1987. April 30, to be exact.
That’s when the New Jersey Devils hired Lou Lamoriello to be general manager of a then sad sack franchise that had started as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974, moved to Denver to be the first incarnation of the Colorado Rockies in 1976, only to fail in the Mile High City and move to East Rutherford, N.J. in 1982. When Lamoriello took the reigns of a team that an in-his-prime Wayne Gretzky had once sneered at (the infamous Mickey Mouse operation comment comes to mind), this was what was going on:
– Ronald Reagan was finishing up the third year of his second term as U.S. President.
– The New York Giants had won the Super Bowl that year, and on April 30, the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Twins were on their way to securing championships in their respective sports as well.
– “This is your brain… This is drugs… This is your brain on drugs” became the anti-drug campaign slogan du jour of the late 80’s/early 90’s that year.
– Spuds MacKenzie made his first appearance in Bud Light beer commercials.
– The Cosby Show and Roseanne were the top-rated television shows in primetime.
– I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) by Aretha Franklin and George Michael was the top Billboard pop single the week the Devils hired Lamoriello.
– The Devils were still wearing their red and green “Christmas tree” uniforms and would continue doing so through the 1991-92 season.
– Perhaps most important of all- the very first draft pick of the Lamoriello tenure in New Jersey- a 17-year-old Brendan Shanahan (second overall in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft) is the man who shocked the hockey world today by hiring Lamoriello away from New Jersey and installing him as the 16th general manager in Toronto Maple Leafs history.
Let’s backtrack a minute…
Since Mr. Lamoriello joined the organization, the Devils went from doormats to three-time Stanley Cup champs in 1995, 2000 and 2003. They made the playoffs with a flourish in his first season as GM thanks to a John MacLean (Lamoriello would later hire MacLean as head coach in 2010 only to fire him before Christmas) overtime goal against the Chicago Blackhawks and Darren Pang (back when it was 5-on-5 and a scoreless 5 minutes ended with a tie) on the last night of the regular season (for those who heard it, who can forget Gary Thorne’s “They did it! They did it! They did it! They did it!! call when MacLean pounced on a fat rebound in the slot and put it home on the road).
In nearly three decades with the team, Lamoriello, a native of Rhode Island and the primary architect of the Hockey East from his time as Providence College coach and athletic director, became the Devils organization- as much as one person can assume a team’s identity and culture, anyway. When I covered the Devils for the New York Hockey Journal during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, the distinct feeling I always came away with was that Lou Lamoriello was the embodiment of the Devils and everything the organization stood for during his tenure through mostly good times, but more losing days in recent years.
When Lamoriello suddenly announced his retirement earlier this summer as GM (but remaining on in his role as Devils President), he elevated former Penguins front office boss Ray Shero to take on the general manager duties for New Jersey.
Lamoriello’s departure is sudden, but underscores how serious the Maple Leafs are about trying to win the organization’s first Stanley Cup since 1967. Lamoriello knows a heck of a lot about winning, and with a formidable front office that includes 29-year-old wunderkind assistant GM Kyle Dubas, plus a completely re-vamped coaching staff in Mike Babcock and assistants (which include Memorial Cup-winning former Oshawa Generals coach D.J. Smith), Shanahan has put his stamp on the Leafs franchise. With Mark Hunter running things on the drafting and player development side, Toronto’s residence near the bottom the of NHL standings won’t last long.
If nothing else, Lamoriello’s old school values and tough love approach will install the kind of accountability that has probably been lacking in the Leafs dressing room for too long. The first shots fired across the bow came when Phil Kessel was traded, and more moves are sure to follow as the soon-to-be 73-year-old builds the team with the blueprint he used to major success with the Devils. If Babcock’s arrival didn’t do it, Lamoriello’s hiring has certainly made one thing abundantly clear in Toronto: the inmates are no longer running the asylum.
It’s hard to believe that Lamoriello is no longer with the Devils, but if anyone is feeling blue in the Garden State, it’s all coming up roses in Ontario.
Shanahan and company just served notice to the rest of the league with this move, and if you don’t think Lou has lost his fastball, then get ready for a much more competitive Eastern Conference with the new-look Leafs.