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Top 100 Goalies: No. 43 — Mike Richter

Hero in 1994 and 1996 made hay with his explosive athletics. But he’s as much brain as brawn.

The slapshot, from Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Chris Tamer, caught Mike Richter above his right ear. And while his mask had always protected him, it only had to fail once to leave him badly hurt. The puck found its way to a soft spot, fracturing Richter’s temporal bone and concussing him. It was March 2002. He returned the following season for 13 games before an accidental knee to the head from the Edmonton Oilers’ Todd Marchant caused another concussion. Richter was 36, and he never played again.

Richter had an outstanding career, all with the New York Rangers, punctuated with a 1994 Stanley Cup and 1996 World Cup with Team USA. He’d stuck in the NHL for 666 games, 301 of which he’d won, giving him a longer career than most could ever dream of. But he still felt robbed. “It cost me the last three years of my career,” he said. “I would love to have done it, because you’ve worked your whole life to get an understanding of yourself and how to be professional and how to apply yourself. Even though your body is in some ways breaking down, your mind’s better than it’s ever been, so after all that work, you should leave on your own terms.”

Richter’s mind was indeed better than ever, but that’s why it needed protecting. He couldn’t take a chance returning to the net. He wasn’t preparing for a hockey afterlife on golf courses or fishing boats. He was a deep thinker, partway through a degree he started at the University of Wisconsin before his NHL career.

After retiring, he earned acceptance to prestigious Yale University, where he completed a degree in Ethics, Politics and Economics with a concentration in environmental policy. Today, he’s president of a company called Brightcore Energy, helping commercial buildings such as arenas remake their energy-usage models to become more environmentally sustainable, often starting with how the facilities use lighting.

His mission isn’t one prioritized by U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration, but Richter is happy with the help he’s received from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s administration. “Our country has great people, great innovation and a great ability to lead the world, and right now none of that is being used or very little of it is being used,” Richter said. “As far as finding solutions to a lot of the world’s problems, the NHL in contrast has done an amazing thing when you see the leadership. And I’m not trying to deflect. I’m just saying, here’s an entity that says, ‘All right, (rinks) across Canada use something like five percent of fresh water in the world.What are we doing about that?’ ”

As Richter points out, the NHL has the Gallons for Goals program, in which the league donates 1,000 gallons of water for every goal scored, not to mention a partnership with Rock and Wrap It Up, through which unused food from concessions goes to homeless shelters. The NHL is doing its part to reduce its carbon footprint, even if not all world leaders are. “It’s not quite happening with our administration right now, but as these things go, you know there’s an ebb and flow of intelligent leadership, and it’ll come back,” he said.

Richter, so cerebral and environmentally conscious, has a lot to offer. But how did he jive with meat-and-potatoes hockey culture during his playing days? As his longtime teammate Brian Leetch explains, Richter held back that side of himself. “It was the complete opposite,” Leetch said. “He was the guy who had the one-liner constantly, and he was still talking all the time, but it had nothing to do with cerebral analyzing. It was joke after one-liner after joke. I would say it was more quantity than quality, because he had so many funny lines.”

That included Richter constantly complaining he couldn’t see around the enormous butt of Jeff Beukeboom, Leetch’s regular defense partner. Richter was the chatty, jokey guy in the Rangers’ dressing room, and his teammates loved him for it, especially because he knew when to get serious. For the Hall of Famer Leetch, the greatest comfort in having Richter behind him was knowing he would never quit on a puck. He’d never blame a teammate for anything, even if a goal beat him on a tip or screen. He was disappointed in himself every time a puck went in.

Richter developed an intense, acrobatic style that made him one of the most entertaining goalies of his generation. “It was the way he had to play,” Leetch said. “He wasn’t the biggest goaltender (5-foot-10, 190 pounds). I guess when he started, there weren’t as many big goalies at the time, but he was still considered on the smaller side even then. So he knew what he had to do to compete and to cover that net, and he really worked at it, to become that flexible, to become that explosive. He’s one of the players I played with that I put right at the top of maximizing his potential physically and mentally.”

Richter was the Rangers’ all-time wins leader before Henrik Lundqvist came along. Unlike ‘The King,’ Richter never won a Vezina Trophy. He finished in the top 10 in voting five times, however, and was a hero in the 1994 playoff run, posting four shutouts to help the Rangers end a 54-year Cup drought.

His peak, however, arguably came two years later, while representing the Americans at the 1996 World Cup. He was positively unconscious in that tournament, earning MVP honors after helping the U.S. topple the star-studded Canadians in the final. “To win the Stanley Cup, it’s such a marathon,” Richter said. “You have to show such consistency and resiliency, and it really is such an amazing thing to watch and to experience yourself going through the playoffs. They bring out the best in people, and it’s just not easy to do, so that to me is my proudest achievement. We had such a fun group of guys to do it with, such a good city to do it for.

“But in the World Cup, the competition is phenomenal, because you’re getting the all-stars from all across the world playing these things.”

Richter speaks about the game as a loving fan. As much as he’s applied his big brain to do great things in retirement, he admits there’s still nowhere he’d rather be than between the pipes. That passion, which burns so strongly 15 years after his career ended, is exactly what made him such a feisty, memorable goalie.

Born: Sept. 22, 1966, Abington, Pa.
NHL Career: 1989-2002
Teams: NYR
Stats: 301-258-73, 2.89 GAA, .904 SP, 24 SO
Stanley Cups: 1

DID YOU KNOW?

Growing up near Philadelphia, Richter followed the Flyers as a kid and idolized Bernie Parent. “You couldn’t play street hockey without pretending to be Parent,” Richter said. He loved the way Parent turned in signature performances, earning shutouts in both of Philadelphia’s Cup-clinching wins in 1974 and ’75. And Richter idolized Parent’s aura: the French-Canadian accent, the cool demeanor, his professionalism and his expertise at playing angles. “Very technically sound, very thoughtful in how he approached the game and very consistent,” Richter said.

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