- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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NEWARK, N.J. -- When the Los Angeles Kings were struggling earlier this season, Dean Lombardi's phone rang.
It was the familiar voice of Lou Lamoriello, just checking in with some encouraging words.
"And he's done it throughout my career," the Kings GM said Tuesday. "I don't know, it's like having a godfather. He sees you're going through a little thing and, boom, here comes the call. He says, 'I'm not going to tell you what to do, but just keep believing in yourself.' It's pretty powerful stuff."
So powerful that Lombardi's eyes welled up Tuesday while discussing his relationship with Lamoriello, which began in 1996. Lombardi had just been named GM in San Jose, his first crack at the big job in the NHL, and he wanted some guidance.
"I was pretty scared," Lombardi said of that promotion to GM.
And so he reached out to the best of the best, Lamoriello just coming off a 1995 Stanley Cup title with the New Jersey Devils.
"He called and asked if he could come in," Lamoriello said Tuesday during media day, on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals. "At that time I didn't know Dean that well but a mutual friend, Jack Ferreira [now special assistant to GM with Kings], worked with him. Dean and I spent a good day together."
"I remember that day like it was yesterday," Lombardi said. "I make no bones about it. I'll never forget it."
They spoke for three hours. About an hour and half in, somebody walked into Lamoriello's office and said the team bus was leaving. The Devils GM waved him off and told him he'd drive on his own. Lombardi still had questions. And Lamoriello still had advice to give him.
"The whole time talked about infrastructure; we did not talk about players, we talked about the values you have to put in place," Lombardi said. "It was all about infrastructure and establishing a culture."
It's the same type of advice Lamoriello would give any young GM.
"Surround yourself with the best possible people you can get," said Lamoriello, a three-time Cup champion. "Try and get people that might know more than you. Don't be insecure. Respect it. Don't allow yourself to get caught up that it's you. It's the people around you. It's just like the players. The most important thing is the people around you."
Lamoriello also handed Lombardi a file.
"He said to me, 'When people are down on you and everything else, and you're starting to doubt yourself, read these quotes,'" Lombardi said. "They're quotes from people about convictions and standing by him. I've still got them."
A relationship grew from that fateful meeting.
"Because of the sincerity when he came in and the the honesty," Lamoriello said. "When things aren't going good, I talk to him. I know what that feeling is like. We all have people who try to help us, make phone calls. There's something about that."
Lombardi took a deep breath and considered the meaning of it all, the willingness of Lamoriello sharing his knowledge like that.
"There are critical moments in peoples' lives," the Kings GM said. "You say name the top five people who influenced your career; he was clearly one of them. But I think he's on a lot of peoples' lists, frankly."
Lamoriello is indeed the dean of NHL GMs, a man universally looked up to by his colleagues. And to a fellow American like Lombardi, an important pioneer in many ways as well.
"People forget, he was the first American GM," Lombardi said. "Back then that wasn't an easy thing to do. He didn't play in the league. An American coming into the game at that point, that was pretty significant. He broke ground even for those he didn't touch. He showed a guy with his background can be successful. His résumé speaks for itself. And as you know, he doesn't talk about himself. He doesn't have to."
Lamoriello chuckled Tuesday, feigning disappointment that Lombardi has shared this story with the media. It was supposed to stay between them, he said.
But Lombardi can't help it. It's a moment in his life that changed everything.
"It was pretty special. I'll never forget it," Lombardi said.
Win or lose, it's going to be an emotional hand shake when all is said and done in this Cup finals between two GMs with a special bond.
They always say the hockey world is so small. In this case, that's a good thing.