One look across the ice in this playoff series and Lou Lamoriello just might see himself reflected in Black and Gold. No, the Hall of Fame hockey man never suited up or played for the Bruins, which is somewhat surprising given his deep and enduring ties to New England. But the Islanders general manager has his fingerprints all over the current edition of the franchise.
Jay Pandolfo and Kevin Dean on the coaching staff over here. Jamie Langenbrunner in the front office over there. Jay Leach at the reins in Providence.
“Four Devils looking at me in the eyes,” Lamoriello said in a recent phone conversation. “I’m a big fan of them all.”
Of course, they are on opposite sides right now, heading into Nassau Coliseum Thursday night for Game 3 of a second-round playoff series currently tied at a game piece. But what they represent says so much about the life Lamoriello has built in hockey, from his days growing up in Providence (as a Bruins fan) to this remarkable second NHL act on Long Island.
Or that one look across the ice, where his legacy plays out in living proof, four former Devils using the philosophies they learned while Lamoriello was their GM to carry them to their own greater heights in the game.
He would see it if he were actually looking, if he were the type of person interested in puffing out his own chest. But to know Lamoriello is to understand that it’s never really about him. It’s about the work, about the team, about the name on the front of the sweater being far more important than the one on the back, which counts as one of his all-time favorite mantras.
It was with the Devils that Lamoriello built the most famous section of his hockey résumé, winning three Stanley Cups by turning the once-Mickey Mouse punch line of a franchise into a model of stability and success. And it is with the Islanders that he is using the same model to rebuild a once proud and champion franchise, the tenets of teamwork, toughness, and grit helping them channel their 1980s dominance, when they won four straight Cups from 1980-83.
There are no signs of slowing down for the 78-year-old Lamoriello, whose explanation for such endurance is perfect in its simplicity.
“I’m still enjoying it,” he said in a chat prior to the start of this series, one that has turned into just the sort of slugfest that was predicted, featuring two teams that mirror each other with their depth, talent, and complementary play. Though he could have easily rested on those Stanley Cup laurels when his time in New Jersey came to an end, the game continued to beckon. I had to ask him why.
“I can’t answer a question like that because sometimes I wonder what I’m doing and why,” he said with a laugh. “When you have the opportunity to work with great people and you still have the competitive drive, you do it. You’ll know when it’s time, when you lose that.
“Other than that, you just keep doing the things you believe in and you allow the end result to take care of itself. You try and associate with the best players and best coaches you can possibly get. They allow you to be you.”
Hockey has been the backdrop of Lamoriello’s life since those childhood days snagging tickets to the Providence Reds American League games, through teenage years heading up to Boston and straining to see the Bruins from the balcony of the old Garden, through the heady early coaching days when he led Providence College and helped establish the Hockey East landscape that thrives so much to this day that the championship trophy is named for him.
His road into the NHL was far from traditional.
“I first came into the league as an outcast,” he said, remembering headlines at the time that pointed out he had never played, coached, or managed in the NHL. “I came from a totally different background.”
And his early path had its potholes. Oh, not in the results, which saw his first Devils team in 1988 sneak into the last Patrick Division playoff spot and even upend the Islanders and Capitals in the first two rounds.
But it was in the conference finals against the Bruins that the world would learn about Lamoriello’s twin streaks of stubbornness and righteousness, resulting in his getting an injunction to prevent his then-coach Jim Schoenfeld from serving a one-game suspension for an incident with referee Don Koharski.
It was Schoenfeld’s incendiary “have another doughnut” screed to Koharski that would live in infamy, the end of a postgame altercation that had Koharski believing Schoenfeld pushed him (though video later showed Koharski had slipped).
But it was Lamoriello’s Al Davis-like willingness to fight the power that endured even more, and when his coach was on the bench for the ensuing Game 4 (he would eventually sit out Game 5 as punishment for verbal abuse of an official), the hockey world was put on alert as to the lengths Lamoriello’s competitive fire would take him.
He even stepped in to coach Game 5, which would be a 7-1 Devils loss, and the Bruins won the series in seven. Boston went to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Gretzky-Messier Oilers.
“I was a fan of the way the Bruins played,” Lamoriello said. “To this day, the job they’ve done there, Cam [Neely] and [Don] Sweeney and everybody. They’ve done a great job. They’ve consistently done it the right way day in and day out, so there’s a pride factor in their model of work ethic. I grew up right under that umbrella.”
And though he never made a professional stop there, his impact is felt all the same, one small slice of a legacy for one of the best general managers, in any sport, of his generation.