Commentary

A tale of two general managers

Rangers' Sather, Kings' Lombardi forced into spotlight because of success

Updated: June 3, 2014, 11:24 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- One thing New York's Glen Sather and Los Angeles' Dean Lombardi have in common is that the last place on earth either veteran general manager wanted to be on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals was sitting at a podium with the cameras rolling.

If each semi-recluse hockey man had his way, he would have stayed behind the scenes on Tuesday.

"I don't think we should be in the spotlight," Sather said near the end of his news conference. "This is the coach's world, the players' world. I think the managers should be in the background."

Had Lombardi been sitting next to him, it's likely he would have said, "Darn right, Slats."

Here's another common trait: Although Sather, 70, is far and away the godfather of GMs in terms of service time, Lombardi, 56, is suddenly among just a handful of current managers who have been around a while.

"It's pretty scary to look at the GM book and see myself fifth in seniority," Lombardi said at his media availability. "Glen is one of the icons in this business. He's been very helpful to me earlier in my career. It's pretty neat."

One could argue Sather needed this Cup finals berth more than Lombardi, whose Kings team is looking for a second title in three years. Over the years, Sather has taken the brunt of criticism in New York for failed free-agent signings and bloated payrolls ending with underachievement. He has been written off many a time as over the hill and washed up.

You better believe his staunchest supporters are thrilled to see him in the Cup finals for the first time as Rangers GM, with his current roster well-built and well-balanced, his decisions proven right.

"He's one of the smartest hockey people ever," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com Tuesday. The Great One's friendship with Sather was forged during the champagne-soaked glory years in Edmonton.

"Guys like Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake, Sam Pollock -- he's up there with those people," Gretzky said. "I don't know how many people would have had the guts to trade two first-round picks for a 38-year-old player [Martin St. Louis], but he's turned out to be one of their best players in these playoffs and helped them maybe win a Stanley Cup. Glen deserves all the accolades he's getting right now. He's done a great job."

Lombardi also isn't afraid to make that bold trade that can make all the difference.

"To be a good GM, you have to have the guts sometimes to make deals that not everybody agrees with," Gretzky said in regard to Lombardi, with whom he has chatted with from time to time in L.A. "'[In] the trade he made a couple of years ago to get Jeff Carter, he gave up a really good player in Jack Johnson. But it helped him win a Cup. He traded for [Marian] Gaborik this year -- he's been good the entire playoff run. He deserves a lot of credit for what's happening. He's done a marvelous job."

He's also done it in his own, unorthodox way. Lombardi is a throwback in many ways. He has tremendous respect for the history of the game and yet constantly is challenging himself and the people around him to think past traditional boundaries.

Gretzky He's one of the smartest hockey people ever. Guys like Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake, Sam Pollock -- he's up there with those people.

-- Wayne Gretzky on Rangers GM Glen Sather

For those who don't know him, he can come across as odd, a bit Rain Man-like. The mad professor.

"Unique. Just unique," said Mike Futa, the Kings vice president of hockey operations and director of player personnel, on Tuesday. "[He is] one of the hardest working, most passionate people I've ever met in the business. He has an exterior wall of mystery -- that's how maybe people perceive him -- but once you're part of Dean's family and your trust has been earned, it's a special feeling to work for the guy."

Former Boston Bruins GM Mike O'Connell, now senior advisor/development coach for the Kings, said Lombardi is incredibly thorough.

"He's not afraid to not only think outside the box but sometimes also act outside the box," O'Connell said Tuesday. "To find different ways to reach players, and not only players but also reach his staff. He understands that as well as anyone. He understands his staff, his coaches, his ownership, his players. General manager is a perfect name for the position because he manages a lot of things, and he's got the brain to do it. So he's always looking for an edge."

Lombardi is known as an avid history and war buff, and legendary are the stories of player meetings in which the Kings GM brings up historical moments to inspire his players.

"Definitely his meetings are, well, you're not going to be in there for a short period of time," Kings forward Trevor Lewis chuckled Tuesday. "At first, you never really know what he's getting at. It's a long process, but once he gets to his point, you understand what he meant. Although sometimes you come out of the meeting and you're like, 'What did we just talk about?'"

Center Mike Richards vividly recalled his first meeting with Lombardi.

"Right when I got traded, we had a few conversations on the phone, but nothing like the first time I sat down with him," he said. "It was about a two-hour meeting of a lot of different things. He's a very passionate guy about hockey. He's very detailed. He does his homework. He really cares about the players. I think that goes back to being a family and welcoming everybody. And he does a good job of it -- you can tell he cares about the players and will do anything for them."

That feeling, some might be surprised to learn, runs just as deep with the Rangers players and their GM.

"We love Glen," blueliner Dan Girardi said. "He's a great character. He's a proven winner in this league. When he talks, we listen. We love having him around, that's for sure."

He's not afraid to not only think outside the box but sometimes also act outside the box.

-- Kings senior advisor Mike O'Connell on GM Dean Lombardi

Rangers leader Brad Richards added: "I'll be honest, it's the most different type of GM I've had -- meaning he's a GM, he has all that experience and he's kind of like the grandfather of the group. Nothing really fazes him. He's been through so many things, and he's accomplished so much. If you need anything or you want to talk about anything, hockey or non-hockey, [the] stories he has. [He] keeps everybody together and happy and going in the right direction."

Richards' perception of Sather changed after playing for him.

"One thing I've learned a lot, not knowing him from the outside, he's got his players' back no matter what," Richards said. "He's always behind us, and that's great to know."

Sather's track record is well-documented after five Stanley Cups in Edmonton.

Lombardi, who began his GM career in San Jose, had to wait until 2012 to finally raise Lord Stanley's mug, and it was the product of a well-planned, patient, methodical rebuild in Los Angeles.

"I remember seven years ago talking to Brian Burke and telling him that I had been offered a [scouting] position here with Dean Lombardi," Futa said. "Burke said, 'Dean's very thorough. He knows how to build a team. Within five years, you'll be competing for a Stanley Cup.' The fifth year, we won the Cup, and he's put this team in a position to be competitive year in and year out."

Oh, but the journey through that rebuild -- those are tales that aren't all fit to be repeated.

Many of them are staged from Lombardi's garage in his Manhattan Beach home, where over the years the Kings' front office has gathered for meetings of the mind (and perhaps several cold ones as well).

"Dean may come across as the emotional, academic wizard, kind of disheveled at times," Futa said. "But I get the guy that you just want to have 10 beers with in the garage. It's sitting in his garage late at night, and he's spray-painting lineups and the difference in Roman Spartans on his white wall. Then Wandamae [Lombardi's wife] comes down and says, 'Dean, stop spray-painting on the wall.' There are layers of white paint on walls where Dean has built the future of the Kings. Wandamae has many times painted over it."

If Lombardi isn't thinking, breathing, talking hockey in the garage, he's certainly doing it at the office.

"He lives at the rink," said Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, the Kings president of business operations. "The greatest thing about Dean is how passionate he is for the game. Every once in a while -- because he's there all the time -- I'll knock on the door and say, 'Where is he?' And you just see his feet sticking up from underneath the desk because he's taken a nap. He's amazing: He's there 24-7, and he's just so passionate about the game. I give him all the credit because he talked about character eight years ago. That's all he ever talked about. And you look at the guys he's brought on and brought in, [and] that's the reason [we're at] where we're at."

Perhaps nothing better illustrates what Lombardi has built in L.A. than the camaraderie and work ethic that underlies the Kings' front office.

The word "family" is tossed around a lot.

"He's a great boss and a great friend," Futa said. "With the great leaders, you don't want to ever feel like you've let them down. You want to share that hug with him that you had after that first Cup. You want to experience that with him. That's a huge feeling when you feel that way about the guy you work for."

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