Can we trust Dean Lombardi after Mike Richards debacle?

Can we trust Dean Lombardi after Mike Richards debacle?

It’s been over 48 hours since Dean Lombardi let the hockey world know how the destructive spiral of Mike Richards has affected Dean Lombardi, and I’m still baffled at to what he felt this would accomplish.

Make no mistake: Hockey teams are a family, from the suits upstairs to the guy mopping up the dressing room; and I’m sympathetic and acquainted with the way addiction ravages a family. The frustration, the exasperation and the helplessness that came through in Lombardi’s prepared statement to the LA Times on Friday night were no doubt familiar to too many who read it.

But what the hell did we read, exactly?

First, it should be said that the concussion aspect of Richards’ regression as a player has been greatly overshadowed by the “off-ice issues,” even though they’re likely linked in many ways. He has a history of head injuries that coincide with his decline. It’s something that shouldn’t be ignored, although Lombardi’s primary focus in the piece was elsewhere.

So what did we read? Much of it was a furthering of Lombardi’s new dedication to cleaning up his locker room and, in his own small way, the National Hockey League. Lombardi gazed upon his roster last season and saw the pill poppers and the assaulters of women and the guys getting arrested at Vegas parties and the Canadian border and blamed himself.

Literally. He walked into Kings executive Jeff Solomon’s office after the arrest of Slava Voynov for domestic violence and said “this is my fault” for not better educating the team.

When he had to cut loose Jarret Stoll following his drug arrest in Vegas, it was “probably one of the most gut-wrenching meetings I’ve ever had in my entire career.” When facing the end of the Richards saga, he told the Times "without a doubt, the realization of what happened to Mike Richards is the most traumatic episode of my career.”

And so Lombardi now feels that he’s charged with making sure none of this affects players he cares about again.

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“My short-term goal is to win championships; my long-term goal is to eventually become more involved with groups studying the changing values that are becoming increasingly evident in sport and their root causes," he wrote to the Times.

"I certainly believe that Mike Richards must be held accountable for his actions — but when a player who at one time symbolized everything that was special about the sport can become caught in such a destructive spiral, then I believe the institution of sport must begin to examine its level of culpability."

This is where Lombardi loses the string for me, actually: Hockey needs culpability for the “destructive spiral” of its players, but Dean Lombardi apparently requires none for his handling of Richards.

Let’s start with the obvious: The patently unbelievable denial that anyone in management with the Kings knew of the depth of Mike Richards off-ice issues.

"I heard the rumors that Mike might have some off-ice issues, but I refused to believe that they were true despite some obvious signs,” wrote Lombardi.

Then again, Ron Hextall, the current Flyers GM who worked under Lombardi when the Kings acquired Richards, said of those rumors: “You always do your research on any player. That is pretty much normal protocol. Did we do research? Of course.”

Even if you wanted to ignore that, after the Kings acquired him, stories of Richards’ “off-ice problems” flew around like dust particles slammed off an old couch cushion, you’re talking about a Flyers team that had to address the locker room’s off-ice life choices during Richards’ time there. And then he was traded. But no red flags for Dean Lombardi. Because Richards was Derek Jeter or something.

“The only thing I can think of that would be worse would be suspecting your wife of cheating on you for five years and then finding out in fact it was true,” wrote Dean Lombardi, whose head was so far into the sand he apparently didn’t notice it wasn’t his cologne on the bedroom pillows.

But the most convenient bit of self-editing on the part of Lombardi in this LA Times piece is the most glaring omission:

Any discussion or specific explanation for why Lombardi and the Kings cancelled Richards’ contract after his arrest at the Canadian border.

The Kings cancelled his deal on a “material breach” 12 days after he was arrested at the border. Immediately, the move was roundly criticized as being a convenient way to get out from under the remaining  five years and $22 million on Richards’ deal to, at worst, complete hypocrisy given the way the Kings approached Slava Voynov’s arrest vs. that of Richards.

Thing is, he could have made that contract disappear a year earlier. But he thought with this heart rather than his head.

In Summer 2014, Lombardi had a chance to use an amnesty buyout in Richards. No cap penalty, just a payout. At that point, Richards was already in steep decline: a fourth liner, a healthy scratch at times. Whether it was the concussions or something else, Mike Richards wasn’t Mike Richards anymore.

But Lombardi didn’t use the buyout. Because Mike Richards is a person, you see, and not a commodity.

“There’s a new wave thing out there, that players are commodities, and things like passion and loyalty – those values that I thought made sports so special – the commodities guys will tell you they don’t matter. Well, it’s been a big part of the success of this team, I certainly believe. And that’s kind of the way that I came down on it, that if you’re going to expect loyalties from your players, you have to, at times, show loyalties to them,” he said in January 2015, when Richards was put on waivers by the Kings.

“I’m never going to lose my belief in those values being critical, but I think as we see in the cap era – the function is to eliminate those type of emotions, and unfortunately I still think believe they’re still a critical part of a good team.”

Six months later, Mike Richards was treated as a commodity. His contract cancelled. His health problems pushed aside. His off-ice issues assigned back to him, rather than the team.

So that’s what I wanted to hear more about from Lombardi, rather than the personal growth programs or the betrayal analogies. I wanted to hear how this utter debacle and embarrassment for the Kings informs his job performance going forward.

I guess I’m one of these “commodities guys.” Loyalty, trust and idol worship, especially for championship teams, can lead to cap disaster some years later. It’s not just keeping around a toxic player with a toxic contract like Richards; those influences give you a goalie signed through 2023, or a captain of little additional upside through 2022.

As Dean Lombardi said, after Richards: “It is difficult to trust anyone right now-and you begin to question whether you can trust your own judgment.”

Perhaps that’s a good thing.