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Ready to Rock

Feb 09, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

Griffins rookie Amadeus Lombardi is starting to find his groove during his first full season in the AHL.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

There's more than a touch of truth to the old joke about the tourist who asks a New Yorker, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The answer, of course, is Practice! Practice! Practice!

Red Wings prospect Amadeus Lombardi wishes he had learned to play guitar, but his entire life has revolved around hockey – with a healthy dose of music nonetheless.

At age 20, he counts The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin among his favorite bands, due in no small part to the influence of his father, Nick Lombardi, once a budding musician.

"I remember being in the car when I was really young, maybe three years old, just listening," he said. "The first album I distinctively remember listening to, like a ton, was Sam's Town by The Killers, which came out in 2006, and I listened a lot to The Beatles' Abbey Road."

His father fronted a band called Dropkick Me Jesus (not to be confused with the Bobby Bare song) in the late 1990s before becoming the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of a promising act called Attomik.

"He really should have made it big," Lombardi says of his father. "Attomik was supposed to tour Europe and India. They were going to make a documentary about it and then stuff happened. They were the No. 1 indie rock band in Canada, but they started getting sued for their name because of the ski company, Atomic.

"They were just starting to break through when they got caught up in the lawsuit and didn't have a lot of money yet. They were in the process of getting signed, so it's sad."

But the story was only beginning, not ending.

His dad set aside his musical aspirations in favor of fatherhood. "Once I was born, he wrapped up his music career," said Lombardi, who was given the name of Amadeus, a moniker derived from the Latin words Ama – the imperative of the word Amare ("to love") – and Deus ("God"). In other words, a boy loved by God.

"My dad lost something – which was music – that he thought was the biggest thing, but as soon as he lost it, I got brought into his life," Lombardi said. "I became the most important thing to him."

From the very beginning, his father made his influence apparent. As much Lombardi’s taste in music reflects his upbringing, his hockey development shows equally significant guidance.

"I grew up in a pretty big [Maple] Leafs house and my dad's favorite players were Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark, so that's why I wear #93 [Gilmour] and my brother Ulysses wears #17 [Clark]," he said. "I think my number and name fit together, almost musically. That's part of the reason, too."

It became evident that Lombardi's father was intent on orchestrating a successful path for his children. (Amadeus and Ulysses have a sister named Symphony – "She's really good at martial arts," says Lombardi.)

In between lullabies, there were harmonious attempts to gently guide his boys in the right direction.

"My dad loved hockey growing up but he could never afford it until he worked a whole summer when he was 15 so he could buy his own equipment," Lombardi said. "He signed himself up for hockey – he had a good shot – but when you start at 15, your skating just isn't there. If he had played when he was younger, he would have been good."

That's why he made sure his boys got an early start.

"My dad tells the story that when I was very young, not even a year old, my dad and uncle were watching Don Cherry [Rock 'em Sock 'em] 15 and I reached out like I was trying to get into the TV.

"So they grabbed a mini stick and net, made a ball of out of tin foil, and showed me how to shoot it into the net. They put the stick in my hands and I shot it, and when it went in, they went crazy, which I guess is where it all started."

His parents took him to his first hockey game in Toronto before his first birthday. According to his dad's telling, the crowd erupted in a roar when the Maple Leafs won the contest in overtime.

"We were in the top row and my dad picked me up and held me out in the air and I started crying," Lombardi said, describing his father's Simba-like move. "My dad says, 'That's the day the hockey gods baptized you.'”

Even though he had not played hockey growing up, his father was smart enough to know his sons would need to excel at skating and stick handling if they were going to have a chance.

For years, he had marveled at the puck-possession brand of hockey favored by the Russian Red Army teams.

"When my dad was growing up, he used to watch the Soviet Union because he liked the way the Red Army played," Lombardi said. "So when I was learning hockey, I used to watch all that stuff. As a kid, I watched a lot of highlights. I loved watching Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov, and Sergei Makarov – guys who played that puck possession style."

Lombardi said he also admired Russians who never played in North America – gifted offensive players like Valeri Kharlamov, a highly skilled, intelligent, and creative forward who was considered one of the best of his era.

It led Lombardi's father to find Dr. Yasha Smushkin, a former Soviet Union national coach who had been putting figure skaters and hockey players in the Toronto area through unconventional drills for more than 30 years. His creative approach to teaching went beyond pucks and pylons, pushing athletes to test the limits of their agility like talented musicians might do finger exercises to stretch their abilities.

Imagine, for example, jumping rope while wearing skates.

"When I was about four years old, my dad found this guy who was very unorthodox with these crazy, innovative drills," Lombardi said of Dr. Smushkin, who died in 2022 at the age of 92. "I think I was the only little kid – most of the others were anywhere from 12 to 16 years old – but Dr. Smushkin let me come into his program.

"He had all these different, really interesting techniques – like jumping off a springboard, spinning around, and then landing and skating out of it – and I think he definitely helped my skating. Even now, his teaching remains a core part of my skating. He always knew how to get the best out of people."

Lombardi always wanted more time on the ice.

"Honestly, I've got to give a lot of credit to my mom [Jessica] because she would run me around, especially when I was little, to every rink we could find. I was skating four or five times a day – every single pleasure skate we could find, any ice all over the city. She'd run me to Vaughn, back to Newmarket, or Richmond Hill. I was always skating.

"When my siblings were born, she'd have to do it with them. While I was getting dressed in the room, she'd be reading to my sister, making her fall asleep while she had my little brother in the carriage. She'd bring the carriage to the Zamboni door while holding my sister, and I would skate for however long, whether it was two hours or an hour.

"So that's when my brother got baptized into hockey [Ulysses, now 15, plays AAA hockey for the North York Rangers]. I give credit to my little sister, too, for always coming along. She sacrificed a lot of her childhood because she was always getting dragged around the rinks. She came to all the games and tournaments, always cheering us on."

Lombardi simply loved every moment he was able to skate.

"The whole week I was skating every day and then there were tournaments on the weekend, so I was on the ice every day for hours," he said. "I remember a Sunday when we played two games and Smushkin had a two-hour session that night and I still said, 'I want to go.'

"My dad was like, 'No, you're not going. I'm not letting you go,' but I went upstairs, got dressed, and begged, 'Please take me.' So they took me, but he said, 'Only for one hour.' So after one hour, my dad's banging on the glass. I pretended not to hear or see him, so I skated for the whole two hours.

"Afterwards, I came off the ice and he started undressing me. I'm like, 'No, don't. I can't get undressed.' And it became this big scene."

Lombardi, it seems, had relieved himself inside his gear. "I knew if I got off the ice, my dad wouldn't let me back on," he said.

His stubborn single-mindedness impressed Dr. Smushkin, who recognized that this little Lombardi kid was something special. "I think I skated with him for a couple of years, but it was a little expensive. When my brother started playing hockey, it just got to be too much. But my time with Smushkin was super crucial for my skating."

Lombardi tried playing soccer for a year, but he became resolved to dedicate himself to hockey. During his formative years, he played for various teams in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, the largest amateur league in the world, with over 40,000 participants registered annually.

He is thankful that his household included his dad's parents. "We lived with my grandparents almost my whole life because my parents had to work so much to afford hockey and with how much they ran me around to practices and games. So there was always a family dynamic."

Yet, even with all the skating, Lombardi was a relative late-bloomer who was not on the radar of many teams. He was selected by the Flint Firebirds in the 13th round (245th overall) of the 2019 OHL Priority Selection.

And then the pandemic happened.

"I think there's two ways to look at it," he said. "I missed a full season of OHL experience and playing time, but I trained for a year and a half nonstop, which meant time to grow into my body. I think I grew three inches during COVID. I went from 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-10, so the pandemic gave me time.

"I think I made the most of it but it definitely could have stunted my growth, and I still think I'm working through that now. Instead of three years in the OHL, I only got two, but it was still awesome. I loved playing there."

During his first year, 2021-22, he tallied nearly a point per game. "I was struggling a little bit with the pace, with the physicality of the play, but I started coming into my own after Christmas that first year, and then I had a really good playoff," he said.

He was good enough to attract the attention of the Red Wings, who took Lombardi in the fourth round (113th overall) of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.

"It was a crazy feeling because I got drafted so late into the OHL," he said. "I knew in my heart I could make it, but when the OHL season got canceled, I thought it might be a longer road than I imagined. But my grandfather was, always, ‘You're going to get drafted by Detroit.’"

Giovanni Lombardi had played soccer back in his native Italy before coming to Canada, where he drove a bus for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). "My grandfather loved [Red Wings general manager and former captain Steve] Yzerman," he said. "Yzerman was his favorite player when he watched hockey, so for two years, he kept saying, 'The Red Wings are going to draft you.' When it happened, there was this crazy feeling of him being right."

Lombardi returned to Flint, where he blossomed into a star last season under the tutelage of Firebirds head coach Ted Dent, who had led the AHL's Rockford IceHogs for six seasons (2011-17). During the 2022-23 OHL campaign, Lombardi tallied 45 goals and 57 assists for 102 points in 67 games.

"I was still getting my feet wet that first year," he said. "I'm not a player who can just come into a situation and be able to play my game right away. I need some time to get comfortable with my team, the staff, myself, and the other guys around the league.

"My first year I think I was a little bit tense, a little tentative. But I worked on my shot a lot, and I started to play the way I can play. The second year went a lot better. I feel like I learned a lot during my two years in Flint."

Lombardi appeared in two games with the Griffins at the end of last season, which he found beneficial as far as giving him a taste of the pace and style of play that he would need to learn to be able to compete in the AHL. Even so, he admits that he has struggled at times to find his game during his rookie pro season.

"I think the first games of the season were really hard on me," he said. "It reminded me of my first few games in the OHL. It was so fast, so physical, with not a lot of time and space. Even now I'm still trying to figure it out, but I think it's been going well lately.

Not surprisingly, the kid who refused to take off his skates is still usually the last to leave the ice at Griffins practices.

"I've been trying to work on it, but even for morning skate, there are a lot of times where I'm out there for way too long, and then come game time, I feel it. I'm like, 'Well, what was I doing?' So I'm not doing it after morning skates, but every practice, I stay because every day you can get better, especially at a younger age.

"You've got to be willing to put in the work, whether it's off the ice, working on your mechanics, your mobility, or your strength, which is something I need to work on a ton right now. On the ice, it's the little things.

"When I'm out there by myself, I try to visualize myself in a play. You see people coming down, you beat a guy, you cut to the net. You make the play so when it happens in a game, you know 100 percent you can do it because you've done it in practice so many times.

"I look at every day as a day to improve myself, to get better. If I'm at my best, it's going to help the team. If I'm at my worst, it's going to hurt the team. I think I've made progress, but the biggest thing right now is probably consistency.

"I'm trying to focus on being the best I can every single game and being more consistent. I'm not worried about points because when you play the right way, they somehow come. So I'm not too focused on points right now. I'm focused on playing the right way, being smart in my own zone, making the smart play, and being consistent every game."

Lombardi is also doing what he can to keep his mind sharp. He's reading books like Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Be Your Future Self by Dr. Benjamin Hardy.

"I'm really into psychology and my parents always tell me, if you're not going to be taking classes, you've got to make sure you're reading all the time so you can keep learning things about yourself every day.

"I think reading is a very, very important thing. I'm a big over-thinker, so I have to work a lot to not get caught up in thinking about the future or thinking about the past. You have to live in the now, live in the present, and reading has helped me out."

And Lombardi is liking where the Griffins are at present. The team has started to play to its strengths and, most importantly, starting to win hockey games that it would have lost earlier in the season.

"Personal success comes from team success," he said. "We've got some swagger now. We've got a lot of guys making smart plays. We're starting to play for each other. We're coming together. It's been happening in the [dressing] room and now it's transferring to the ice. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."