One of the biggest things I’ve learned about Lou Lamoriello over the years is that there’s always a method to his madness. It’s not always apparent at the time, but it all makes sense once you see the big picture.
When former Devils owner John McMullen brought Lou to New Jersey in 1987 to run the team, I don’t think anyone really knew who he was. Here was this greenhorn in his 40s, who had never even played in the NHL, coming from Providence College — where he was very respected, but not necessarily a known commodity in NHL circles. But great people have a way of finding great people, even in unlikely places. That’s what John did when he trusted Lou with his franchise.
Turning around the Devils was a big job. Wayne Gretzky described us as a Mickey Mouse organization in the mid-1980s. We weren’t a great hockey team. Between ’83 and ’87 we drafted some solid players, so there was a good young nucleus. Still, we had no idea how to win.
But Lou had some ideas.
Right away he had a vision of not only the type of hockey we needed to play, but also the type of men we needed to be in order to play it. During that first year, some of his focus was making sure we didn’t get pushed around anymore. He wanted to make us tougher. Remember, this was during the late ‘80s — when Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies and Boston’s Big Bad Bruins were terrorizing the league.
I’ve never told anyone this story until now, but during the second game of Lou’s tenure, we were playing in Toronto, and they were really giving it to us. One of Lou’s biggest frustrations with the team he inherited wasn’t just that we weren’t all that good, but that we’d get beat up and pushed around too much. In general, we didn’t carry ourselves in a way that demanded respect. At some point during the game against the Leafs, Claude Loiselle received an elbow to the head by Wendel Clark, a talented young player who was tough as nails. It looked bad, and Claude was woozy coming to bench.
After seeing that, I hopped over the boards for my shift and challenged Wendel to a fight at center ice. I don’t remember who won it, but I’m going to safely assume I took a few good shots.
We ended up losing the game, but afterwards Lou came up to me and stuck his hand out to shake mine, and I noticed he was gripping a couple of $100 bills. My eyes kind of widened and I looked at him seriously and said, “What’s this for?”
He goes, “I like what you did tonight. You stuck up for a teammate. Now take this and get yourself something nice.” I said, “That’s not necessary. This is my job.” Then Lou got a little hot, looked me in my eye and said (minus the expletives), “I want this team to understand that we’re in this together, thick and thin, on and off the ice. Read between the lines!”
I don’t remember every detail of my career, but I’ll never forget that moment. From that instant, I knew we got a guy in charge who was going to be tough, fearless and loyal as hell to his players. It really was all about winning. I was so young that it didn’t fully register with me at the time, but once I retired and got to reflect on everything, I realized that what Lou was doing in that moment was changing the culture and the direction of the entire organization. Now, he never did that again with anybody — and he didn’t need to, because we had salaries — but I knew we’d be a team to be reckoned with. It’s no coincidence that in that first year under Lou, we came out of nowhere to make it to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals.
You frequently hear about once-in-a-generation prospects — players that come around once every 10 or 20 years — like Gretzky, Crosby, and now, Connor McDavid. Well, Lou is a once-in-a-generation hockey mind. And in many ways he is an anomaly in this industry. While most general managers are pincushions for the fans and media, Lou has engendered a respect and admiration that you simply don’t see that often in any sport.
In 1987, Brendan Shanahan became Lou’s first pick as general manager of the Devils. He was the guy Lou pegged to get the franchise back on track. Now, 28 years later, Brendan has pegged Lou to perform the same task for the Toronto Maple Leafs. You look back and things seem to come full circle, don’t they? Like I said, great people find great people.
Lou has a distinct presence about him that’s very rare. When he first came into the room, even when we didn’t really know who he was, the whole team dialed in because he just commanded instant respect. I don’t think that’s a quality you can teach.
Now, that doesn’t mean the team was always on its best behavior. I, myself, was a pretty crazy and rambunctious kid during my early years in the league. Lou would cause a lot of guys to bury their tails between their legs out of fear — and rightfully so — but I had a tendency at times to bark right back. Let me tell you, we had some wars in his office with all kinds of yelling, cussing and chair throwing. He’d always try to get me in line by threatening to trade me to cold places. But deep down, I think he respected those fights because he knew how much I cared. Even though I was stubborn about it, I’ll always be grateful to Lou because he recognized and respected the kind of player I was before I even did.
A couple of years into Lou’s tenure, Bruce Driver got injured, so I took over his spot on the power play. I had some good scoring success on the second power-play line, picking up four points in only four games. I was feeling pretty good about myself, but then Bruce came back, and suddenly I wasn’t getting any more time on the power play. Lou always had his pulse on everything going on in the locker room, so he saw me moping around at practice, slumping my head when I got off the team bus and generally just being kind of a downer.
So one day Lou calls me into his office and says, “I can see you aren’t happy right now, so let’s have a talk.” I was honest with him and said that I thought I’d played well on the power play and didn’t know why I’d got taken off it. And Lou, in his matter of fact way, goes, “Well yeah, Bruce came back.” I didn’t say anything, and he continued, “Let me tell you something. I like my team being like an orchestra. In order to make beautiful music, you need violinists, pianists, and you need drummers as well.” Then he paused. “What category do you think you fall in there?” At this point, I know I was pissed because I was in my 20s and thought I was more than capable of having a bigger scoring role. But even though I was turning red, he looked right at me and asked, “Where do you think you fall in there?” And I growled, “Drummer.” “Exactly,” he said. “If you wanna be a violinist, I will find another team that needs a violinist. Hell, I’ll call every other team in the NHL and see if they need a violinist, if that’s what you want. But for us to make good music, I need you to be a drummer and play your role here.”
I tried to storm out of that room, but as I was leaving, he said, “Do you wanna play five years or you wanna play 15 years? I’m telling you right now, you’re gonna play 15 years if you master that drumming.”
We laughed a lot about the story after I retired. He’ll tell me, “Kenny, you played 20 years just to prove me wrong!” As pissed and stubborn as I was at that age, I was smart enough to take his point to heart on that day. I didn’t make my career scoring fancy goals or notching assists on the power play. No, I played 1,283 with the Devils because Lou Lamoriello encouraged me to protect teammates, play in the corners, fight in the trenches, block shots and generally do all the little things that other players can’t do or simply won’t. Everyone understands that a successful team in hockey is full of guys who understand their role, but convincing guys to fill a role they think is below them isn’t easy. We all come into the league with some scoring success in Juniors, so as a result, every defenseman thinks they can put up points in the league. But only a rare few like Scott Niedermayer can translate scoring skills to the NHL level. A player’s perception, and his salary, is generally determined by a limited number of stats. Lou made it clear to us that if we played hockey his way, he’d take care of us.
For all the stuff you read about Lou being a stern, tough guy — and make no mistake, he definitely is — what’s not understood is that he’s got a heart as big as anybody’s in the game. Lou was never some irrational disciplinarian who banished guys at the drop of a hat. Trust me, if that was the case, I most definitely would have been shipped off plenty of times. Yes, the guys who didn’t buy into his system were usually quickly dealt with. But if he knew you cared and would do what it took to win, he would do everything in his power to get the very best out of you.
For the Devils organization, it’s very difficult to see him go, but I think everyone has accepted that this is the right move for both parties. It’s time. I always figured Lou wanted to ride off into the sunset and stay in the Devils organization as long as he could — but someone like Lou always needs a new challenge, and I think this opportunity will reinvigorate him. Did things work out as they should have here in New Jersey the last two or three years? No, they didn’t — we all know that. And Lou would be the first to admit that there were some mistakes made in recent years. Fortunately, the Devils made a really excellent hire in Ray Shero and I’m excited about the direction the franchise is heading in. I’m fully confident Ray will bring us back to where we belong.
As for Lou, I couldn’t imagine a better fit.
Toronto, you’re getting one of the greats, and I don’t say that lightly. The NHL has so much more competitive balance these days. Every team, including the Leafs, is always only a few players away from competing. But ultimately the biggest difference between winning and losing isn’t strictly the talent on the ice. There were many playoff series in which the Devils definitely weren’t considered the better team on paper. But we always believed in our hearts that we were gonna outplay those other guys, shift by shift. Even though we were big underdogs against the Red Wings in the 1995 Cup Final, we certainly didn’t see it that way. In the back of our minds we knew we may not have been as talented as them, but we absolutely knew we would win. That was all inspired by Lou.
Now Toronto has Brendan Shanahan, Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello steering the ship. These guys are flat-out winners. A lot of people are wondering how their personalities will mesh, but given how successful all three men have been in their lifetimes, it’s difficult to imagine they won’t find a way to make this team successful. They’ll give them a good chance to do some very good things.
Make no mistake, Lou is still one of the brightest hockey minds in the business. And he can teach this team how to be professionals on and off the ice. When it comes to showing players how to handle pressure in a major media market, Lou’s resumé speaks for itself.
Yes, there are a lot of players who say winning a Cup in their only goal, but that often comes more from their mouth than from their heart. The reason we became a respected franchise is because Lou made winning every night the expectation. Developing this culture doesn’t happen overnight. It’ll be a process just like it was in New Jersey. But I don’t think Lou would be taking this job unless he felt like he could help this team win, and that’s one of many reasons Toronto should be excited to have him.
I spoke to Lou on the phone on Sunday and we were reminiscing and talking hockey. I said, “What am I gonna do? You’re all leaving me!” And Lou told me, “Kenny, you’re an all-time Devil, just stay the course. Besides, you can’t go anywhere, that logo is pretty much tattooed to your heart.” I wished him luck before heading to Toronto — except against my Devils, haha — and before we hung up, he said, “Remember, I love you like a son.” Words can’t tell you how much that meant to me.
Yeah, I see the big picture now.