Lou Lamoriello entered the NHL scene in April 1987, when New Jersey devils owner John McMullen appointed him president of the accomplished franchise. Prior to the 1987-88 season, Lamoriello named himself GM and began a journey nobody would have envisioned at the time. The Providence, R.I., native took a franchise that had never made the post-season in five years in New Jersey (after relocating from Colorado) and guided it to three Stanley Cup wins and playoff appearances in 21 of his 27 seasons at the helm.
Lamoriello, 72, stepped down as GM and named former Penguins counterpart Ray Shero his replacement in May, only to shock the hockey world by taking the Toronto Maple Leafs GM job on Thursday.
Lamoriello’s legacy was forged long ago and resonates through all corners of the hockey world. THN canvassed former Devils players, management members, rival GMs, league executives and those who covered the team to paint a picture of Lamoriello’s impact and wealth of achievements. Here is the oral history of Lou Lamoriello’s remarkable tenure to this point.
Lamoriello’s first season on the ice was an immediate success, as the Devils made it to the Wales Conference final before losing in seven games to Boston. But as a former NCAA athletic director at Providence College and the first commissioner of the Hockey East conference, he already had a firm grasp of his hockey vision. And with the Devils, he had a sizeable challenge in front of him.
SHERRY ROSS, DEVILS COLOR COMMENTATOR/REPORTER: They were just a few years removed from expansion when they got here, and there was almost a comical perception of the team that they were loveable losers like the 1962 New York Mets. If they got a tie against the Rangers or the Penguins, it was a huge moral victory.
KEN DANEYKO, DEVILS DEFENSEMAN, 1985-2003: It wasn’t a very good organization. It needed re-shaping, re-forming…call it whatever you want.
ROSS: Lou came in and put his stamp on the team in terms of the way he wanted everybody to act. Everybody thought he was bringing a lot of the college mentality to the organization – suits and ties on the road, certain things were not allowed in the dressing room, etc. There was a structure that was put in, and although that word is overused in sports today, he put a structure and a mentality in right from the start that had not been there before, and it gave the team an added air of professionalism it had been lacking.
DANEYKO: I don’t know if anybody thought bringing in Lou Lamoriello from Providence was the answer, but the second he walked through the door you could just tell there was instant respect and credibility. Right away he brought in accountability. I don’t know if you can teach that. It’s more of a presence, and Lou certainly had it.
JOHN MACLEAN, DEVILS RIGHT WINGER, 1983-1997: When Lou came in you just knew the organization was going to change. The timing of it was perfect. We had a good collection of talent and character, and we needed somebody to mold it and give us direction. That’s what Lou did.
BOBBY HOLIK, DEVILS CENTER, 1992-2002: I was very excited to be traded from Hartford to New Jersey. At the time, Lou had his way of doing things, but he had not yet found the right coach and all the right players, but he was putting the pieces together.
Playing for Lou was a great opportunity, and it was about the environment Lou created there. Players would give their best in practice and in games because, in that environment, you only had to worry about the game. There’s a lot of different ways Lou did it, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for how happy players were there to play for Lou Lamoriello as a general manager.
DANEYKO: He was smart enough to implement the things he wanted slowly. It was more about attitude and team. One thing he wanted was for us to be tougher. He felt that we got pushed around, and I think that’s why he maybe took a liking to me. I was willing to stand up for the guys at the time.
Lamoriello crafted a hockey program that followed the collegiate experience.
HOLIK: There were freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, so to speak. When I first got there, the four or five “seniors” were Scott Stevens, Bruce Driver, Kenny Daneyko and John MacLean. Then you had the Claude Lemieuxs and Stephane Richers, and they were the mid-level players, not in terms of quality, but of age and experience. Then you had younger guys like myself, Bill Guerin, Scott Niedermayer.
GARY BETTMAN, NHL COMMISSIONER: To Lou, it was always about team-first, that was the culture he fostered, that was the way the team sustained excellence on the ice. His view was the team had to be disciplined, the team had to be focused, and the team had to be committed.
HOLIK: Lou always paid special attention to making sure he had players in those junior-senior-freshman-sophomore roles, because if the team is too young or too old, there are consequences. For most of the 10 years I was there, there was tremendous balance. And when there wasn’t, he corrected it quickly, and we went back to being at the top again.
THE BUSINESS, MAN
At the same time Lamoriello was turning around the Devils’ fortune on the ice, he was also attending to the financial side of the organization as president. There, too, he employed a hands-on approach to ensure his vision for the organization was carried out.
DAVID POILE, NASHVILLE PREDATORS GM: I was young and relatively new in the NHL (as GM of the Washington Capitals), and from what I remember, Lou was a unique hire. Dr. McMullen probably looked at Lou and analyzed Lou as someone who could be a successful CEO in any industry. Lou was always more than a general manager. He was sort of the CEO for the company. So from that standpoint he was unique from all the managers in that era. He was a hockey guy, but he was much more.
BETTMAN: There was a point in time where nothing happened with the Devils that Lou wasn’t involved in, whether that was hockey or the business side. That was true when John McMullen hired him, and it’s been true for most of Lou’s tenure.
JIM RUTHERFORD, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS GM: He cared about the league, so his input with collective bargaining was always very important.
BETTMAN: When it came to renegotiating a TV contract or a lease, the financing of the club or an ownership change, he was not just integrally involved, he was the one making things happen. And he was involved for a time with the Nets in the same position, and I think he’s still to this day on the Yankees board. In addition to being a great hockey mind, he was a businessman as well. He had that rare combination.
Lamoriello was a fixture on the league’s labor negotiations team due to his business acumen.
POILE: That’s clearly a reflection of the respect Lou had from ownership, Gary Bettman and the league.
BETTMAN: Lou was somebody I was more than comfortable I could rely on in negotiations with respect to the issues that came in with free agency, particularly the transactional development of players – how do you draft and move a player along for his career, when free agency made sense, when unrestricted free agency made sense. He was very good at understanding the dynamics how it worked and where it needed to improve.
Lamoriello also was a formidable adversary for his fellow GMs when making moves on the trade market. But, in keeping in character, he didn’t have much time for small talk or psychological manipulation.
RAY SHERO, GM, DEVILS: The first time he called me was my first or second year in Pittsburgh, and he called with a specific move in mind. It wasn’t, “Hey, what are you guys looking to do?” It was, “Here’s what I’m thinking.” He got straight to the point.
RUTHERFORD: In Lou’s case, he was very direct. You totally understood what he wanted, and what he wanted to give. It was always a fair negotiation, and he was always very good to deal with.
Virtually from the beginning, Lamoriello ruled over all things Devils, and the results on the ice – including the franchise’s first Cup win in 1995, again in 2000 and once more in 2003 – gave him an all-encompassing control few of his peers possessed.
RICH CHERE, BEAT WRITER, NEWARK STAR-LEDGER: The first thing I think of when I hear the name Lou Lamoriello is three Stanley Cups, and immediately after that, I think of the word “control.” During his entire tenure as GM I cannot imagine any GM has ever had so much control over an organization. From top to bottom he had great influence on the owners all the way down to when they were at the Meadowlands Coliseum. He had great control over the operations at that arena.
Lamoriello’s control extended to nearly every facet of the team, including players’ activities away from the rink.
DANEYKO: He ran a tight ship, and the players respected that. Whether we agreed with everything or not, we’d run through a brick wall for him.
CHERE: One of the things that grated on the players over the years was that everything was so orchestrated. They never really had time on their own when they were on the road. If they were in a city for a day or two, they’d be taken to a bowling outing or some other outing for the team like golf. They never had free time, and that was calculated, because Lou didn’t want guys to get in trouble. There were very few team dinners where the players split up. It was always a team dinner set up by Lou before the trips.
Even their flights were calculated to get to the cities at times when players would be too tired or wouldn’t have enough time to go out on the town. He never really stopped being an athletic director at Providence College.
SCOTT NIEDERMAYER, DEVILS DEFENSEMAN, 1992-2004: When there were little rules and team dinners, it was because he was focused on making it easier for us to play as a team. He believed in discipline for us to have success, and I don’t know if there is a shortcut around something like that.
DANEYKO: Sure it was a little frustrating. Our society, as a rule, we generally don’t like rules, but when you saw the vision – and make no mistake, the bottom line for Lou was winning and making the Devils a prevalent organization – you could see us improving. When you have success you are willing to put up with anything, even if it frustrates you a little bit. Lou always had a plan, and he did whatever it took for this organization to get to the next level.
Even those divisional rival GMs whom Lamoriello had competed against held him in incredibly high regard. When Lamoriello made the choice to seek a successor this summer, Shero was beside himself at the thought of interviewing with an icon – to the point he didn’t believe it when the first contact was made.
SHERO: I was in my car when the call came in, and I’d been out of the league for a little while at the time, so when I picked up and said hello, a voice said “This is Lou,” and I said, “Lou who?” (Laughs.) Lou’s calling me? I’m not even a general manager. (Laughs.) I was thinking, “What the hell did I do wrong? I’m not even in the league!” (Laughs.) But in all honesty, it was a thrill to be offered this opportunity. And in just five or six weeks on the job working with Lou, it’s been just tremendous.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH
Lamoriello was all business in his day-to-day focus, but he very quietly took great care of those who worked for or near him. Regarded as a mentor to a slew of NHL management types and players alike, he was driven to win but never lost touch with the people in his life.
BETTMAN: Like most successful CEOs, Lou has always been incredibly focused. But there’s a human side to him that people don’t see – whether that’s helping someone who’s in distress in their lives, or whether that’s in his commitment to his children or grandchildren. He’s a devoted family man, and people don’t know that about him.
DEAN LOMBARDI, LOS ANGELES KINGS GM: I had just gotten the job as Sharks GM in 1996 and, quite frankly, at the time I didn’t think I was ready to be a GM. We had three guys running the show in San Jose, and you really needed one guy in charge. I went to New Jersey to watch a game, and I was just going to go and say “hi” to Lou. I was hoping for a pep talk and perhaps a little advice. I ended up getting a full course from him on how to run an organization. It was a seminar that went on for more than two hours.
He spent the whole time talking about and stressing the importance of infrastructure. He got up and was drawing on a board with arrows and dotted lines. His whole thing was that you can’t have a team unless you can run an organization. He was a big admirer of (football coaching legend) Vince Lombardi, and he pulled out a file from his drawer that had all Lombardi’s sayings. He said to me, “When you’re struggling, read this,” and handed me something Lombardi said. He gave me a copy of that file, and I still have it.
I remember it like it was yesterday. You are getting an audience with a man who will go down as probably one of the top five NHL GMs ever, so that alone made it surreal. Then you’ve got the fact that his presentation is off the charts, and it’s not hard to walk out of there knowing exactly why this guy has been so successful. It was all about detail and people having roles. He didn’t talk about players once.
BRIAN BURKE, PRESIDENT OF HOCKEY OPERATIONS, CALGARY FLAMES: I played for Lou when he coached me at Providence College. My favorite story about Lou and myself is the law school thing. I wasn’t planning on going to law school. I wanted to get my master’s in history. I was on my way to practice, and Lou’s secretary says, “Coach wants to see you.” It’s usually not good when Lou asks to see you, so I was confused. My grades were good, and I didn’t go out much.
I go into his office, and he has a sheet of paper on his desk. He shoves it across the desk and says, “I want you to take this exam. Your professors tell me you’ll do well on it, and if you do you’ll get into Harvard or Yale.” I look at it, and it is the LSAT – the law boards. I shoved it back and said, “I have no interest in going to law school.” He shoved it back and at me and said, “You don’t understand, that was not a request. Take the exam.”
I took the exam, blew it away and got into Harvard. He changed my life because he cared. How many college coaches call in their captain and tell them to take the LSATs? Answer: One.
ROSS: When my brother passed away in November of 2012, and my nephew Tyler had gone through a hard time with it, Lou had asked about him and had brought Tyler in to speak with him. It is something I really appreciated, because Lou didn’t have to do that. It was a very hard time for my family. You will hear lots of stories like this from others where Lou has called on behalf of somebody’s son who is trying to get into a certain school, but he doesn’t want people to know about it. I’m probably in trouble for talking about it. He thinks you do things because it’s the right thing to do, not because you want the attention for doing it.
Daneyko was an alcoholic, and Lamoriello strived to help Daneyko back to good health.
DANEYKO: I was a rambunctious kid on and off the ice. As far as me moving forward, he was one of the most important people in my life. He was patient with me and understood things don’t happen overnight. He didn’t give up on me. He kept planting the seeds to make me a better person. We had many meetings over the years, and I was an intense personality. I would stand up to him whether I was right or wrong – and most of the time I was wrong. I had some gumption. I wasn’t like a lot of players who put their tail between their legs. If I felt differently than Lou, I’d bark right back at him.
People thought if you do that you’d be gone. But with Lou, if you were one of the guys he wanted to go to the wall with, he’d listen and understand and be patient with you. I wanted to win as badly as anybody, so he was willing to put up with me.
In the few moments Lamoriello allowed for smiles and levity – which usually came in the hours (yes, hours) following a Cup win – he was preparing the team for its next challenge.
HOLIK: When we beat Dallas for the Cup in 2000, and he was happy and smiling out at dinner afterwards. The next morning we were flying back, and he was like, “Is everyone here? We’re leaving on time, let’s go,” tapping on the pilot’s door, tapping on his watch. And that’s how it should be. You win and you’re happy, but if you want to win it again, you have to get back to work. The next morning it was back to business.
CHERE: The Devils had some financial issues for several years, and a lot of people don’t know how vital Lou was to keeping the organization together and keeping the team running as well as it did. I know they haven’t made the playoffs in a while, but he took over the Devils financially, and there would’ve been much worse repercussions than what we got. We got a team that couldn’t make the playoffs and couldn’t keep some key free agents like Zach Parise, but he really kept the team together.
LOMBARDI: Everybody thought he was tight, but Lou pays his people extremely well. The league has a survey that indicates what team employees are paid, and he wouldn’t fill it out. He’d take the fine instead. He didn’t think it was anybody’s business. He has a big heart, and if you are loyal, Lou would take care of you. Lou figured if you have good people, then pay them, because it’s a hell of a lot harder to replace them.
NIEDERMAYER: Two things really stood out – firstly, how much the team was really the most important thing to him. He wasn’t out there taking much credit. He was back working hard at the rink putting a lot of hours in. He was at the rink every time you turned around. Then there was his focus and commitment to his team and real family. I really appreciated and felt fortunate to play for somebody like that who knew what he wanted and stuck with it and had the support of ownership to stick with it.
LOMBARDI: I think people forget not only does a GM have to manage 50 to 60 players in the organization, he also manages 40 others between trainers, equipment managers, coaches, minor league coaches and pro and amateur scouts. People who have never been in an organization don’t understand that. His whole point was if that machine isn’t running then the team isn’t going to run.
People say he was a micromanager and maybe a little bit over the top, but it was always to send the message that, “We do things right and we do them all the time.” If you’re going to have your players doing it, you’d better be doing it, too. It sets the tone and it leads to good decisions.
DANEYKO: We could write a book about the wars he and I went through off the ice. We had meetings in his office where I think we both wanted to swing at each other. He had a little secretary named Mary who worked outside his office at the Meadowlands. When I was going to announce my retirement, she congratulated me on my career and said, “I remember hearing you and Lou screaming at each other and chairs being thrown in Lou’s office, and I was going to call 9-1-1. I just didn’t know if I was going to call for you or Lou!” Lou and I laugh about it to this day.
RUTHERFORD: His record is very impressive. He had a plan and stuck to it year after year. He had a certain style: he traded for players who we knew could play in that style and developed a lot of star players. And they were always hard to play against.
BETTMAN: The analogy he might use in a quiet moment is he’s the Vince Lombardi of hockey. That’s somebody who he admired. It’s somebody whose methods he went to school on and when it came to control, focus, and integrity, nobody has ever exhibited higher standards.
– AS TOLD TO MIKE BROPHY AND ADAM PROTEAU
This feature appears in the Season Commemorative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.