January 26, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Lombardi's Comments Preposterous, Harmful

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

In a great coincidence, the L.A. Kings were in Michigan last week to play Detroit, so Jack Johnson went back to Yost Arena to take in the game against Ferris State, and plays Score-o during intermission. (photo: MGoBlog)

In a great coincidence, the L.A. Kings were in Michigan last week to play Detroit, so Jack Johnson went back to Yost Arena to take in the game against Ferris State, and plays Score-o during intermission. (photo: MGoBlog)

Dean Lombardi's backpedaling from his recent comments about former Michigan Wolverine Jack Johnson, Michigan hockey, and legendary coach Red Berenson, only answered things we already figured out.

Lombardi, the general manager of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, Johnson's current team, said that in trashing Berenson for his ability to develop players, he was only trying to defend Johnson, and that he believed his comments were for background only.

This was predictable.

The bigger problem, however, is not that Lombardi said it — it's that Lombardi believes it.

Never mind, for a minute, that it's harmful for Lombardi to publicly state that Michigan coach Red Berenson is horrible at developing players. He's also flat out wrong. I believe that, I suspect most anyone reading this will believe that. He is wrong about the larger implication of college hockey, and he is wrong about Red Berenson in particular. At best, it's possible there are kernels of truth in what Lombardi says — maybe — but not really. On the whole, his comments were inflammatory, preposterous, and out of line.

The problem for college hockey, however, is two-fold.

One, that this attitude still exists. And two, and most importantly, at a time when college hockey is fighting a difficult battle for top recruits with major junior (and losing ground), it doesn't need the public seeing comments like that about one of its top programs.

Two years ago, Garth Snow, the general manager of the New York Islanders, made similar comments about another two-time national champion coach, Don Lucia of Minnesota. Kyle Okposo decided to leave for the Islanders in the middle of his sophomore year, and Lucia was understandably upset about the move, pointing the finger at Snow for pressuring Okposo. Snow then disparaged Lucia and his coaching ability. The funny thing is, both Lucia and Snow were both also trying to "protect the player" by making it about the other guy, not Okposo. The next year, the Islanders drafted Minnesota's Aaron Ness, so how much Snow really believed what he said is another story.

(As an aside — since I get bombarded with Islanders fan hate mail every time I mention this topic — I am a life-long died-in-the-wool New York Islanders fan. I watch Okposo play every game, love him, and have said on the record that I believe he should be on the U.S. Olympic team. This isn't about him. It's about Snow making comments that — like Lombardi's — were preposterous and inflammatory, and harmful to college hockey.)

People in the Canadian Hockey League (the umbrella group of the three Canadian Major Junior leagues, the OHL, WHL and QMJHL) have taken these comments and ran with them — reveled in them.

All of the coaches I spoke to say the same thing — they are not going to stoop to similarly bad-mouthing someone in the press. They simply believe the comments were wrong; and Red Berenson's record speaks so much for itself, that no one really needs to say anything. Just turn on the TV. Heck, Mike Knuble is still playing. Brendan Morrison, Marty Turco, Blake Sloan, Matt Hunwick, John Madden, Mike Cammalleri, Mike Komisarek, Andy Hilbert, Mike Comrie. There was Chris Tamer and Aaron Ward from back in the day. These guys didn't get better under Berenson?

Oddly, for both Snow and Lombardi, it's a case of eating their own. Snow, of course, was a top-notch four-year goaltender at Maine during its heyday. Lombardi played in Division III of the NCAA.

Both GMs would probably say (if they ever said anything at all) that they were only criticizing specific coaches, not the NCAA as a whole.

But, true or not, it has a damaging effect on college hockey.

College hockey made major strides the past 20 years in bringing in top-notch talent, coinciding with the general improvement of American hockey, peaking in the mid-to-late 2000s. But a lot of that top-end talent is now going elsewhere, convinced by crafty CHL marketing packages and enticements.

Comments like those of Lombardi and Snow run counter to what those guys should be focusing on — improving the quality of amateur hockey everywhere.

There also remains the pervasive attitude — apparently dimmed over the years, but maybe not — of NHL people that believe major junior hockey is a better place to develop talent as a whole. I would vehemently disagree with that, and could point out (again) all the reasons why — more practice time in college, skill improvement, life skills, leadership, etc. ... — and why that is more beneficial than the knee-jerk "there's more games in major junior" attitude that prevails. But it's preaching to the converted around here.

Of all people to criticize, Lombardi's pointing of the finger at Red Berenson is particularly outrageous. Berenson symbolizes as much as anyone else the fight college hockey is going through. Not only is Berenson the most accomplished NHL player ever to coach in college hockey — he was the first college graduate to be an NHL star, and he went on to become an NHL Coach of the Year — there is no person in college hockey more devoted to training student-athletes to be "MEN" than Red Berenson. You think Red Berenson didn't attempt to get through to Johnson in two years?

Berenson preaches growing as a person, staying in school, graduating — not just as valuable to a person individually, but valuable to their growth in hockey too. He's seen it. It irritates him when players look for shortcuts — guys who leave the program early for the pros, or those who have bailed out for major junior (like Robbie Czarnik this year), or players who bail out on commitments before getting there (like World Junior goalie Jack Campbell).

Is that what Lombardi's gripe is all about? Is this just an extension of an age-old feud, where Berenson's comments in the past on this topic, as players like Cammalleri were plucked away by the Kings before graduation, have rubbed Lombardi the wrong way? Who knows.

"Unless they have a need to pump their own tires, I don't see what they have to gain," said one NCAA hockey official.

You wonder, too, because you have seen so many sons of ex-NHL players go to college hockey over the last 10-15 years or so, seeming to have "gotten it." Three players on this year's U.S. World Junior teams were sons of former die hard Canadian major junior hockey legends. So things are even more baffling in that context. Of course, that has also flip-flopped recently. Not one, but two of Ray Bourque's sons have skipped out on college — Chris, who went to Boston University for a year, barely attended class, and bolted for a "pro" career that's gone nowhere; and Ryan, who bailed on a commitment to New Hampshire to head to Major Junior this year.

Let's just say, nothing is making sense these days.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gets criticized in some circles for his commitment to hockey across the United States, even in the Sun Belt — with teams in Phoenix, Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Nashville, for example. But is there any doubt that having teams in those places has led to a surge in youth hockey in those areas? Is there any doubt that this has helped college hockey, and American hockey as a whole? Just look at the rosters and where players are coming from these days.

So for prominent members of Bettman's general manager circle to be ripping college hockey in that manner, is not helpful even to their own league's goals.

You are left to wonder if anyone in the NHL puts these pieces together? Is there still a fear of going "against the grain?"

As one NCAA coach said, there are lots of former college people in GM roles, prominent names like Lou Lamoriello, Don Waddell, Brian Burke, David McNabb and Paul Holmgren. They are OK with having college players on their teams. But is anyone going to the wall for college hockey inside NHL circles? Do they extoll the virtues of college hockey, not just as a decent way station for their players, or a place to pluck late-bloomer free agents from, but as a legitimate developmental option?

And do you ever see comments like Lombardi's about a major junior coach?

Kudos, by the way, to Jack Johnson. This is no offense to Okposo, really, but Johnson did something Okposo did not — counter-attacked his own GM's comments by defending his old college coach. Good for him. Johnson was mad at the initial comments, and didn't buy into Lombardi's backpedaling either.

Jack Johnson now has himself a feud with his own GM, which could entertain NHL fans this year.

College hockey is left with bigger issues.

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