We put business ahead of everything else. We keep low profiles, and we work very hard.
The office from which maybe the best, and certainly the eeriest, NHL franchise is run is spare, impersonal, built for efficiency, not comfort. A grease board runs the length of one wall, a cabinet crammed with TVs and VCRs takes up another, a bank of telephones fills a corner, and papers sit in four perfect stacks on the desk. If Lou Lamoriello weren't riffling through the papers in search of one titled "Self-Evaluation"—a checklist he surveys periodically to make sure he isn't the one screwing up—there would be hardly a clue as to whom this den of austerity belongs. A copy of The Yogi Book (Berra, not Maharishi) sits on the shelf next to The Haggler's Handbook, and there's a clock commemorating his days in the Big East atop the VCRs, but Lamoriello, the New Jersey Devils general manager, isn't big on personal knickknacks. "When people come in here, it's for business," he says, "not to see what pictures you have up." The one picture on display, sitting over his right shoulder like a guardian angel, is a framed poster of Vince Lombardi printed with the coach's musings on what it takes to be No. 1 and a bold-faced warning that you must pay the price.
That Lombardi poster is one of the few pictures on any wall, aside from the hallway and reception area, in the Devils' offices. There seem to be no personal pictures on display. Lamoriello discourages family photos because, he says, "your place at work is at work." He might rethink that guideline—"Maybe it is overboard," he concedes—as a few years ago he did a shortlived policy that required employees to log every long-distance call. Staffers are expected to turn out the lights when leaving their offices, although the purpose isn't to conserve as much as to alert Lamoriello so he won't waste time looking for them.
For a man with a knack for ubiquity and a zest for detail, Lamoriello has one surprising gap in his knowledge of the franchise: He recently admitted that he had never heard his team referred to as the Firm. The nickname has been an in-joke in the New Jersey dressing room for years, coined by Devils veterans who swore John Grisham's page-turner was miscategorized as fiction on The New York Times best-seller list. "We meant it in the sense that once you're in, you can't get out. You won't leave on your own terms," says defenseman Ken Daneyko, whose 975 games played for New Jersey through Sunday are a franchise record. "But I'm proud to be here. I wouldn't want it any other way."
Lamoriello left his job as athletic director of Providence College (where earlier he had been the hockey coach for 15 years) to join the Devils in 1987, four years after the franchise had been branded Mickey Mouse by Wayne Gretzky. Now look. In many ways New Jersey is a model franchise. In what could have been a full-blown retooling year following coach Jacques Lemaire's resignation and free agent Doug Gilmour's departure after last season, the Devils remain an elite team. They have been sneaky good, slowly picking their way through the Eastern Conference into second place, relying on their tested formula of solid goaltending and offensive opportunism while integrating young talent. They have upped their tempo under new coach Robbie Ftorek, but their 36-21-8 record is pretty standard for them. Over the past six seasons, only the Detroit Red Wings have more regular-season points. New Jersey has had some ugly playoff stumbles, such as the one against the Ottawa Senators last spring, in which the Devils looked old and slow, but Lamoriello has built an organization for which the Stanley Cup is never an outlandish goal.
Scouting director David Conte, without benefit of the top five gimmes that accrue to stragglers in the standings, has helped make Lamoriello a master drafter, scoring with late first-rounders like goalie Martin Brodeur and center Petr Sykora, and second-rounders like center Brendan Morrison and left wing Patrick Elias. (Sixteen New Jersey draftees are on the Devils' roster, and only one, defenseman Scott Niedermayer, was a top 10 pick.) Then Lamoriello lets the talent—Niedermayer excepted—bubble like primordial ooze in the minors before bringing it up to the North Jersey swamps. When players are ripe, he often signs them for what the rest of the NHL considers bargain prices, like defenseman Scott Stevens's four-year, $16.6 million contract and Brodeur's four-year, $16.8 million deal. "Lou has a built-in salary cap," says Don Meehan, Niedermayer's agent. New Jersey's payroll of $31 million is the 10th highest in the NHL.
"Add it up," says Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke, a former NHL executive vice president who played for Lamoriello at Providence. "The Devils draft like nobody's business. They have a premier farm team. They win in the NHL. And they do it all with a sound business plan. Lou's a model for our business. This is not just the best-run franchise in the NHL; it's the best-run franchise in pro sports."
"If you look at it the way I interpret it," Lamoriello says of the Firm nickname, "it's something to take pride in. It means believing in each other, working as a unit, not accepting anything but success."
Lamoriello is a cache of contradictions. He's an optimist who looks as sad as a kid who has dropped his ice cream cone. He's so proudly old school that he requires players to wear jackets and ties to games and, until recently, morning skates. He won't let the league force the Devils to introduce a third jersey, yet he hired the NHL's first female radio color commentator, Sherry Ross (who has since returned to newspaper writing), and one of the first full-time Russian assistant coaches, Slava Fetisov. He's an impatient man whose business philosophy is patience. He can be Torquemada in dealing with people who cross him, but he also can be offhandedly compassionate. He arranged for owner John McMullen's plane to take Brodeur from Boston to his home in North Caldwell, N.J., when Brodeur's wife went into labor with twins 2� years ago, and he makes sure that an infant-sized Devils jersey with name and number is presented the day after any such blessed event. In his office Lamoriello would have animated conversations with Lemaire about hockey and other subjects, but in a social setting with no power to be leveraged or issue to be settled, he can't last 10 minutes. In a gregarious league Lamoriello keeps his counsel. No leaks. No rumors. He is so tight-lipped his own p.r. men have learned of Devils trades from the other team.
"You might think Louie's complex, but I think he's pretty simple to figure," says Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson, another of his former Providence players. "It's all based on loyalty. If he thinks someone hasn't done the honorable thing or has been disloyal, he responds."