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A special breed

With dogged pursuit, Lamoriello found his calling

Coach Lou Lamoriello led Providence College to 12 consecutive postseason berths (left), and he lifted the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2003 as team president and GM. Coach Lou Lamoriello led Providence College to 12 consecutive postseason berths (left), and he lifted the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2003 as team president and GM. (File/ The Boston Globe (Left)/Ray Stubblebine/Reuters(Right)
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By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / November 10, 2009

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The dogs were hungry, yelping feverishly, growling and nipping at each other as their prideful owner spread them apart and staked them to their individual feeding stations across the snowy grounds of a Vermont hotel. These were prized sled dogs, top athletes, relentless competitors, deserving of good meals and special handling.

How were they to know their empty bellies and incessant barking also infringed upon the peace and serenity that Lou Lamoriello, then coach of the Providence College hockey team, expected his players to have the night before a game? Lamoriello’s steadfast curfew was already in place for his Friars, in town to face the University of Vermont the next day, and his one hockey team wasn’t about to sleep if the two teams of championship sled dogs kept wailing louder than a mid-winter’s gale off Lake Champlain.

“I called Lou’s room,’’ said Brian Burke, then a pugnacious, 185-pound Friar forward, recalling a memory of more than 30 years ago. “And I said, ‘Coach, you’re not going to believe this, but some guy’s got a bunch of dogs outside here . . . they’re making a real racket, and there’s no way we’ll get to sleep.’ Lou screams, ‘What?!’ then says, ‘I’ll be right there!’ and hangs up.’’

Burke and his fellow Friars then turned their attention back outside, watching gleefully from their hotel rooms as the diminutive coach from the Dominican Friars college located in Rhode Island’s capital - dedicated to a “spirituality that embraces the whole person’’ as its stated mission - transformed into a ferocious bulldog.

“Lou’s out there screaming at the guy, ‘What’s this! Pack these dogs up . . . get ’em outta here!’ ’’ said Burke. “The poor slob . . . didn’t know what hit him . . . and he gives Lou some lip. That really set Lou off. ‘Look,’ Lou screams, ‘you’ve got five minutes to get these bleepin’ dogs back in their boxes, get ’em outta here. Five minutes! And if you don’t, I’m telling you, I’ll start strangling them, one by one, with my bare hands!’ The guy had to think Lou was nuts. No question. But you know what? He got outta there, dogs ’n all.’’

A somewhat more mellow Lamoriello, now 67, last night was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, honored in the Builders category for his near quarter-century of excellence as the top dog (CEO, president, general manager and occasionally the coach) of the New Jersey Devils. During his tenure, the team that so aptly mirrors its boss - driven, hard-working, no-nonsense, ever-attentive to detail and spiced with an underlying toughness - has won the Stanley Cup three times (1995, 2000, and 2003) in four trips to the finals and has reached the 100-point plateau in 11 of the past 15 seasons.

Standard-bearer
Considered an NHL outsider, and therefore a bit of a quirky fit when hired away from Providence in 1987 by then-Devils owner John McMullen, the Rhode Island born and raised Lamoriello turned a league laughingstock into one of the game’s most durable, consistent performers, almost perennially in the hunt to win the Cup. Long gone are the days when the Devils, now the pride of a downtown Newark renaissance, were the sorrowful, faceless vagabonds (nee Kansas City Chiefs) plopped at the side of Exit 16W on the New Jersey Turnpike. Dubbed a “Mickey Mouse’’ franchise by superstar Wayne Gretzky in the 1983-84 season - immediately following a 13-4 pasting by Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers - the Devils under Lamoriello have become a standard for both professionalism and performance.

“The work ethic of our players when I arrived, in my opinion, was outstanding,’’ said Lamoriello, reflecting on his life and career some 10 days ago with his Devils on Causeway Street to face the Bruins. “But the thing I noticed most upon arriving, having come from a winning culture at Providence, is that simply working hard was not enough. Unless you get to your full potential, both as a player and a staff, that’s the only way you win. You never want to be satisfied with mediocrity, accepting ‘working hard’ as anything more than a prerequisite. So we had to make A-to-Z changes. I’m talking off the ice, in the room, in the [front] office . . . and I’m talking right down to how many times the phone rings. To this day, if you call the New Jersey Devils, you’ll find that it won’t ring more than twice if you call. That’s the rule.’’

A call to the Devils’ main number yesterday, mid-afternoon, was picked up just as the second ring began. Even with the boss away and about to be enshrined in Toronto alongside the likes of Punch Imlach, Sam Pollock, and Conn Smythe, house rules prevailed.

Lamoriello goes in with a star-studded class, including Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, and Brian Leetch.

Burke, now the GM of the Maple Leafs and a Cup winner in his days as the Ducks’ boss, said the two-ring rule applies no matter who is on the line. Over years of frequent calls to Lamoriello, he said, he has been routinely placed on hold whenever a member of the Devils’ staff has had to answer another line. It’s just one of Lou’s Rules, central to who he is, which Burke first learned in his playing days at Providence, where Lamoriello led the Friars to 12 consecutive postseason tournaments in his 15 years behind the bench.

“Oh, there are rules, and they’re his rules,’’ said Burke. “They boil down to, if you are going to do something do it the right way. And if you’re not going to do it, then . . . just don’t bother.’’

In those college days, Burke recalled, the team’s pregame meal had to be served at 2:30 p.m., exactly five hours before faceoff. Always the same menu: steak, baked potato, and salad. No more than two pats of butter allowed. Per coach’s orders. The two drinks that accompanied the meal could be one soda and one milk or two sodas, but never two milks. Per coach’s orders.

“My freshman year, the team pulled into a Valle’s Steak House,’’ recalled Burke. “And before we sat down, Lou tells the hostess that he wants to look at the beef before we eat. No lie. So the chef comes out, wonders what’s up, and Lou says, ‘Show me the meat or we get back on the bus.’ The guy took him back to the cooler, Lou looked at the meat, we ate.’’

Home or away, all Friars had to be tucked in bed by 11 p.m., with lights out, the night before a game.

“For my four years there,’’ recalled Burke, “he knocked on my door the night before every game at 10:55 p.m. Never missed.’’

Setting an edge
The Friars wore long underwear under their sweaters and pants because Lamoriello saw NHLers do the same. The Friars used Sherwood sticks because their coach felt Sherwood made the best sticks. Bauer, the skate manufacturer, custom-fit the Friars’ skates. All because Lamoriello felt it provided his team an edge.

Raised in Johnston, part of Providence County, Lamoriello’s father, Nick, ran a fresh fish concession in what was the Big Bear Market located in Hoyle Square, Providence. The entire Lamoriello family worked the business, started by young Lou’s grandfather.

“I knew that tap on the feet when it was still dark at 4 a.m.,’’ recalled Lamoriello, who figures he could eat fish seven days a week, preferring either salmon or bronzini. “The tap meant it was time to work, and that didn’t mean get up in five minutes. It meant get up now, get to work, and you were either off to Narragansett Point to pick up fish or you were off to the market.’’

In college, Lamoriello captained both the Friars baseball and hockey teams and, upon graduating, initially taught math in Johnston while working his way into the Friars’ coaching job in the late 1960s. His parents, Nick and Rose, were close friends with a number of the Providence Reds, the local AHL institution, which gave young Lou an early look into the sport’s business and culture. As a senior in college, he shot pucks every day against Ed Giacomin, who went on to become a Hall of Fame netminder with the Rangers and Red Wings. Being around top players, he believes, leaves a lasting impact on young players.

“Imagine being a young defenseman at our September training camp?’’ mused Lamoriello, “and you get out on the ice and there’s Jacques Laperriere, Larry Robinson, and Scott Stevens out there to talk to you. Now that’s what it’s about.’’

Overall, Lamoriello operates his organization around what he refers to as his “triangular philosophy,’’ with the three corners made up of work ethic, loyalty, and competency. When people show they can handle what is asked of them, they are delegated more responsibility. Successful teams, he believes, are much like an orchestra, with the individual musicians playing their roles as close to perfection as possible. As a manager, it’s not simply identifying who can play, but knowing who can play within the desired structure and vision of the team.

“So you have the violinist and the drummer,’’ he said. “The trouble comes when the drummer thinks he should be on the power play. Great players win games, sure. But great teams win championships. I look at guys like [Bill] Belichick and [Vince] Lombardi as guys who know who can play and being able to find people who will accept a role within the concept of the team. A lot of guys can play, but there’s only one puck.’’

Mentor and friend
Former Bruins goalie Craig Billington, drafted by the Devils in 1984, considers Lamoriello among his mentors. Now in Colorado’s front office as the assistant GM, he knows that most people don’t get to know Lamoriello beyond what Billington refers to as his friend’s “facade,’’ one of the stern negotiator and someone known for his uncompromising, meticulous attention to detail.

“Could I tell you more? Sure,’’ said Billington, breaking into laughter. “But there’s too much fear for me to tell you any more than that.’’ Some of which probably explains why Billington, when he finally decided to settle down at age 40, felt compelled to fly to New Jersey with his fiancee so Jocelyn could meet Lamoriello.

“I figured Lou’s one of a few people, along with Pierre Lacroix [his boss in Colorado] and Tom McVie [once his coach in New Jersey] who she’ll hear me talk about almost every day,’’ Billington said. “She’d met Pierre. Well, I had to have her meet Lou.’’

When Lamoriello met the future Mrs. Billington, he invited her into his office and told the groom to wait outside. The GM/friend preferred a private consultation.

“You know, she’s never told me what he said,’’ Billington said. “Shows you the power he has - she wouldn’t tell me if I asked.’’

To this day, said Billington, if he is going to meet Lamoriello on business he won’t show up unless he is clean shaven and wearing a white shirt and tie.

“That’s how it was when I played for him,’’ Billington said. “Just imprinting, I guess.’’

Chicago-based agent Bill Zito has had a number of clients play for Lamoriello’s teams, including Brian Rafalski and John Madden. When it comes time to talk contract, said Zito, he has found Lamoriello to be “very thorough, very prepared, very fair . . . and you realize, there’s no chance of slipping something by him, so there’s no point in trying that.’’

A large part of Lamoriello’s success, Zito believes, is the message he conveys to his players.

“He tells them, ‘You come here, work you rear end off, and I’ll do everything I can for you to be the best player you can be,’ ’’ said Zito. “Guys appreciated that. And he does it. He provides that culture.’’

Toward the end of his run at Providence, where he eventually surrendered his coaching duties to become PC’s full-time athletic director (hiring Rick Pitino to guide the basketball team), Lamoriello also became the guiding light in shaping Hockey East and took on duties as its first commissioner. Former Harvard goalie Joe Bertagna, Hockey East commissioner the past 13 years, is in regular contact with Lamoriello, who, according to Bertagna, remains a friend and advocate of the college game.

“It was very much his idea,’’ said Bertagna, reflecting on the genesis of Hockey East. “Not just the league itself, but bringing teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin into the schedule . . . all that was very innovative, and that was Lou.’’

His likeness now etched in the Hall of Fame, Lamoriello figures he’ll stay on the watch in New Jersey as long as he feels the “excitement and passion’’ that have to be part of the “full commitment and drive to win.’’ Which includes, he said, worrying about whether “the buns are warm’’ with the meal that is served on the team’s charter flights.

“Commitment,’’ he said. “I say it to players all the time, ‘If you are just playing to play, find somewhere else to do that.’ ’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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