This was, somehow, more than 20 years ago, and Lou Lamoriello had just done one of the most difficult things he’s ever had to do as a general manager.
The Devils were scuffling, badly. They had developed a troubling reputation for being a team that could win an awful lot of regular-season games and then, like clockwork, incur a paralyzing case of postseason stage fright.
And it was happening again. The regular season had just eight games left, but the Devils were already moving into the tuck position. They’d dominated both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference all year but lately had gone 5-10-2 and put everything they’d worked for in jeopardy.
So Lamoriello made a stunning decision:
He fired Robbie Ftorek, his coach and a longtime loyal member of the organization. He replaced Ftorek with Larry Robinson, once a popular assistant with the team but already a failed head coach with the Kings. It seemed preposterous to make such a move, at such a time.
I told that to Lamoriello when I reached him in his hotel that day — ironically (as things have worked out), it was the Long Island Marriott, next to the Nassau Coliseum, where the Devils were to play the Islanders. The Devils were about to be folded under the umbrella of the old YankeeNets merger, and Lamoriello was about to go to work for George Steinbrenner.
“You borrowed a page from his handbook,” I said to him.
Lamoriello actually laughed at that.
“I can see why you might say that,” he said, “but you’re wrong.”
Then he said something that has stuck with me for 20 years, maybe the wisest and most prescient thing a GM has ever said to me, one that explains so much about what Lamoriello has done in a career that, one more time starting Monday, takes him into an extended NHL postseason run, now with the Islanders.
“If I’m gonna be damned,” Lamoriello said, “I’m gonna be damned for doing.”
Let that be a credo for all GMs, for all teams, and let Lamoriello’s record stand as a testament that if you are smart enough, organized enough, daring enough, confident enough, then anything is possible. Hiring Robinson was a genius stroke, of course. The Devils only went 4-4 the rest of the way and blew the No. 1 seed, but then they went on a two-month tear through the playoffs and won the second of Lamoriello’s three Stanley Cups.
In the locker room after Game 6 in Dallas that June, I saw Lamoriello and I quoted him back to himself and he laughed. “You didn’t believe me three months ago, did you?”
That was probably true. It was also the last time I doubted Lamoriello, and the reality that good leadership, smart leadership, can overcome a wealth of woes. The Islanders of Lamoriello and Barry Trotz are simply reinforcing the notion. If you are a well-run operation, if you do things properly and with a sense of purpose, anything is possible.
Lamoriello is the extreme example of this. He is a hockey guy, yes, but once he moved into leadership with YankeeNets, he also oversaw two improbable trips to the NBA Finals for the Nets. He got a corporate taste of the 2000 championship Yankees. Back in 1985, when he was still athletic director at Providence, he’d taken a chance on an assistant coach for the Knicks named Rick Pitino, and all that happened then was the Friars rising in two years from Big East doormat to the Final Four.
Good leadership transcends boundaries, and it even transcends sports. I’ve said through the years — and I mean it still — that any team, in any sport, could hire Lamoriello and succeed because he isn’t just a great manager of hockey teams, he’s a great manager, period. People listen to him. They perform for him. His career is a testament of hope to all teams mired in mediocrity: You hire the right guy, you have a shot.
At 77, this is probably Lamoriello’s last shot, this Islanders team, and it’s a joy to watch. Someday we’ll have another of his like in our midst, an heir to his mastery of leadership. One of our teams will find that man (or woman). And that’ll be some kind of fun, too, because undoubtedly they’ll be willing to be damned for doing.
If the start of the NBA playoffs have reinforced anything, it is this: Utah’s Quin Snyder is, at the moment, the very best coach in the league. And the Jazz are a blast to watch.
You can sure spend a lot of time torturing yourself as a Knicks fan if you choose — thinking about how possible it was for Kristaps Porzingis, Donovan Mitchell and Michael Porter Jr. to be on the team right now. But, then, why do that to yourself?
There are few things in sports that are more enjoyable right now than watching Gio Urshela field his position at third base for the Yankees.
The only bad news with the Islanders moving on (and up, to network-only TV coverage) is that Brendan Burke and Butch Goring won’t be moving on with them. They’ve been as terrific as their team in the playoffs.
Whack Back at Vac
Jay Taikeff: Pleasant surprise to see your opinion-page column Friday. Someday soon there will be a vaccine, and depending on its effectiveness, get ready for a new column; Vac Whacks Vacc or Vac Backs Vacc. We’re rooting for the latter.
Vac: Yes, we are, Jay. Yes, we are.
Martin Carus: Why any draft? Let it be an open market. Why should failures effectively get subsidized? Big-market teams will dominate small market ones? (Ha, the Mets!) (Double-A, the Rays.) Success should be rewarded; failure should require accountability and consequences.
Vac: This would certainly do away with folks griping that every lottery is fixed.
@BJFinLA: Loving August hockey. Actually in “normal” season, MLB is about 20 games deep when NHL has their quarterfinals.
@MikeVacc: So we’re getting a little slice of normalcy in addition to a fun run from a fun Islanders team. Sign me up for more!
Doug Heimowitz: My three-step plan to combat tanking: 1) Each non-playoff team misses gets one ping-pong ball for every win (Knicks at 30-52 get 30; Nets at 20-62 get 20). 2) Top three picks are determined this way. Then, the teams pick fourth on down in order of regular season record. The worst team in the league gets, worst case, the fourth pick. 3) Every team now has incentive to win every game hence no more tanking.
Vac: I like it.
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