New detailer goes to work on Lightning

Brian Lawton figured the best way to get the job as the Lightning's vice president of hockey operations was to act like he already had it.

So Lawton put together a plan to transform the team from the last-place wreckage it had become into a powerhouse.

It was 46 pages of charts, graphs, player evaluations and proposed player moves.

"It was," Lightning owner Oren Koules said, "one of the most incredible things you've ever seen. I printed it out in color."

Koules said he still refers to the "manifesto." Lawton keeps a copy in a drawer of his office desk at the St. Pete Times Forum.

To fully appreciate the document, you have to appreciate Lawton: a former NHL player who in 1983 was the first U.S.-born drafted No. 1 overall and in September quit a 14-year career as an agent to pursue his first front-office job.

That meant making his vision the issue for Koules and owner Len Barrie rather than his lack of experience managing a team.

It worked.

"It was his organizational skills," Koules said. "Len and I are running around, we've got so much going on. We've got a really clear plan. We wanted someone who could execute the plan while having opinions."

" 'You're young, you're aggressive, you have a lot to prove,' '' Lawton, 43, said the owners told him after he was hired. "Most people want to get someone who already has proved a lot."

History lesson

Growing up in Cumberland, R.I., Lawton said he opened a hockey school when he was 14.

"Just with friends," he said. "It wasn't a big moneymaker, but $10 was big money back then."

Lawton's growing stardom certainly was good for a few sign-ups. And after leading Mount Saint Charles Academy to four straight state prep titles, the Minnesota North Stars drafted him ahead of players such as Pat LaFontaine and Steve Yzerman.

Lawton's nine-year career never measured up to the hype, and the left wing finished with 112 goals and 266 points with six teams, though mostly with Minnesota. There also were turns with five minor-league teams.

"I was a horse- - - - player," he said. "And I got moved around so much, it was a pain for me."

The real world didn't help as his wife, Marjorie, from whom Lawton was separated, committed suicide in March 1991.

Lawton, remarried with three kids, declined to talk about it. But best friend and former teammate Scott Bjugstad said, "It was a tough deal, a brutal situation.

"He has persevered through a lot of stuff happening to him," Bjugstad added. "He fought his way through it. He doesn't quit. That's one thing you can say about Brian."

Learning the ropes

Lawton said he wanted to run a team since his mid 20s. Playing in 11 cities confirmed the notion.

"At the end of the day," he said, "I didn't like people having the ability to assign you because of whatever."

Trouble was Lawton had little business and management experience. What better way to get it than as an agent?

Lawton said he set up Lawton Sport and Financial almost immediately after his 1993 retirement. Five years later, the company, with 18 NHL clients, was sold to Octagon, a worldwide management firm for which Lawton worked until September, when he quit to concentrate full time on pursuing a team management position.

Lawton, whose highest profile clients included Sergei Fedorov and Mike Modano, said each step was a lesson: "I learned the business side, the contracts and the (collective bargaining agreement). When I sold my company, I got more experience working in a corporate culture, working with other people."

"The way he did business was always very professional and thoughtful," said Lightning co-assistant general manager Claude Loiselle, who negotiated with Lawton on contracts for Tampa Bay and interned for him while in law school. "He's not an aggressive type of guy. He reasons with people, and he's got a mind for business."

Does that lead to running a team? Mike Liut, Octagon's chief integration officer and a former NHL goalie himself, said it can.

"Managing a team is analyzing players and drawing conclusions on those players. You certainly do that as an agent," Liut said. "Representing athletes provides a very unique element, and that is understanding the player-relation aspect and the free-agent world. How do you attract someone to come to your team? He completely understands it."

Lawton, whose hiring left no room for former general manager Jay Feaster, took an aggressive approach in June by trading for the negotiating rights of potential free agents Vinny Pros­pal, Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts, and signing them before they hit the open market.

It was a bold strategy to avoid bidding wars against richer teams. It was a perfect call by someone trying to prove he can handle the job of his dreams.

"The biggest thing I missed as an agent was the actual physical competitiveness," Lawton said. "In a lot of ways, that is what led me back here because I'm looking for that competitiveness.

"I want that. I crave that. We'll see if it's the right thing."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

New detailer goes to work on Lightning 08/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 1:45pm]

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