EL SEGUNDO -- In the celebration after the Los Angeles Kings clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup finals, Dean Lombardi sought out Darryl Sutter with a question: Did you have the same flashback I did?
Indeed he had. Sutter and Lombardi had thought back to May 15, 2002 -- a day hard-core Sharks fans remember as a 1-0 loss to Colorado in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, the day Teemu Selanne missed an open net and everything changed.
"Who knows what happens if that had gone in," Sutter said last week.
Instead of perhaps advancing to the conference finals, the Sharks went sour. Within seven months, Sutter was gone as coach, fired by Lombardi. Less than four months later, Lombardi was dismissed.
Now they are back together, Dean and Darryl, G.M. and coach, with a chance to do something they were unable to accomplish in San Jose -- hoist the Stanley Cup. The Kings, a No. 8 seed, have roared into the finals by knocking off the top three seeds in the West, and tying an NHL record by doing it in only 14 games. They will face the New Jersey Devils in the Cup finals, beginning Wednesday in Newark N.J.
"There was a part of me that felt we would always get another shot at this together," said Lombardi, whose decision to hire Sutter in December saved the Kings' season. "We're not the mushiest guys around, but we have a bond. Somehow, someway we were going to get another stab at this, because we deserved it."
This is how deep their
"We're just a couple of blue-collar guys," Sutter said. "We've had a real impact on one another's lives."
Owen Nolan, who captained the Sharks under the Dean-Darryl regime, isn't surprised to find them on the cusp of history.
"Both of them have the same mindset," Nolan said. "They look for a hardworking team. That's what they base everything on. Skill will only take you so far. You need a work ethic. And come playoff time, those teams are perfect."
On the surface, Lombardi and Sutter ought to have little in common.
Sutter, 53, one of six brothers to play in the NHL, grew up on a 3,000-acre farm outside Viking, Alberta, a small prairie town. He turned down offers from Harvard, Princeton and Yale for a pro hockey career in which he played 406 NHL games. He is a man of few words and so soft-spoken that what he does say often can barely be heard.
Lombardi, 54, is a self-described "factory-town rat" from Massachusetts who earned a law degree at Tulane before climbing the NHL front-office ladder. A history buff who loves to talk about anything except himself, Lombardi is intense and tends to brood more about his perceived failures than his successes.
But they became so close in San Jose that Lombardi calls Sutter "the finest man I've ever known."
With the Sharks from their inception, Lombardi took over as general manager in 1996 and his hiring of Sutter the following year put the team on an upward trajectory. The Sharks improved in each of Sutter's five full seasons, culminating with the team's first Pacific Division title in 2002.
"We weren't the best team, but that was our year," Lombardi said. "We were hard to play against. That team just took on the image of Darryl and epitomized everything he's about."
Lombardi has little interest in rehashing how things went south the next season amid cost-cutting by new ownership, holdouts and injuries. He focuses on the good times.
"If I didn't get my chance up there, I don't think I'm sitting here today," Lombardi said. "It was very difficult at the end, no doubt about it. But what I remember is how when I was fired, 12 players came to my house until 4 in the morning. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything."
It's also worth noting that the first person Lombardi called after being fired, not counting his wife, was the coach he had just cashiered.
Sutter never held a grudge. "Hey, you don't shoot the messenger," he said.
On being fired, Sutter said: "That kind of thing hurts, and you want to talk to someone who's been there. I understood, because we both had wanted the team to do so well."
Sutter landed on his feet quickly, hired to coach Calgary and taking the Flames to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.
It took longer for Lombardi. Deeply hurt, he retreated to his summer home in Sonoma and once said he spent four months "in a coma." He re-emerged as a scout for Philadelphia and was named the Kings' G.M. in 2006.
In Los Angeles, he again set about building a team through the draft. Expectations were high this season, especially after the acquisition of former Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards. But the team struggled early under coach Terry Murray, and Lombardi decided to make a change.
He wanted his old coach. But Sutter was happy at home -- having resigned as the Flames' G.M. in 2010 -- farming and being a father to youngest child Christopher, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome who just this month graduated from high school.
"Hockey might be what I do, but it's not who I am," Sutter said. "I like being with my family. If I was going to take another job, it had to be the right one with relationships I trusted."
That happened when Lombardi said: "Let's have another go at it."
The G.M. thought Sutter's no-nonsense approach was exactly what the young Kings needed.
Their shared past made the transition easier as Lombardi described the Kings to Sutter in Sharks terms: Jarret Stoll was San Jose's Mike Ricci. Trading for Richards was like when the Sharks added Vinny Damphousse.
"There were so many parallels," Lombardi said. "I could tell Darryl, 'This guy is your (Patrick) Marleau, here's your Brad Stuart, your (Jonathan) Cheechoo, your Gary Suter.' There were a lot of touchstones that we could relate to, and we could talk about doing things better than we did in San Jose."
Sutter installed an up-tempo style that included an aggressive forecheck. He tinkered with the lineup. He called out stars Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar for being "stale." He got through to underachieving players such as Dustin Penner, who had become a leaguewide joke after somehow hurting his back while eating pancakes.
"You have to give Dean credit, because he clearly brought in someone who addressed exactly what we needed," defenseman Willie Mitchell said. "Our preparation wasn't the best. And you know with Darryl Sutter, you've got preparation."
The final piece was Lombardi's risky February trade for Columbus forward Jeff Carter, who provided a scoring boost. The Kings went 25-13-11 under Sutter and made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. They have been virtually unbeatable since.
In Game 5 of the conference finals Tuesday, Justin Williams missed an open net in overtime -- the play that made Sutter and Lombardi cringe while thinking of Selanne -- before Penner scored the series-winner. Afterward, Kings players took note of how deeply the low-key Lombardi reveled in the moment.
"He's always saying that because he doesn't have any children, we're all like his kids," Penner said. "I've never seen a G.M. so excited and wanting everyone to succeed."
Now, the Dean and Darryl Show goes for its first Stanley Cup.
And the best part, says the coach whom Lombardi once fired, "is we are doing it together."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.