By Stu Hackel
If you’ve yet to see the HBO documentary on the life of Vince Lombardi, which (at least on my cable system) ends at midnight as an On Demand selection, you might want to wedge it in between Monday’s NHL schedule of daytime and evening games. It’s an effective portrait of one of pro sports’ all-time great coaches and it offers some cautionary lessons for today’s NHL, particularly the owner of the Washington Capitals.
One of the more interesting incidents in Lombardi’s career occurred shortly after he took control of the Green Bay Packers in 1959 as GM and head coach. The Packers were so terrible that their disgusted fans had hung president Dominic Olejniczak in effigy outside the team’s offices. Lombardi inherited a club that had won only two games the previous season, and Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says in the documentary, “When Lombardi came in, he said, ”I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I’m in charge here.’”
Even so, a day after a preseason intersquad game, Olejniczak came to Lombardi and presented him with a list of things that the team’s board of directors felt were wrong with the team. According to Pat Peppler, the Packers’ former director of player personnel, “Lombardi took the paper, crumpled it up, threw it on the ground, and said, ‘I’ll coach the goddamn team.’”
Lombardi took the Packers to their first winning season in 12 years, won NFL Coach of the Year, and later led them to the NFL Championship Game for three consecutive years, winning it twice. His Packers also became the first NFL team to win the league title three straight seasons, 1965-67, including the first two Super Bowls.
The moral of the story is that teams work best when owners (or in the case of community-owned Green Bay, the board of directors) hire good people to be GMs and coaches, provide them with the needed resources, and then get out of the way to let managers manage and coaches coach.
(And — apropos of today’s Martin Luther King remembrance — in 1965, Lombardi defied NFL owners and Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who urged him to stop one of his black players, Lionel Aldridge, from marrying a white woman. Some owners had dropped African-Americans from their rosters for similar acts, but Lombardi told Rozelle, “This is my team.”)
Hockey has certainly had episodes where meddling ownership had a negative impact on a team. The Maple Leafs, for example, have never recovered from Harold Ballard’s era of interference, even though he’s been gone for almost 21 years.
Another example that springs to mind is the early history of the St. Louis Blues. Under the guidance of GM/coach Scotty Bowman, the Blues had been the best of the 1967 expansion franchises, going to the Stanley Cup Final three consecutive years and dominating the five other new teams during the regular season. Thanks to the generosity of majority shareholder Sid Solomon, Jr., the Blues enjoyed the reputation of perhaps the most player-friendly organization in the NHL ( Gary Ronberg’s Sports Illustrated story from April, 1969 details Solomon’s unprecedented — for penurious NHL ownership — treatment of his players) and whoever wore the sweater was inspired to give his best.
But by 1971, Solomon had relinquished much of his authority to his son, Sid Solomon III (“Sid the Third,” as he was known, or as it came out of the mouth of defenseman Noel Picard, “Sid da Turd”), who wanted more say. He had little background in the sport, but nevertheless questioned personnel decisions and meddled in all sorts of hockey matters, even though Bowman contractually had full control of the team.
Bowman had turned over the coaching duties to Al Arbour in 1970 and promoted Cliff Fletcher to assistant GM, but Sid the Third wanted both men fired. Bowman refused — and subsequently agreed to resign. What happened then is, literally, hockey history. Bowman became arguably the greatest coach of all time in any pro sport. Arbour guided the Islanders to a remarkable run of four Stanley Cups and won a record 19 straight playoff series, which may never happen again. Fletcher left to build the Atlanta/Calgary Flames in what became a Hall of Fame career. Blues scout Jim Devellano left to help build the Islanders and Red Wings, also earning enshrinement for his work.
Without those wise hockey minds in the fold, the Blues under the control of Sid the Third tumbled in the NHL standings – and that brings us to a blog post written Saturday by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis after his team had been defeated by Vancouver the night before.
Leonsis wrote, in part, “We have a lot of work to do. The difference between success and failure is small. We need to bury our chances against all teams but truly take advantage of those chances against great competition.
“We have many injuries to overcome. Our lines seemed jumbled. Our power play is unproductive and is manned by our best players. Our power play is contributing to our woes across the board. 8% conversion of late. No productivity from our star players.”
Now, there’s no evidence that Leonsis meddles with his team anywhere near the level of Ballard or Sid the Third. And, most certainly, he doesn’t treat his GM, George McPhee, or coach, Bruce Boudreau, the way Bud Lea characterizes Olejniczak treating Lombardi “like a janitor” at first.
And, after all, the Capitals are Leonsis’s team. He can say and do whatever he wants. That’s his prerogative. He’s the one paying Alex Ovechkin huge money and not getting Ovie-like production. He’s the one paying Nicklas Backstrom 150 percent more than last year and getting about two-thirds the results.
And maybe, just maybe, Leonsis is conspiring with his hockey staff to send messages to his players through his blog as a way to motivate them.
But if Leonsis considers his rhetorical rhapsodies to be merely the thoughts of a fan, do the unsolicited emotional musings of his mind really serve his team well? After all, Ted Leonsis is not just another fan.
Does the coach need to be publicly questioned by the owner about his line combinations and power play scheme? Does the GM need to hear, along with the Capitals’ fanbase, that the guy who signs his paychecks thinks the star players with whom he negotiated massive contracts are not getting the job done? And if Leonsis uses these posts to communicate with his customers as a well-intentioned owner, might he be openly undermining his hockey department in the process?
Those are questions worth asking. The best situations in hockey and all sports come about when the owner lets the people he’s hired do their jobs and, unless he’s decided to replace them, stays silently in the background.
Vince Lombardi understood that.