Dean Lombardi has previously discussed the process and challenge of removing the emotional quotient from decision-making, but when he addressed the Hockey Fest crowd at Toyota Sports Center on Sunday, his voice quivered as he revealed the approach Kings owner Philip Anschutz has taken towards the direction and operation of the team.
Anschutz is, as Lombardi anecdotally but revealingly noted, someone who stands in lines at Staples Center concession stands to pay for his own hot dogs.
And with Lombardi earning due praise for his executive contributions towards the establishment of the Kings as a model National Hockey League franchise, it seemed to fit in line with the club’s ethos that he not take an undue amount of credit for the team’s success.
“I really believe – there’s no question – that this is one of the tightest groups that I’ve ever been exposed to,” Lombardi said. “Nobody puts themselves above the team, and it starts not with me, [but] right at the top.”
As for the more tangible representations of the team’s commitment to raising standards and practices, the Kings are nearly finished with a thorough overhaul to hockey operations and team areas at Toyota Sports Center, the El Segundo-based practice facility in which they split space with the Lakers.
Among the new features in the facility that opened in the spring of 2000 are a new players lounge, a more consolidated center of hockey operations and public relations offices, and a new training area with a retractable roof that allows players to work out outdoors during the vast majority of days in which there is comfortable Southern California weather.
“When I came here, I said, ‘This weight room is a joke.’” Lombardi recalled of his early days in his tenure as general manager about Anschutz’s commitment towards building the team’s success and competitive comfort.
“Two, I want money for development,” Lombardi continued. ” I said, ‘I don’t really care how much you spend on the payroll right now,’ and he was kind of shocked at that. I said, ‘It’s not about the payroll. You’ve got to invest in player development and drafting, and that’s where you’re short here.’ And, he said, ‘OK,’ and he stuck with it. And then, like I said, whether it’s the plane, whether it’s the way he takes care of the wives when we’re in the playoffs, [he says,] ‘What do you need to be the best here?’ Well, let’s…get the sunlight in [the weight room]. And what I love about him? The players see it that this guy comes in, he’s a real pro, he’s got an unbelievable presence. The last thing he wants is it to be about him, and it starts there.”
According to Lombardi, Anschutz’s conduct and management style is one in lockstep with other players, coaches and executives who exude a selfless attitude.
“It’s kind of like Clint Eastwood. That’s what he reminds me of,” Lombardi said. “He sits there, he’s got a cigar and his cowboy boots, and he’s taking it in, and then he’ll ask you a question, like whoa. And, he’ll remember what you said three years ago. But I love that. Like I said, when he comes in, I hear he stands in lines for his hot dogs. And the players know that. So, you know what? This guy could buy you a hundred times over, and look at the way he’s conducting himself. So don’t get too full of yourself when you see your owner acting like that.”
It is an attitude that filters down through the chain, from ownership to hockey executives and the coaches on down to the players.
“I think you all know, I think that’s one of the reasons why Darryl can push ‘em, because he cares about [them]. They know it’s not about him,” Lombardi said. “I mean, does anybody ever get the impression with Darryl that it’s about him? I mean, really. I think a lot of that comes from his contentment with himself that you know what? ‘I do this because I love it, but when it’s all over, I’m going to that farm.’ And if you’ve ever stood on the hill with his truck and calling those wild horses up to his truck, you pretty much get to know that fame and fortune ain’t as good as this.
“So, just say we had all of this, Anschutz is great, Dean’s great, but if you had a coach down here that didn’t buy into that philosophy and it was about ‘me, me, me,’…If you had that down there, it doesn’t matter what me and Anschutz think.”
The Kings, though they will now face the not-really-dreaded challenge of attempting to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the grind and marathon of the parity-rich NHL, understand that success begets success. Any tangible improvements to the practice facility, or team travel, or the way players’ families are treated, will be matched by the more intangible aspects of championship experience.
“I think the players know now too the advantage of winning now, because they know how it feels and it’s worth it. It’s so obvious, too. Whenever you watch NFL Films…or you read the books about the Steelers and the Cowboys, what are they constantly saying? Every chapter ends the same. A guy standing up there, not talking about the money, not talking about the fame, he’s talking about the bonds he felt with these guys that last forever. So it ain’t me. It’s there. Show me one great film of a guy saying, ‘Well, you know what? It was great, all the money I made,’ and they don’t talk about the championship rings. I mean, they are literally in tears. Have you ever seen the Dallas Cowboys ones when Charlie Waters is up there? It’s un…believable. I mean, I’m starting to cry. It’s unbelievable. So there it is, folks. So we’re not leading you down the wrong path when we tell you this is important and it lasts a lifetime.”
“The beauty of these guys, when they hug each other? Go ahead. Beat that. The only thing that’s going to come close to that is your firstborn.”