It is late in the game and his Kitchener Rangers are losing to the more talented and heavily favored London Knights, but Mike Richards isn’t packing it in.
When a scrum occurs after a whistle, the 5-foot-11 and 195-pound Richards reaches into the crowd and pulls out the Knights’ best player, 6-foot-3 and 200-pound Corey Perry. Richards wins the fight, although his team loses the game, and the playoff series, to the Knights who go on to win the Memorial Cup.
It was simply one of many examples of Mike Richards doing what he felt needed to be done to pick up his team.
“Sure I remember that game,” says Rangers coach Peter DeBoer. “This is a kid who had already signed a pro contract and had a place to go as soon as we were beat out. Rather than throw in the towel against a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country – and on paper we didn’t look like we even belonged in the same rink as them – he went out and grabbed him and fought their best player in order to show our team it was just one game and we weren’t done yet.”
Even his junior teammates knew they were in the midst of a great player.
“He had leadership qualities even back then,” says Buffalo Sabres center Derek Roy, who played two seasons with Richards in Kitchener. “He’d score big goals at huge times and he played tough, gritty two-way hockey. He excelled in the playoffs, the toughest time of year, and when something needed to be said in the dressing room, he’d say it. He’s not one of those guys that is yakking all the time, but when he does say something, guys listen.”
Now in his third NHL season, and bouncing back nicely from an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, Richards is showing similar leadership qualities with the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that has turned its fortunes around and is clearly headed in the right direction.
DeBoer, for one, is not surprised.
“He was always thinking about the team,” DeBoer says. “As a 17-year-old we were playing in the Memorial Cup in Quebec City and in a game against Kelowna, we were going into the third period down by two goals. Kelowna was 50-1 with the lead going into the third period and Mike came out and scored two goals in the third period and we ended up winning and getting a bye to the final.”
Ever since he retired in 1984, the Philadelphia Flyers have been desperately trying to find the next Bobby Clarke.
You know, like they grow on trees.
The Flyers have been desperate to replace Clarke, the face of the long-time face of the organization and the gap-toothed warrior who led them to their two and only Stanley Cup championships, in the ‘70s.
First it was Mike Ricci.
Way back in 1990, when the Flyers chose Ricci fourth overall, they were convinced his number would one day hang in the rafters at the home rink along side Clarke’s No. 16. That didn’t quite work out, though. After impressive back-to-back 20-goals seasons, Ricci was traded as part of the monster package the Flyers put together to acquire Eric Lindros. That being said, Ricci was considered a valuable leader with Quebec, Colorado (with whom he won the Stanley Cup), San Jose and Phoenix.
So the lookout for the next Bobby Clarke in Philadelphia continued.
Lindros was next in line and although he got the Flyers to the Cup final in 1997, that experiment went south as his health deteriorated and The Big E ultimately left town a bitter enemy of both Clarke, who had originally embraced him, and the organization.
So the search continued.
I’m not sure if it is fair to put that kind of pressure on the shoulders of a 22-year-old, but Flyers fans are holding their breath that the next Bobby Clarke may finally be in their midst.
When the Flyers chose Richards 24th overall in the 2003 NHL entry draft, they got themselves a kid who lives to lead others to victory. Richards has been a winner in junior, on the international stage and in the American League. This time, you can bet the Flyers won’t let their Next One get away.
“It’s like a judge said about obscenity, ‘I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it,’ ” says Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi, who worked three years as a pro scout with the Flyers before joining the Kings. “This guy is like Clarkie; when you are around him you can’t define it, but you feel it. He has it and that’s about all you can say. It’s one of those things you can’t fake. A lot of times teams will put the ‘C’ on a young guy and hope he develops into a leader, but with Richards, no learning is necessary. He is a natural leader.”
On a team that boasts numerous players who have worn the captain’s ‘C’ on their jerseys in the NHL – from Jason Smith to Derian Hatcher to Kimmo Timonen – it is the kid with the alternate captain’s ‘A’ that so many of his teammates look to for inspiration and direction. Just like the Flyers championship teams in 1973-74 and 1974-75 looked to Clarke.
“One thing about Clarkie is, most of his leadership was simply setting the right example,” Holmgren says. “I joined the Flyers in 1975, after they had won a couple of Stanley Cups, and I was a little surprised to find out he didn’t say a lot, but when he did the room went dead quiet. It was his mannerisms and what he did on the ice that carried him. It is the same for Mike.”
For his part, Richards admits he doesn’t know a lot about Clarke as a player. But he knows enough to understand being compared to the Flyers legend is an honor.
“I hear a lot of good stories and everything is positive about how hard he worked,” Richards says. “You see video clips of him and you can see how hard he played. He has that warrior image and everything I’ve heard about him; he lived up to the hype. I see him around the rink and he seems like a nice, quiet guy. But when you hear about how he played against the Russians, it enforces what a great leader he was.”
The Flyers had a very good idea of what they were getting in Richards. Holmgren recalls the Kenora, Ont., native making a positive impression on the organization as a teenager.
“We did a paintball thing where we divided the guys into two teams – maybe 30 or so players at a conditioning camp,” Holmgren says. “He took his guys under his wing and was like a little general out there.”
When his junior career concluded, Richards joined the Philadelphia Phantoms of the American League for their playoff run in 2004-05. He didn’t play the first week, but when the second round began, he was inserted into the lineup. Richards, along with Jeff Carter, who had joined the Phantoms when his season with the Soo Greyhounds ended, immediately became impact players on the Calder Cup-winning Phantoms.
“We started Richie on the third line and over a short period of time we began using him on a checking line against the other team’s best line and he was really good in that situation,” says Flyers coach John Stevens, who was coaching the Phantoms at the time. “He wasn’t just a dump-and-chase-and-wait guy; he outplayed the other line. He was an impact player and the rest of the guys on the team recognized that.
“Their attitude was amazing. Carter and Richards were the two guys picking up pucks after practice. They didn’t expect anything, or come in like they were big prospects that everybody had to bow down to. They were very modest individuals and were very composed for kids coming out of junior. Our motto was to do whatever was best for the team and you’d have to be blind not to see those two kids made us better.”
With 10 goals and 20 points in his first 17 games this year, Richards has clearly put last season’s frustration – he missed 22 games with a shoulder injury and sports hernia – behind him. And while he remains his team’s No. 1 checking center, he has taken on more offensive responsibility, particularly on the power play where he’s on the point.
“We kind of redefined his role this year,” Stevens says. “Since he turned pro he was kind of tagged as a third-line player who is going to check and check and check. We had a situation this year where we felt the need to put a forward on the point on the power play. We had tried Richie there before because he has great vision and composure and this time when we tried it, we never looked back.”
Richards welcomes the change.
“In junior, I always felt I had offensive capabilities, even though growing up I was never the most gifted scorer,” he says. “I was never the leading scorer in the league in bantam or midget, or even close. I always took care of business in my own end. The first two years of my NHL career I didn’t score too much, so I think I got typecast as a defensive player. But I like my new role and I think I’ll be able to produce.”
Bobby Clarke didn’t win two Stanley Cups on his own. He had a great supporting cast that included two-time Conn Smythe Trophy winning goalie Bernie Parent, as well as star forwards Rick McLeish, Bill Barber and Reggie Leach, among others.
Nor will Mike Richards carry a team to glory on his own. But you can bet on one thing, when the Flyers finally raise the Cup, there is a very good chance it will be handed to Richards first.
An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Dec. 4 edition of The Hockey News. For more great stories like this, pick up the latest issue on newsstands, buy it digitally or subscribe online.