January 23, 2010
It was disappointing to see Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi meekly backtrack on his comments about Jack Johnson's development at the University of Michigan, in the sense that he dealt a new media irresponsibility/"taken out of context" card that we assumed he was above playing.
To reset the controversy: Lombardi gave blogger Gann Matsuda of Hockeytalk.biz an epic Q&A that spans several posts. (The interview also ran on Matsuda's Kings blog, Frozen Royalty.) In Part 4 of the chat, Lombardi spoke candidly about defenseman Jack Johnson's(notes) development as an NHL player that included some strong words about his time at the University of Michigan, including:
"Michigan is the worst." Lombardi added. "For hockey people, if you've got a choice between a kid-all things being equal-one's going to Michigan and one's going to Boston University, you all want your player (going to Boston University). Michigan's players-(head coach) Red (Berenson) doesn't coach. It's ‘do what you want.' He gets the best players in the country."
"At times, he was playing forward at Michigan," Lombardi elaborated. "You had no idea what position he was playing. But he had always been the star and he always got his numbers. Then he turns pro and for the first time, we're telling him ‘whoa, just make the first pass and learn to play in your own end.' How about making a read in your own end about the right guy to pick up? He was awful."
Johnson was upset about his general manager trashing his alma mater and questioning his character, so he defended Michigan hockey in an interview with the LA Times. The public spat became national news, and Helene Elliott of the Times doubled-back with Lombardi today for more on the controversy -- giving the Kings GM a chance to delicately place Matsuda under the bus for his own brutal honesty.
Lombardi said he meant to give Matsuda background information on Johnson's evolution and didn't expect those comments to be published. "The whole article was completely out of context," Lombardi said.
Matsuda said Lombardi never designated that part of the conversation as off the record. Lombardi did not dispute that. "I wasn't trying to do a hatchet job," said Matsuda, who said he has been blogging for two full seasons and has a full-time job doing network and IT work for UCLA's School Management Program.
Lombardi was particularly barbed about Johnson's poor defensive play in college and in saying Johnson reacted badly to criticism. Lombardi said he expected Matsuda to know the comments were for his education and not for publication.
"I made a huge mistake thinking the guy would understand that," Lombardi said. "The question insinuated [Johnson] wasn't developed and not coming along fast. I was in there defending him ..."
The "background" argument is disappointing. This is Part 4 of the interview series; Parts One, Two and Three were already published, and Hockeytalk.biz editor Josh Brewster told us on Saturday the site stands by Matsuda's reporting and his sense of what was on the record, off the record or on background.
One glance at any of the other interviews will leave you wondering where the kitchen sink is, because everything else made the cut. Yet it appears the Michigan/Jack Johnson comments are the only ones Lombardi expected on the cutting room floor.
What the Times didn't mention is that Lombardi is famous, and quite beloved by hockey fans, for these lengthy extemporaneous interviews that have appeared online, most often on Rich Hammond's Kings blogs for the LA Daily News and then for the Kings' Web site. They're rich in detail and open up the backrooms of NHL front offices in a revelatory manner: For example, the Kings' pursuit of both Marian Hossa(notes) and Mike Knuble(notes) last summer during the free-agent frenzy. They're also usually quite long, in the sense that "background" doesn't seem to factor in.
He speaks candidly, from the hip and it's a blessing that he does; who can forget his Dirty Harry riff in speaking about restricted free agency?
The feeling here from Hockeytalk.biz editor Brewster is that Lombardi was approaching Jack Johnson's maturation in a somewhat lighthearted way that read harsher than it was intended; a contextual problem that Lombardi acknowledged but one that is not necessarily Matsuda's failing when he's directly quoting Lombardi.
Removing the sting of the Michigan comments, this later passage about criticism certainly plays much lighter:
"He struggled with it," Lombardi added. "‘What do you mean, you're criticizing me?' Yeah, (I am). When these kids come up now, this might seem totally abnormal to you, because anyone else growing up probably got slapped around (figuratively speaking) as you were learning your career or anything you're learning. But these kids are all told how great they are."
"He didn't start believing that (he) might have to start doing this until the middle of last season. Murph (Kings head coach Terry Murray), is a great teacher. Thank God for Murph. He was really a smart player, nowhere near as talented. (He told Jack to) slow down and take it a step at a time. Slowly, he's gotten better. He's certainly had his ups and downs. But that's why he made the Olympic team, because this guy is hard to play against."
Despite those encouraging words, Johnson still popped off about the Michigan comments and the "criticism" he received from his general manager. That prompted Lombardi to start spinning, and claim a blogger was publishing quotes intended for background and taking things out of context during Part 4 of a seven-part interview.
It's an uncharacteristic backtrack from an executive we respect for his candor, but then again this is also an unusual public spat between player and GM.
Hopefully this doesn't deter Lombardi from opening up for fascinating interviews online; and hopefully this doesn't tarnish the reputation of sites like Hockeytalk.biz, who are only guilty of being the mouthpiece for honest opinions from smart hockey men that they sometimes regret voicing when the heat's turned up.