Monday, June 18, 2012

A Champion, Richards Proves to be a Stanley Cup winner

By Larry Wigge

There's something about Mike Richards that sticks out at you.

You start with the intangibles -- heart, desire, character, work ethic and hockey sense. All the things he has, and all the things hockey coaches look for in a good leader. 

That's what first attracted the Kenora, Ontario, native, to the Philadelphia Flyers who selected Richards with the 24th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The Flyers eventually named him captain after a short time there.

"He reminds me of a young Bobby Clarke," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said. "He does it all."

Memorial Cup winner. Olympic gold medalist. World Junior champion. The only thing that was missing from his winning resume was a Stanley Cup championship -- the Flyers made it to the Finals, but lost to Chicago in 2010.

No one expected the announcement that was to be made on draft day ... 

June 23, 2011 started out like any other. He had a good workout, when he came home from the gym. Until ...

"I just had gotten home from the gym, and got a call from my agent (Pat Morris) and literally just thought it was a casual catch-up," Richards explained. "I was just like, 'Hey, how's it' going? How's the draft going, blah blah blah.' But he was like, 'Richie, I've got to talk to you.'"

Shock. Then anger. Emotions were running rampant.

No being able to reach Morris, he clicked on the Internet. Then, his cell phone blew up with calls from friends and family wondering of the reports were true that he had been traded by Philadelphia to the Los Angeles Kings along with center prospect Brayden Schenn, right wing Wayne Simonds and a second-round draft choice.

The captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. He still had nine years left on his 12-year, $69 million contract. He had led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final only a year before. He was orange and black to the core, a true Flyer in the mold of the beloved Bobby Clarke: nasty, tough, skilled at both ends and a little mischievous on and off the ice. If anyone looked to be a lifer in Philly, it was Mike Richards.

"Yeah, I thought the same. I loved it in Philadelphia," Richards said. "For the first hour or so after getting the call, there were a few bad words and a lot of 'What's going on?' questions."

Then he learned it was true -- he had been traded to the Kings.

"At first I was shocked and then excited," Richards recalled ...

After he had time to digest the announcement he continued, "I'm excited to move out to L.A. and be a part of a team that has a ton of great players. I'm just looking forward to helping them out."

But most of all, he felt wanted.

"You want the guy who wears the jersey on his sleeve and the heart on his sleeve," Kings GM Dean Lombardi said. "If we can get that here in L.A., that's exactly what we need."

Closing in on a year after that deal, he was leading the Kings to the Stanley Cup final -- defeating the New Jersey Devils in six games.

Richards isn't always the most vocal. He takes his lead from his parents. His father, Norm, works in a paper mill. His mother, Irene, works at the Safeway. 

"I am a big believer that you are born with leadership ability or you aren't," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who coach Richards as a 16-year-old with the Kitchener Rangers. "It is a tough thing to learn, but we realized pretty early the kind of player Mike was. We actually made him a captain for the first time as a 17-year old -- which is almost unheard of in junior hockey."

DeBoer remembers the first time he met his Richards.

"I'll be honest with you, my first impressions of him during that first training camp were just average," DeBoer explained. "He was a kid coming from northern Ontario, and he had an average training camp. By November he had convinced us to make room for him on the top two lines as a center.

"Mike Richards is one of those guys that, if you are doing a skills competition or watching a practice, wouldn't jump off the page at you. But drop him in a meaningful game and his intangibles take over.

"He was the heartbeat of that team. He grabbed this group by the collar and dragged us through the first round and, by doing it, he got a young team playing with some confidence again."

Should Kitchener find a way to beat the mighty Knights and go on to win the 2005 Memorial Cup, Rangers fans will point to The Speech. It came after Kitchener dropped the first two games of its opening-round series with Erie. 

He pointed the finger at himself first. Saying his performance had been unacceptable, Richards promised the fans he would be better and he promised them the team would be better.

Kitchener has not lost a game since the promise was made, while Richards has gone on a rampage, scoring eight goals -- three of them game winners -- and adding 12 assists to put him in a tie, with London's Corey Perry, as the OHL playoff scoring leaders.

"There was a lot of pressure on a lot of people and as a leader I needed to step up and say something," Richards said. "And by saying something I think it kind of took the pressure off some of the younger guys."

Speaking in leadership terms, DeBoer said of Richards, "He'd run you over with his car to win a Stanley Cup, then he'd visit you in the hospital after."

Richards assisted on the first two goals in Game 6 -- the series clinching game.

With the Flyers, Mike totaled 28, 30, 31 and 23 goals before the trade. Like at Vancouver in the 2010 Olympics, he learned to give the team the best effort for his playing time -- 26 or 20 minutes.

Richards was a perfect fit for a second-line center -- behind No. 1 man Anze Kopitar and in front of third-liner Jarret Stoll.

He finished with 18 goals and 26 assists in the regular season. In the playoffs, he contributed four goals and 11 assists in 20 games.

"When I first got here in December, Richie was sidelined by a concussion," coach Darryl Sutter said. "He didn't really get over that until March, but he always played with his emotions on his sleeve.

"Then, after we brought in Jeff Carter, they both brought the house."

In the playoffs, everyone starts at zero on the stats sheet.

"Everybody starts at zero. I never lost confidence in myself. Even though I wasn’t getting the points, the bounces, you knew if you stuck with it, it was going to come," Richards pointed out. "You stick with the game plan. It's not cheating offensively. It's playing good defense."

Asked if he wondered when he took over why Richards had so few points, Sutter answered in the negative.

"He's a pretty good player, he's an elite player," Sutter continued. "You saw him in Vancouver in the Olympics."

No longer the captain, Mike Richards is a true leader. Almost one year to the day was living a Stanley Cup dream.

The trade. The disappointment.

"Something I had never had to before," Richards said of the trade. "I don't handle change to well and adjustment. But ..."

Forty minutes after he held the Stanley Cup for the very first time, Mike Richards went back and grabbed it once more. For good measure.

He found a patch of ice where no one stood, slowly skated a half lap by all himself, just he and the Cup. He enjoyed his own personal moment in a sea of hugs, tears, family and still more tears.

"This is amazing," Richards yelled. "It was a frustrating year. A lot of ups and downs, a lot of highs and lows.

"All year was a journey. There was a lot of good, a lot of bad. But we got through it. This is the most resilient group I've ever been a part of."

Mike Richards was the most important piece of the puzzle. A winner. A Stanley Cup winner.

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