive arbitration case to settle the compensation. The end decision: Scott Stevens, the team’s captain for all three cup championships. In 1990 a goaltender named Trevor Kidd was the talk of the draft, Lamoriello traded down though, deciding instead to take a chance on Martin Brodeur–and the rest is history.
The three-year deal isn’t bringing three consecutive cups to Toronto, but for a team looking to build an environment and winning culture this is a good start. Short cuts, unearned second chances and selfish behavior won’t be tolerated and that policy will be the same for the forwards at the NHL, AHL and all levels of the organization. For the era that’s ended in New Jersey, a foundation still lingers. For Toronto, they hope they can start to build one with a crafty architect.
Sports League ManagementStart using it today