Can an old-school general manager and the new-age president of business operations reshape a hockey team, on the ice and at the box office, without driving each other truly crazy?
Think of it this way: If credits for the Kings’ 2007-08 campaign were to run before tonight’s home opener at Staples Center against the St. Louis Blues, the job description of the organization’s two biggest off-ice players would be easy.
Product by Dean. Presentation by Luc.
As in Dean Lombardi, the Kings’ president and general manager, and Luc Robitaille, the president of business operations and future Hall of Famer.
Lombardi, who is rapidly rebuilding a fractured franchise, has an inherent go-slow mentality with his prized prospects, beginning with ascending star and forward Anze Kopitar and four rookies on the current team, including 19-year-old goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who will start against the Blues.
Robitaille, who took over the business end in May, is moving just as quickly. He has been meeting with studio executives, revising game-night presentation and flying around North America -- and was particularly impressed by the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers and the Dallas Stars.
With a season-ticket base hovering around 12,000, the man who starred for the Kings for 14 seasons is pushing hard to not only reconnect the team with its often-neglected fan base but also to reconstruct a bridge to the Hollywood community, one down since Wayne Gretzky left town more than 10 years ago.
“I think this city is waiting for us to do something special,” said Robitaille, who acknowledged the franchise had lost focus. “For a long time we didn’t pay attention to our neighbors in Hollywood.”
The first significant move to rectify that was a red-carpet affair and party for the team at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Thursday night, with TV and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who is a Kings season-ticket holder and potential future NHL owner in Las Vegas, serving as host.
“We’ve never done anything like this,” said Tim Leiweke, chief executive of AEG, the Kings’ parent company. ". . . Luc and Dean have turned us around.”
Still, the hockey revolution is more than a cute slogan on a T-shirt away. The Kings have won only one round in the playoffs since Gretzky departed in 1996 and haven’t appeared in the playoffs since the 2001-02 season.
Lombardi suggested that the fans have grown a “little tired” of slogans in the absence of winning. There has to be some substance underneath the glitz.
“If you don’t have a product, it doesn’t matter how you sell it,” he said. “It still comes down to whether you like the product.”
Taking it one more step, he seems almost like a protective father of his youngsters, saying: “Curiosity killed the cat and hype killed the prospect.”
Kopitar, third among NHL rookies in scoring last year with 41 assists and 61 points, seemed to survive his first red-carpet appearance, creative and savvy enough to make the necessary adjustments off the ice too.
“You’re not used to it, and the photographers are just clicking all the time and you don’t know where to look and stuff like that,” he said. “But it was fun.”
It represented something new for a team poised to take the next step in a very long journey back from the abyss. Captain and veteran defenseman Rob Blake, in the second season of his second tenure with the Kings, noted the sense of stability.
“It looks good. I get asked about it everywhere I go. It’s not like rebuilding because they’re all here now,” he said, referring to Kopitar, Michael Cammalleri, Alexander Frolov and Dustin Brown. “They’re established players and the next step is to get the team in the playoffs.
“Dean’s only been here for two years. It seemed my first 10 years here, we had five different philosophies and five different owners.”
Defenseman Jaroslav Modry concurred. “The difference now, is that we have lots of talent on the team and it’s very, very exciting,” he said. “We have young guys who can play, and it’s not just one or two players like that. It was never like this before.
“This is different because no one knows how good they all can be. Just look at a guy like Kopitar. If he played in some place other than the West Coast, everyone would know about him. He’s a one-of-a-kind-type player.”
That’s where Robitaille and his team enter the frame to make sure that comes across.
“We’re working hard,” Robitaille said. “I believe if we’re in L.A., we should be the best. We should have everyone working to copy us. It might take a couple of years. There’s no such thing as a blank check. . . we’ll use AEG like a big brother, but we want to be a stand-alone organization.”
Some proposals might backfire or sound like bells and whistles. But Robitaille has no shortage of energy, and an inexhaustible stream of ideas, starting with tonight’s home opener. Rogie Vachon, Marcel Dionne, Marty McSorley (in charge of fan development) and Adam Deadmarsh will be there to help bring in the team’s fifth decade.
Leiweke, for one, wants to be close to the action. Though he could sit in a suite, he purchased four tickets to sit down low for the Blues game. He also seems eager to see what Robitaille, the highest-scoring left wing in NHL history, will do next.
Said Leiweke, “I want to see the stupid person who says no to Luc.”
vs. St. Louis, 7:30, FSN West
Site -- Staples Center.
Radio -- 1150.
Records -- Kings 1-1, Blues 0-1.
Record vs. Blues (2006-07) -- 1-3.
Update -- It seemed almost a formality, but Kings Coach Marc Crawford gave goalie Jonathan Bernier word before practice on Friday that he would start tonight in the home opener, which will be the rookie’s second game. “I think he kind of expected it,” Crawford said. “I don’t think this comes as a huge shock . I think he was a little more excited the first game when I told him he was gonna play there [in London]. Now he’s a cagey veteran. He’s got a game under his belt.”