Lou Lamoriello was sitting in a small room that first night back at the Nassau Coliseum on Dec. 1, just before the Islanders welcomed themselves and the Blue Jackets back to Long Island. Lamoriello is not often given to schmaltz or sentiment, but he couldn’t help himself as the booming noise from the arena bled into the space.
“It was literally shaking,” Lamoriello says, “and I got chills just listening to that vibration, and I told the coaches who were in there with me, ‘I hope the [players] are feeling the same thing but not letting it get to them.’ ”
Thirty-one years ago, at the very start of a journey with the Devils that brought three improbable Stanley Cups and a quarter-century of elite hockey to North Jersey, Lamoriello had been sitting in the same building as his team upset the final vestiges of the dynasty-era Islanders in the Patrick Division semifinals. It was his first real triumph in the NHL, and he remembered.
“Such a noisy building,” he says. “Such an amazing atmosphere.”
He is sitting in his office at Northwell Health Ice Center, just down Hempstead Turnpike from the refurbished Coliseum, where Lamoriello’s new team dominated his old one, 4-1, Thursday night. In a time when it seems we are on an endless search for good news in New York sports, it is never a bad idea to make a stop on Merrick Avenue.
And as the winter cold creeps daily into our lives, it is never a bad idea to see the Islanders team Lamoriello has crafted this year when they make one of their regular pilgrimages to their old home. They are worth the price of admission, and proved it again Thursday night. They are the rare team in our midst that is. They’re fun to watch. And their 76-year-old boss is having a blast.
“Winning,” he says, “is fun.”
It is a subject he knows as well as anyone, of course, going back to his tenure as athletic director at Providence College. Someone eventually would have given Rick Pitino his first shot to run a major basketball program; it was Lamoriello who did, changing the arc of Big East history. He won those three Cups in Jersey, could easily have won three more, and before he was done he’d turned Wayne Gretzky’s famous description of the franchise — “Mickey Mouse,” remember that? — to dust.
The Maple Leafs had 68 points in 2014-15, when Lamoriello was finally coaxed from his Garden State fiefdom; three years later, they reached 105. And, just for kicks, the only two years Lamoriello oversaw the Nets, dipping his toe in a whole other sport, the franchise made its only two appearances in the NBA Finals.
Now the Islanders sit in one of the Eastern Conference playoff slots and are skinny points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division, 5 ½ months after it was assumed they’d be left for dead under an LIRR track, with John Tavares defecting to Toronto in free agency a few weeks after owner Scott Malkin brought Lamoriello to Brooklyn and Long Island.
Either Lamoriello is the luckiest son of a gun in sports, or he knows what he’s doing.
“The seat you sit in should have more knowledge than anyone else about everything,” Lamoriello says. “I’m a hands-on person. There isn’t anything in the organization I don’t want to know. But one of the things I believe in surrounding myself with the strongest possible people. I want to be challenged.”
Lamoriello was reunited with one trusted ally, his son, Chris, who had worked for him in New Jersey and had been a part of Garth Snow’s old regime. And he made one of the great hires we’ve seen around here in years, bringing in coach Barry Trotz fresh off his Stanley Cup win in Washington.
Still, the loss of Tavares seemed certain to shake the franchise to its core. It hasn’t. Matthew Barzal, at 21, has emerged as the new face of the Islanders. Trotz has guided a team that is the stingiest in hockey in surrendering goals. They take a 27-15-4 record away from Thursday’s win, and an unflappability that warms Lamoriello’s heart.
“[Tavares] had every right to make the decision he made,” he says. “But you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You can’t rationalize something, you just need to look forward, not back, no disrespect intended.
“And the players on this team aren’t bothered by the fact that they play home games in two places. They love it here, at the Coliseum, but we’ve also been treated first-rate by the people at Barclays Center. It’s been great seeing them embrace everything.”
It also has been pretty satisfying to see what happens when a franchise — even one stuck in neutral for decades like this one — is entrusted to smart, capable hands.
Lamoriello, of course, shrugs at that: “There are people who work at keeping their job,” he says, “and there are people who work at doing their job.”
And he recoils when the most shop-worn word in modern sports is floated.
“Culture,” he says, shaking his head, “is an overused word. All it is, is doing all the little things the right way.”
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