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Education, player support part of Kings' response to off-ice mistakes

Kings GM Dean Lombardi has spent the offseason trying to figure out how he could have prevented his team's problems. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Zamboni was doing its thing between on-ice sessions at Los Angeles Kings training camp last Friday afternoon as the conversation between three Kings fans moved to off-ice matters. I couldn't help but overhear it.

"Well, I just don't understand why Patrick Kane wasn't suspended when our guy was right away,'' said a middle-aged woman in a Kings T-shirt.

"Well, Slava [Voynov] was arrested, so maybe ... '' responded a male Kings fan.

"It doesn't matter, it's wrong,'' interjected the woman.

"I just wish Slava hadn't done what he did,'' said the man.

The conversation went on for a good 15 minutes, each fan fairly well-read in the minutiae of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement and the different factors involved in the three arrests that have marred their team's image over the past year.

And this is reality for the Kings on the eve of the 2015-16 season: Having won the hearts of their fan base with two Stanley Cups, they now have to win back the fans' trust.

"We've become a big part of the community," Kings center Jeff Carter told ESPN.com on Friday. "There's some cracks in that now. It's on us to really buckle down. On the ice, we'll do our thing, we're a confident group. But off the ice, we need to build it back to where it was.''

If that message was fresh in Carter's mind, perhaps it's because just a few hours earlier, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi had delivered a half-hour speech to his players that, by all accounts, penetrated right to the heart of the matter.

"I told the players, 'We're going to learn from this, we're going to have the best development program off the ice just like we have on the ice, and that's that way we're going to go," Lombardi told ESPN.com. "And we're going to get stronger.'''

The Kings unveiled on Monday their Conduct Awareness Training Initiatives, a program that will be part education, part support system for players in areas of domestic violence and drug abuse. It's the culmination of a year's worth of research by a Kings organization determined not to ignore three player arrests that tarnished the image of what was a model organization in the NHL.

The question is, how will the players embrace the program?

"We've all seen it over the last seven to eight months, I think the most important thing as players is to have the right attitude about it," captain Dustin Brown said over the weekend. "Who would have thought a year ago that we'd be sitting here talking about this, right? But that's the reality that we're in. As a group of players, we understand this stuff is important. And having the right attitude going into it.''

During a 45-minute interview in his office Friday afternoon, Lombardi spoke passionately about the journey of the past 12 months, but first and foremost, laid the blame squarely on his own shoulders for the arrests of Slava Voynov on domestic violence charges, Mike Richards on drug possession charges at the U.S.-Canada border, and Jarret Stoll on drug possession charges at a Las Vegas hotel.

"When I take responsibility for all this happening, I mean it. I'm not kidding," Lombardi said. "We pride ourselves on having the best development program in the league inside these walls. But the fact is, I did absolutely nothing outside these walls. And the more I got involved to learn about this, you're getting madder and madder at yourself. I'm learning things that are helping me.''

Before he could apply himself to learning and researching these matters, Lombardi first had to deal with his emotions. Three arrests, three players he liked. In the case of Richards, one he absolutely beloved.

"The first hard part is ... the emotion and disappointment," said Lombardi. "It hits you. When you've worked seven years to establish a culture and then take some hits like that. I've always talked about these guys in terms of being the best they can be and looking themselves in the mirror so they can look a teammate it the eye. So, when something like this happens, you failed to live up to that mantra. It really hits you. And then your personal relationship with, well, it's safe to say in particular in Mike's case, I always looked at him after we got him as my Derek Jeter.

"When you have somebody like that in such high regard ... Then you start not trusting yourself. Sometimes the emotion and the emotional attachment, it's our strongest resource. Sometimes it's a liability. On the other hand, because we have that special attachment here, that it's why we were successful. But you kind of question yourself throughout the process and say, 'We can't give up.' Once you get through that, you say, 'OK, what happened here?' You get all the facts you can on everything that was involved.''

And Lombardi certainly dug in. He spoke with police, federal investigators, former drug addicts, domestic violence experts, the list goes on. Because for Lombardi, it wasn't just about finding out what happened, but perhaps more importantly, why it happened.

Lombardi was determined to get to the source of why these things can happen and educate himself all the while.

"So I spent time with local police, I've talked to federal investigators, I've talked to people that were addicted to certain drugs, how they got on them, how they got off of them. I talked to federal agents about what is out there, how did they get it, even trying with local police to know how it's distributed," Lombardi said. "You look at that statistic: 1,200 people in Massachusetts alone dead in one year on Oxycontin.''

Oxycontin is the drug Richards is believed to have been in possession of when he was stopped at the Canadian border in June, an arrest that led to the termination of his contract (which is the subject of a yet-to-be scheduled grievance filed by the NHL Players' Association). Richards also has a Dec. 8 court date in Manitoba stemming for his border bust.

The veteran center was a huge part of the team becoming a winner before his play deteriorated over the past few years. All of that hardly matters now compared to what's in front of him.

"You never want to see anybody go through something,'' Carter said of Richards, a longtime teammate with both the Kings and Philadelphia Flyers. "You can't really say a lot about it. It's an unfortunate situation. He's a strong guy, and I'm sure he'll get through it and he'll be back.''

The Kings were criticized in many circles for terminating Richards' deal but not doing so with Voynov, giving the appearance to some of one case suiting them better than the other in terms of salary cap relief.

It's a moot point now, with Voynov also off the cap after announcing last week he plans to head home to Russia and leave the NHL rather than going through U.S. Immigration proceedings after serving his sentence, all of which stems from his arrest last October after his wife was taken to a hospital upon suffering injuries resulting from a domestic dispute. Voynov originally faced a felony charge of corporal injury to a spouse but pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence and was sentenced to a 90-day term earlier this summer, along with three years of probation.

Stoll's case has got the least attention of the three, perhaps because he was only sentenced to community service after a plea bargain to the charges of drug possession. He later signed with the New York Rangers. But make no mistake, the reality that Stoll was in possession of drugs at a pool party at a Las Vegas resort where other Kings players were present was a red flag, to say the least, for management.

As in, were other players planning to use the drugs, too? Does the team have a drug problem?

"We had to address that internally with the team," said Lombardi. "I don't want to go into details into what was said.''

The two drug arrests, and Lombardi's subsequent research, led the Kings GM to hire former NHL tough guy Brantt Myhres in July as the Kings' player assistance director. Myhres battled demons throughout his playing career, got clean and then went to college to take a substance abuse and behavioral health course (paid for by the NHL).

"He's been through it all, nobody is going to fool him,'' Lombardi said of Myhres, who was suspended four times for drug abuse during his NHL career.

Officially, a player's resource when it comes to drug or alcohol issues is the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse and behavioral health program. But by the time they enter that program, it's usually after they've hit rock bottom. The point of hiring Myhres is to foster relationships with the players to build trust so they reach out to him for help, perhaps even before the worst happens.

"I would say a good analogy would have been in San Jose one day when I was really struggling before a game, I had been doing drugs all night, I went to the bathroom and threw up,'' Myhres said Saturday. "Owen Nolan and Dave Lowry pulled me aside and said, 'Buddy, we're going to take care of you. We're going to help you through this.' That's an analogy we've used here, that the 'Brantt Myhres' in this position now is the guy Owen Nolan and Dave Lowry could have gone to talk to then first.''

Now, every Kings player has in Myhres, a guy to go to for help, 24/7 at the other end of the phone if that player feels issues are building up in terms of drug or alcohol use. Last week, Lombardi and Myhres went to San Diego to meet with Arthur Hightower, the San Diego Chargers' senior director of player engagement -- the same role on that team as Myhres now holds with the Kings.

"That was really good,'' Myhres said of the visit to San Diego with Hightower. "Most of the NFL teams are doing it, and some of them for 10 years.''

In addition, the Kings have invited Chris Herren to speak to the players Oct. 1. The former NBA player's story of drug abuse is well-documented, including in a 30-for-30 ESPN production a few years ago.

While the drug education was happening on one side of things, Lombardi also forged ahead in learning about domestic abuse. Lombardi, along with Kings senior communications vice president Mike Altieri, paid visits over the past year to a domestic abuse center. Head coach Darryl Sutter also went once.

That's where they met Patti Giggans, executive director for Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit, sexual and domestic abuse prevention center based in Los Angeles.

"We've had a lot of meetings,'' Giggans said Saturday of her talks with Lombardi. "We've had some amazing conversations. It's been a fascinating experience to meet with him. I also got to meet [Kings executive] Luc Robitaille. I'm a fairly authentic person, I'm a no-b.s. kind of person; I have to tell you that I can really see their sincerity and commitment to making this happen, that the Kings will become a healthier organization not just on the ice, but off of it. I really believe their sincerity in wanting to make that happen for their players and the players' families.''

Peace Over Violence is becoming an official partner with the Kings via the program, which also includes one of the center's instructors going to Kings games and mingling with the players' wives to develop relationships and a support system with them as well.

The key, Lombardi said, is that this program will be an ongoing thing, that it becomes ingrained in the players' lives.

"I don't want this program to be just about one lecture," said Lombardi. "We have to set this up that it's just like your development on the ice, it's day to day. It's not enough to just have one lecture at the start of training camp. You wouldn't run a development program like that on the ice, so why would you run it that way off the ice?

"The program isn't going to be about, 'Don't do this,''' continued Lombardi. "We know not to do this. We have to figure out why you would even think of doing it. It doesn't mean you're giving lectures every day, but it does mean there has to be reminders and there has to be a support group.''

Lombardi takes a deep breath and sits up in his chair. The education he has received over the past 12 months has been something else.

"It opened my eyes, I learned a tremendous amount," said Lombardi. "When I say I was negligent in this, I'm convinced that if I had had what I've envisioned now here [with the new program], these things may not have happened.''

Nothing will erase the emotional and physical pain suffered last fall by Voynov's wife, Marta Varlamova. Let's not forget, she's the victim in all this.

But the Kings hope that rising from the ashes of a year from hell will come a new program, a new way of doing things that will help raise the hockey team to new heights. And if the program is as successful as the Kings hope, it will be interesting to see if other NHL clubs follow their lead.

"We see the value of the leadership and the mentorship and the iconic status that hockey players have, that athletes have,'' said Giggans. "And the influence that goes along with it. So I'm feeling extremely excited and positive about this partnership.''

Meanwhile, the regular season is around the corner. In many ways, the routine of playing hockey again could serve as the great healing agent for a Kings family that was sent reeling this past year.

"It's hard right now. Some trust has been violated," said Lombardi. "But I've seen too much of these guys over the past seven years not to believe in them. Yes, we've taken a hit here, but I believe that foundation is still there. But there's no leeway here.''

Carter says the players understand where they're at. The Kings missed the playoffs last season and made bigger headlines off the ice.

"We put ourselves in a position you never want to be in, right? People are doubting you, there's stuff going on [off-ice], I think the guys we have in this room and the character we have, we'll deal with it and use it as motivation," said Carter. "We'll get through it as a group. It will be a learning process.''

Sure, the ultimate goal is to win another Stanley Cup, and this roster still has the goods to achieve that. Now, though, being a winner for the Los Angeles Kings carries extra meaning.

"Being a champion outside these walls is not the number of [charity] visits to a hospital, it's being able to look yourself in the mirror off the ice, just like you're taught to look at your teammates in the eyes when you come inside these walls," said Lombardi. "That's what has to happen. And again, that's where I failed.

"But I believe in this group. We'll be stronger for it.''

The rebuild of the Kings' image begins today.

"It's very important, I think, for a lot of people in this room," said Brown. "I said this to Dean, the most important thing, we have to rebuild that, but if there was any doubt or lack of belief in the group we have in here within, none of that really matters. We have to start from the room out. I think our room is in a pretty good spot considering everything. We've acknowledged it.

"Now, everything we've built up over seven years is gone," added the Kings captain. "We're starting from scratch. That's the reality we face. It's a challenge. But this group is pretty strong. We've always found a way.''