L.A. Times reporter and Hockey Hall of Fame member Gladys Kravitz got Jack Johnson worked up in a froth yesterday. Having read the Lombardi interview she references in her article, I can only assume one of three things is going on:
(1) Jack Johnson read the original interview himself, but Jack Johnson can't read.
(2) Jack Johnson did not read the interview, but was told about it by Gladys Kravitz.
(3) Jack Johnson and Dean Lombardi are mortal enemies. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
I'm going to rule out (1) because, I actually attended the University of Michigan, and there's a reason they sell a t-shirt there with the Harvard logo and the caption, "Harvard, the Michigan of the East." It's a great school. It's great academically and they have a great hockey team and Red Barenson is a legend. So I am going to stipulate that Jack Johnson is better educated than 99.99999999% of anyone who ever played in the NHL (the .0000000001% being Ken Dryden). He can read.
He just didn't read this interview.
I'm going to rule out (3) because Dean Lombardi went out of his way to acquire Jack Johnson and specifically told him to stay at UofM (in contrast to Carolina, who was pressuring JJ to quit school ASAP). Lombardi supported Jack's decision to stay in school. Not to mention the fact that every time there's an internet rumor about JJ (see last summer's dust-up with JJ's dad and the KHL), Lombardi is nothing but supportive of Jack. So, I really don't think there's more to this than, well, frankly, than (as Jim Fox might say), Gladys Kravitz doing what she does best.
(I do miss the Foxism, "That's [player name], doing what he does best: [insert whatever he does best, usually it was "driving to the net."]")
Dean Lombardi likes to explain things. He likes metaphors. He is educated. I actually appreciate all those qualities. I also appreciate that he doesn't give us the usual bland, boilplate bullshit sound-bytes that we expect from everyone in sports. But because he sometimes speaks in allegories, it's insanely easy to take him out of context.
With that in mind, let's read what he actually said to Gann Matsuda, in that great, great multi-part interview. Just for fun, I'm going to highlight certain words that resonate for me:
"This guy has never had any coaching [at the University of Michigan]....Jack just did what he wanted...Michigan is the worst...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....Jack was a thoroughbred out there...But he was all over the place. He was awful as a hockey player. As an athlete, you’re going, wow! Look at the way he skates, shoots, he can pass. But he had no idea where he was going...At times, he was playing forward at Michigan...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....It was a big risk for us to trade for him...There was all that hype and stuff because he’s just like a thoroughbred. It’s like looking at a horse and saying wow! But then he gets on the track and he has no clue how to run the race. He might even run in the wrong direction. That was Jack. [He was] really raw....Here again, you’ve got a kid who’s got to change his game and he can change a game, going end-to-end, getting you out of your own end...It was like, ‘you’re not good enough at that not to do these other things that you’ve never done.’ Now try and convince him of that after [he has] been told how great [he is throughout his] life, [he has] played in the US Development Program, [he was] at Michigan, everything [was] great, great, great. Now [he is] in the pros and it’s ‘what do you mean? I’m Jack Johnson"....He struggled with it...‘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. [Kings head coach Terry Murray, also known as Murph] 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...What’s good about it was that [Johnson] was eleventh on the depth chart at the beginning of the year...By November, he had risen to the top eight, and in Jack’s case, he went from ten to eight, to seven....Two weeks ago, at the [NHL] Board of Governors meeting, [we met] and I couldn’t promote my own guy, so the other guys would come in—it was out of my hand...[Johnson] was in the top six on everybody’s ballot. I was really proud of him...Jack Johnson, three years ago, was all highlight film stuff...But the trouble is, the highlight film stuff was only once every three games. In between, it was all fire drills. [He just had to] simplify [his game]. No highlights. The highlights will come back once you start to simplify....For him to transition from highlight film to doing all this other stuff, you’re not getting that high-end stuff right now while he’s learning,...But you’re hoping the [solid defensive play] becomes second nature. He still has to think about it. But when that becomes second nature, now recognize when you can put on your show. It’s still a work in progress...I’ve had a lot of young defensemen. They’re always hard to break in anyway. He’s been unique because, like I said, he was a thoroughbred who just ran. I think his learning curve is going to continue to go up...It hasn’t spiked. I think every area of his game has improved, but it has to continue.
Now, when I read that, as someone who has been around hockey his whole life, I know exactly what he's trying to say. When he says "awful as a hockey player," he means the x's and o's, he means the system. He doesn't mean "Jack Johnson sucks balls." That's why he said THOROUGHBRED. You know Gladys is trying to trick people because she leaves out that part.
It's like Lombardi is saying, "Jack Johnson is an ingenious writer but his handwriting is so sloppy no one can read it." And Gladys turns that into, "Jack, Dean says your writing is awful. Care to comment?"
And this is the result:
Kings' Jack Johnson irate over GM Lombardi's comments about him and Michigan | The Fabulous Forum | Los Angeles Times
Kings defenseman Jack Johnson reacted angrily Thursday to comments made by General Manager Dean Lombardi in an interview posted on the blog frozenroyalty.net in which Lombardi said Michigan -- where Johnson played college hockey -- is "the worst" in terms of coaching players and called Johnson "awful as a hockey player" when he played for the Wolverines. He also criticized Michigan Coach Red Berenson and said Johnson was unable to accept criticism after playing at Michigan and for the U.S. national team development program. The interview, part of a series, can be found here. "I'm a Michigan man. I'm very proud of it. I wouldn't want to have it any other way," Johnson said after the Kings' 4-3 shootout victory over the Buffalo Sabres at Staples Center. "Michigan has produced more NHL players than any other school. Even the U.S. development program, people rip that and they just don't know anything about it and don't know what they're talking about." Berenson, Johnson said, "is one of the finest coaches and men that I've met. For my general manager to rip me as a person and criticize me as a person and as a player and call me an awful hockey player is irresponsible and unprofessional."
Since Lombardi did not "rip [JJ] as a person" I must assume Jack did not really read the actual interview. As far as "calling [him] an awful hockey player," that's only true in a narrow and literal sense if you willfully make yourself blind to the context of the partial quote. Lombardi essentially says, "Jack is an elite player, a thoroughbred on a level that makes your mouth water, but because he was never forced to play a system, because he was never taught to, he was awful at it when he got here. But now he's much better, and getting better all the time."
That's like me saying, "Jimmy Page is one of the greatest guitar players I have ever seen. The guy plays licks each one more inspired than the next, even though technically he's just incredibly sloppy, can't play bar-chords, and can't read music to save his life," and then having some idiot boil that down to, "Quisp says Page is a musically illiterate slob."
Now, maybe you need to speak Lombardi in order to understand Lombardi, I don't know. Or maybe you just have to be able to read. In any case, I took the time to paraphrase the entire Lombardi quote on Johnson. I believe this is a 100% accurate translation. You tell me:
When Jack was at UofM, he was so talented he could do whatever he wanted on the ice. The coach encouraged this. There was no system he had to stick to. At Michigan, they don't need a system, because they get the best players in the country, and even among them, Jack was a thoroughbred. He was the star. He was an elite athlete with elite skating, shooting and passing skills. So when he arrived in the NHL, he had little experience playing with the kind of discipline everyone has to play with if they're going to be part of a successful team. He never had to do it before, because all his life he was the star and everything was great. Now, in the NHL, he struggled applying himself to what was essentially a new way of playing. It took him about a year-and-a-half for it to start to sink in, but thanks to Terry Murray, who is a great teacher, Jack has really come around. He's always been on the highlight reels, even in the NHL, but it's taken this long for him to start to learn the craft of being an elite defenseman in the NHL. He's still learning, but just the fact that he's made the Olympic team this year shows how far he's come. So when you look at Jack's numbers this year and wonder if there's something wrong, it's that he's now doing things he never had to do before and once those skills become second nature the highlight reel stuff will come back. As much of a thoroughbred as he is, he still has untapped potential. Every aspect of his game has improved, and by no means has he peaked yet.
Now why didn't Lombardi just say that? Maybe because he's not boring. Maybe because he paid Gann Matsuda, and Kings fans in general, the compliment of speaking the truth with his guard down, which is to say: with trust. Not trust in the sense of keeping a confidence; trust as in, he's not treating the reporter or his readers like idiots; he's assuming people actually know a little bit about hockey, among other things. Lombardi's not a fool; he's not spewing state secrets; it's just this little morsel of actual honesty, like a trial balloon, to see if people can handle it.
You don't hear people talking like this very often, certainly not in public, on TV, or in the newspapers. But when people hear it, whether they admit it or not, I think the reaction is, "I can't believe he just said that, it's so true. Why doesn't everyone do that?"
Oh. Because it's dangerous. Thus, the ball-club speech. "God willing, we'll win the big game." Like in Bull Durham:
Crash: It's time to work on your interviews.
LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do?
Crash: You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: "We gotta play it one day at a time."
LaLoosh: Got to play... it's pretty boring.
Crash: 'Course it's boring, that's the point. Write it down.
So why do I get the feeling that Gladys simply cherry-picked the tidbits that would be the most scandalous if taken out of context and gleefully presented them to JJ for comment as though they were the whole point? Maybe because there's just no way for a reasonable, non-prejudiced person with no axe to grind to read that interview and come away believing it says what she says it says in the Times article.
Also, I remember Mrs. Kravitz's "reporting" on the Williams/O'Sullivan trade. Essentially, her thesis was that (1) Lombardi is spiteful and irrational to such a degree that he will trade valuable assets (POS) for worse ones (Williams) and is therefore a danger to the organization who should be relieved of his duties by AEG.
And (2) Justin Williams is short.
Lombardi had made a comment that, in Williams, they had acquired a bigger, more physical player who was not afraid to go to the blue-paint. Mrs. Kravitz, apparently not knowing about this blue-paint phenomenon, snarkily noted that Williams was short and appeared to weigh about 175 pounds. [I will dig up the exact quote, but this is close to what it was.]
[time passes; found it; couldn't get to the original Times article without paying for it, but I found my comment on it and quoting of it on the old dead Inside the Kings site:
But I think it's important to note the snark in [Kravitz's] piece. She undoubtedly has seen the same numbers that -- for example -- I have, and she knows that Lombardi is touting the size upgrade. Yet she made a conscious choice to report only the 5'11" number, not the Canes number or for that matter the one on the Kings site. If she had only reported the 5'11" without the additional "and he looks smaller," I would have thought she's just sloppy. But the additional snark tells me that she's editorializing and has an ax to grind here. [...] Seriously, to say that he looks smaller than 161lbs is objectively laughable on its face. I am 6' tall myself, and haven't been 161 lbs since I was 14, and at that weight the idea that I could have been a physical presence in juniors, to say nothing of the NHL, is mock-worthy. Either she has no ability to judge these things, or she's intentionally getting in a dig at DL and Williams. The latter, I think it's pretty obvious.
She cynically and intentionlly missed the point that Patrick O'Sullivan, while immensely talented, is notoriously contact-avoidant, and -- no matter what his actual height -- plays like he's 5'3", while Williams "plays big." Gladys pretended not to know what that means, and chose instead to throw gasoline on the fire that is the message-board wing of the Kings fan-base, by playing to their worst fears (you know, botched trades of prospects that turn into someone else's superstars, GMs who don't know what they're doing, etc.).
This was about when I started to develop the theory that Gladys seems to come to the defense of the cute and/or hunky players (O'Sullivan, Cammalleri, Johnson) but not so much the un-cute or less-cute or cute-challenged or just normal looking (Visnovsky). Admittedly, this is too small a sample size for it to be anything but a crack-pot theory, but I come back to it yet again because, for example, she could have gone to Kopitar or Doughty and said, "Lombardi says you're a fat pig. Care to comment?" But she didn't. She chose Johnson instead. (I take it as axiomatic that Johnson is more calendar-worthy than Kopi and Dewey -- but maybe that's just because they were recently cast in one of RudyKelly's brilliant fever dreams as Droopy Dawg and Winnie the Pooh. Okay, my mistake, it wasn't Droopy, it was Meeko from James Cameron's Pocahontas.)