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The Devils' Advocate New Jersey G.M. Lou Lamoriello runs the tightest ship in the hockey business

March 22, 1999
March 22, 1999

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March 22, 1999

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The Devils' Advocate New Jersey G.M. Lou Lamoriello runs the tightest ship in the hockey business

We put business ahead of everything else. We keep low profiles,
and we work very hard.

This is an article from the March 22, 1999 issue Original Layout

--JOHN GRISHAM The Firm

The office from which maybe the best, and certainly the eeriest,
NHL franchise is run is spare, impersonal, built for efficiency,
not comfort. A grease board runs the length of one wall, a
cabinet crammed with TVs and VCRs takes up another, a bank of
telephones fills a corner, and papers sit in four perfect stacks
on the desk. If Lou Lamoriello weren't riffling through the
papers in search of one titled "Self-Evaluation"--a checklist he
surveys periodically to make sure he isn't the one screwing
up--there would be hardly a clue as to whom this den of
austerity belongs. A copy of The Yogi Book (Berra, not
Maharishi) sits on the shelf next to The Haggler's Handbook, and
there's a clock commemorating his days in the Big East atop the
VCRs, but Lamoriello, the New Jersey Devils general manager,
isn't big on personal knickknacks. "When people come in here,
it's for business," he says, "not to see what pictures you have
up." The one picture on display, sitting over his right shoulder
like a guardian angel, is a framed poster of Vince Lombardi
printed with the coach's musings on what it takes to be No. 1
and a bold-faced warning that you must pay the price.

That Lombardi poster is one of the few pictures on any wall,
aside from the hallway and reception area, in the Devils'
offices. There seem to be no personal pictures on display.
Lamoriello discourages family photos because, he says, "your
place at work is at work." He might rethink that
guideline--"Maybe it is overboard," he concedes--as a few years
ago he did a short-lived policy that required employees to log
every long-distance call. Staffers are expected to turn out the
lights when leaving their offices, although the purpose isn't to
conserve as much as to alert Lamoriello so he won't waste time
looking for them.

For a man with a knack for ubiquity and a zest for detail,
Lamoriello has one surprising gap in his knowledge of the
franchise: He recently admitted that he had never heard his team
referred to as the Firm. The nickname has been an in-joke in the
New Jersey dressing room for years, coined by Devils veterans
who swore John Grisham's page-turner was miscategorized as
fiction on The New York Times best-seller list. "We meant it in
the sense that once you're in, you can't get out. You won't
leave on your own terms," says defenseman Ken Daneyko, whose 975
games played for New Jersey through Sunday are a franchise
record. "But I'm proud to be here. I wouldn't want it any other
way."

Lamoriello left his job as athletic director of Providence
College (where earlier he had been the hockey coach for 15
years) to join the Devils in 1987, four years after the
franchise had been branded Mickey Mouse by Wayne Gretzky. Now
look. In many ways New Jersey is a model franchise. In what
could have been a full-blown retooling year following coach
Jacques Lemaire's resignation and free agent Doug Gilmour's
departure after last season, the Devils remain an elite team.
They have been sneaky good, slowly picking their way through the
Eastern Conference into second place, relying on their tested
formula of solid goaltending and offensive opportunism while
integrating young talent. They have upped their tempo under new
coach Robbie Ftorek, but their 36-21-8 record is pretty standard
for them. Over the past six seasons, only the Detroit Red Wings
have more regular-season points. New Jersey has had some ugly
playoff stumbles, such as the one against the Ottawa Senators
last spring, in which the Devils looked old and slow, but
Lamoriello has built an organization for which the Stanley Cup
is never an outlandish goal.

Scouting director David Conte, without benefit of the top five
gimmes that accrue to stragglers in the standings, has helped
make Lamoriello a master drafter, scoring with late
first-rounders like goalie Martin Brodeur and center Petr
Sykora, and second-rounders like center Brendan Morrison and
left wing Patrick Elias. (Sixteen New Jersey draftees are on the
Devils' roster, and only one, defenseman Scott Niedermayer, was
a top 10 pick.) Then Lamoriello lets the talent--Niedermayer
excepted--bubble like primordial ooze in the minors before
bringing it up to the North Jersey swamps. When players are
ripe, he often signs them for what the rest of the NHL considers
bargain prices, like defenseman Scott Stevens's four-year, $16.6
million contract and Brodeur's four-year, $16.8 million deal.
"Lou has a built-in salary cap," says Don Meehan, Niedermayer's
agent. New Jersey's payroll of $31 million is the 10th highest
in the NHL.

"Add it up," says Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke,
a former NHL executive vice president who played for Lamoriello
at Providence. "The Devils draft like nobody's business. They
have a premier farm team. They win in the NHL. And they do it all
with a sound business plan. Lou's a model for our business. This
is not just the best-run franchise in the NHL; it's the best-run
franchise in pro sports."

"If you look at it the way I interpret it," Lamoriello says of
the Firm nickname, "it's something to take pride in. It means
believing in each other, working as a unit, not accepting
anything but success."

Lamoriello is a cache of contradictions. He's an optimist who
looks as sad as a kid who has dropped his ice cream cone. He's
so proudly old school that he requires players to wear jackets
and ties to games and, until recently, morning skates. He won't
let the league force the Devils to introduce a third jersey, yet
he hired the NHL's first female radio color commentator, Sherry
Ross (who has since returned to newspaper writing), and one of
the first full-time Russian assistant coaches, Slava Fetisov.
He's an impatient man whose business philosophy is patience. He
can be Torquemada in dealing with people who cross him, but he
also can be offhandedly compassionate. He arranged for owner
John McMullen's plane to take Brodeur from Boston to his home in
North Caldwell, N.J., when Brodeur's wife went into labor with
twins 2 1/2 years ago, and he makes sure that an infant-sized
Devils jersey with name and number is presented the day after
any such blessed event. In his office Lamoriello would have
animated conversations with Lemaire about hockey and other
subjects, but in a social setting with no power to be leveraged
or issue to be settled, he can't last 10 minutes. In a
gregarious league Lamoriello keeps his counsel. No leaks. No
rumors. He is so tight-lipped his own p.r. men have learned of
Devils trades from the other team.

"You might think Louie's complex, but I think he's pretty simple
to figure," says Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson, another
of his former Providence players. "It's all based on loyalty. If
he thinks someone hasn't done the honorable thing or has been
disloyal, he responds."

Grisham's Firm solved problems by flying disloyal associates to
the Cayman Islands to be executed, a modest extension of
Lamoriello's method of sending them to western Canada.
Lamoriello, who says the interests of the Devils always come
first, exiled center Neal Broten, a 17-year veteran, to the
minor league Manitoba Moose in 1996 in what Broten, now a
consultant for the expansion Minnesota Wild, says was an effort
to get him to quit. Broten says Lamoriello told him he might be
able to trade him to an NHL team if he would give up some
deferred money. "I'm like, 'What is this, blackmail?'" says
Broten, who after four days in Manitoba did forfeit some income
to get traded to the Los Angeles Kings. "I mean, he's just a
cruel person.... I don't think I've met one person who likes
him. I know I don't. How do you sleep at night treating people
like that?"

Last season right wing John MacLean, Mr. Devil, New Jersey's
career leader in goals and assists, went public with a trade
request and was gone five days later to the San Jose Sharks, one
month before right wing Bill Guerin, who had engaged Lamoriello
in a contract war, was shipped to the Edmonton Oilers. Lamoriello
doesn't let problems fester. After the Devils won the 1995
Stanley Cup, Claude Lemieux, who was New Jersey's top goal scorer
in the playoffs and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP,
was traded within a week of an arbitrator's ruling in the team's
favor on the validity of his contract extension.

Oh, the Devils are changing a little: Ftorek has given his
defensemen more leeway to join the rush than did Lemaire; mock
turtlenecks are now acceptable morning-skate attire; and Daneyko
swears that Lamoriello's ties are flashier. These, obviously, are
matters of style, not substance. The basic tenets of the
Devils--patience, loyalty, secrecy--won't change as long as
Lamoriello is behind that desk. He's firm on that.

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Master drafter Lamoriello scored with picks such as goalie Martin Brodeur (left).COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT CLARK FIRM GRIP Lamoriello's blunt opinions are the ones that count with the Devils.