Conventional wisdom in hockey dictates it’s always safer to move a player’s development along slowly, rather than rush him into the NHL spotlight before he’s ready. Yet these mistakes have been made throughout history and likely always will be.
For instance, when the expansion Atlanta Thrashers chose Patrik Stefan with their first-ever draft pick, first overall in 1999, they put him immediately in the NHL and helplessly watched him fail to live up to his potential as a professional. But despite being a first-year franchise, the team was repeating history and making the same mistake a deposed Atlanta franchise had made 27 years prior.
When Jacques Richard was starring alongside Guy Lafleur for the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec League in the early 1970s, NHL teams salivated at his potential. He’d put up 239 points over two years with Lafleur and had set a career high with 71 goals and 160 points in his last junior year after the future Hall of Famer had moved on to the NHL. Richard’s offense and speed were at an elite level and his last name added to the promise and mystique around his future. But that’s about all Richard had in common with The Rocket or ‘The Pocket Rocket.’
Richard was a stud prospect who some believed would be as good or possibly even better than Lafleur. Two expansion teams were entering the NHL in 1972-73 and, after the New York Islanders scooped Billy Harris with the first overall pick, the Atlanta Flames went with Richard.
Confidence immediately became an issue for the young francophone, who needed a translator to do interviews. He was shy, which, according to teammate Phil Myre, stalled his desire to learn the language.
“He’s afraid somebody will make fun of him,” the goalie told The Hockey News in 1972. “He knows a little English, but he’s too bashful to speak it.”
In training camp that year, Richard had trouble keeping his head up playing in a much faster style of game. Time and again his coaches had to drill him to look ahead and instruct the rest of the Flames to tone it down and not catch him in the middle of the ice. That didn’t stop sturdy blueliner and teammate Bob Paradise from clobbering Richard in one scrimmage, though, leaving the rookie writhing in pain on the ice.
“I’ve just been disappointed in myself because I know I can do better than what I’ve done,” Richard told THN that fall. “I just need to get confidence in myself.”
Even after Harris outscored Richard in points 50 to 31 that season, there was little doubt Richard was destined to be a superstar one day. He only eclipsed 50 points once, however, and that didn't come until the tail end of a short, disappointing career.
Richard lasted three years in Atlanta, topping out at 27 goals and 43 points, before he was shipped to the Buffalo Sabres. He spent parts of four seasons in that organization, in the American League nearly half the time, and after failing to improve his defensive game or establish himself as an NHL scorer, he was released by the Sabres and signed with the Quebec Nordiques.
At this point in Richard’s career, not much was expected of him. While his on-ice struggles were well documented and easy to see, behind-the-scenes factors were also conspiring against him. Alcohol, drug and gambling issues eroded his focus and skill set, and were problems that followed him into retirement. But in 1980-81, Richard’s first full season with his hometown Nordiques, he finally showed a flash of the player he was supposed to be with the Flames. Coach Michel Bergeron put him on a line with brothers Peter and Anton Stastny and watched him become perhaps the most unlikely 50-goal scorer in NHL history. With 52 goals and 103 points, Richard was suddenly a top-10 scorer on one of the most dynamic lines in the league and at 28, he still had plenty of time to realize at least some of his vast potential.
As quickly as he captured that lightning, though, it was gone in a flash. Richard slumped to 15 goals and 41 points in 1981-82 and slowed even more the following season, which resulted in his demotion to the Fredericton Express of the AHL. After that, the former phenom disappeared from the professional hockey scene altogether. He was just 31 years old.
A troubled lifestyle followed Richard. In 1989, he was caught smuggling approximately five pounds of cocaine in his golf bag when he returned from a trip to Columbia, for which he was imprisoned seven years.
Richard died in the late hours of Oct. 8, 2002, when his car struck a culvert, killing him instantly. He was one day removed from his 50th birthday.
This is an excerpt from THN’s book, Biggest of Everything in Hockey.