Lombardi takes elevator to the top

June, 15, 2012
6/15/12
9:40
AM PT
Dean LombardiBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesDean Lombardi is humble when it comes to the Kings' accomplishments, but he had a major hand in helping them get there.

LOS ANGELES -- What must have seemed like the longest elevator ride of his life finally came to a halt shortly before 8 p.m. Monday night.

The Los Angeles Kings had just clinched their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history, and general manager Dean Lombardi, in his sixth season at the helm, was rushing from the press box inside Staples Center to the arena floor, hoping to reach the ice in time for the Cup presentation by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"Hold on, Bettman. I've got to see this," Lombardi hollered at the elevator door, which was nearly pressed against his face.

A few seconds later, Lombardi and a handful of executives were speed-walking down the hallway and disappearing around a corner.

The 45-year wait was over.

The scene was in stark contrast to my first experience behind L.A.'s curtains, 4½ years ago.

It was just after Christmas 2007, when I was asked by a senior editor at another publication in town to cover practice the following morning. Eager to move up the chain after 14 years of mostly writing about high school sports, I enthusiastically accepted the assignment, even though I kept it to myself that I hadn’t been following the team in my spare time.

My first order of business was uncovering what the Kings had done lately. Much to my surprise, they had lost eight straight games, which remains their longest losing streak since dropping their final 11 in 2004.

Walking into the locker room the next day, it was as quiet as a college library during finals week.

Michael Cammalleri, nursing sore ribs at the time, didn't even bother to look up when asked about the progress of his injury.

Rob Blake, rumored to be heading to a playoff-bound team looking to shore up its defensive corps, said he would gladly waive his no-trade clause if approached.

Patrick O'Sullivan looked like the most sullen guy in L.A.

That was Season 2 of Lombardi's rebuilding plan, and he said everything was proceeding as planned.

Cammalleri, never one to hide his displeasure at being part of the Kings' organization, was traded on draft day in 2008 for the 12th overall pick belonging to the Anaheim Ducks. Lombardi swapped that for the 13th pick owned by the Buffalo Sabres and drafted defenseman Colten Teubert.

Teubert would be dealt 2½ years later to the Edmonton Oilers for Dustin Penner, who produced his best stretch as a member of the Kings during the Stanley Cup playoffs, scoring the series-clinching overtime goal in the Western Conference finals. Penner now has two Stanley Cup rings, while Cammalleri is still looking for his first finals appearance.

Seeking a better opportunity to win a second Cup, Blake would give up his captaincy and depart the organization in the 2008 offseason as well, opting to sign with the San Jose Sharks, the Kings' heated division rival. Despite being the fourth-longest tenured member of the Kings behind Dave Taylor (former GM), Luc Robitaille (current president of business operations) and Marcel Dionne (royal ambassador), Blake wasn't offered a job by the Kings following his retirement. Blake now works for the NHL, and the Sharks are still looking for their first finals appearance.

After scoring 22 goals the previous year, O'Sullivan made the mistake of holding out for more money before the 2008-09 season, irritating Lombardi so much that he dealt his promising young forward to Edmonton in a three-team deal that brought Justin Williams over from Carolina. Williams was one of L.A.'s best players in his second run to a Stanley Cup title. O'Sullivan, meanwhile, has played for four different teams since leaving L.A., and his once-promising career is hanging by a thread.

Rewarding loyalty has always been a trademark of Lombardi, and he is not afraid to cast off those who aren't.

He demonstrated that when he reached out to old friend Darryl Sutter after he made the painful decision to fire Terry Murray in December. Sutter steered the Kings in the right direction once he took his spot behind the bench, while Murray was kept in the loop as a scout for the Eastern Conference finals.

On the flip side, former Kings defenseman Jack Johnson was the only player who spoke publicly about his lack of faith in the team's offensive system. Johnson was dealt in late February to the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets, getting high-scoring winger Jeff Carter in his place. Carter would go on to score seven goals in the final 10 playoff games, including the winner in the Cup-clinching victory in Game 6.

When the elevator descended to the bottom floor after that historic win Monday night, Lombardi was asked to describe his feelings.

As is usually the norm, he quickly got sidetracked with his answer, simply saying, “Great bunch of guys. They deserve this.”

With that, Lombardi headed toward the ice, intent to celebrate with those who helped push the Kings to the top of the NHL.

The 45-year elevator ride was finally complete.

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