Mike Richards knows a thing or two about opportunities. From a young age, they seem to have landed in his lap.
Now, with his Philadelphia Flyers having turned a corner and returned to the post-season, another door is opening in front of the young center.
Richards, as a hockey-loving kid growing up in the northern Ontario town of Kenora, benefited from belonging to one of the families responsible for running a local community club.
Any time during the long winter Richards and his two brothers felt like playing shinny, they simply had to grab the key to the club from mom or dad and be prepared to do some shoveling on the outdoor rink.
Then, it was game on.
And on days when the rink was open to everyone and kids five, even 10 years older than Richards showed up, he just kept on playing. Size and skill discrepancies be damned.
That determination was on display again when Richards was captain of the Ontario League’s Kitchener Rangers and led the team in scoring at a triumphant trip to the Memorial Cup tournament in 2003.
It was also evident when he was named captain of a Canadian World Junior dream team in 2005 and helped the squad run the table and win gold.
His first foray into pro hockey came later that same year with the American League’s Philadelphia Phantoms where he scored seven goals and 15 points in 14 playoffs games en route to a Calder Cup championship.
Clearly, Richards has had some opportunistic timing. But his past is about a lot more than fortuitous circumstance. His performance in those events indicates Richards is one of those rare athletes who intrinsically interprets every opportunity as a challenge. Every chance presented is a task undertaken with eager ferocity.
And boy, he’s got one heck of a challenge in front of him now.
Richards’ breakout year, coming in his third NHL season, has coincided with an amazing about-face in Philly. On the heels of a miserable, 56-point, last-overall season a year ago, the Flyers are back in the post-season facing all-world talent Alex Ovechkin and the white-hot Caps.
Washington, like Philadelphia, turned its fortunes around this year and stormed down the stretch to nab the Southeast title. Of the people who do the picking, the vast majority believe the Caps’ Cinderella story will extend beyond the Flyers.
That’s where Richards comes in; ideally with steam brimming from his ears and fire blazing in his eyes.
It’s by no means a novel notion to suggest the 23-year-old, who scored 28 goals and 75 points in 73 games this season, will one day captain the Flyers. It feels like ever since Richards was drafted 24th overall in 2003 he was destined for the captaincy.
Well, it’s time to accelerate the stitching on that ‘C.’
For Philadelphia to beat Washington, Richards has to be the engine that drives the Flyers.
Certainly it’s important for Martin Biron to outplay Cristobal Huet in the nets; for Daniel Briere to be healthy and produce points; for the entire team to – as much as possible – clog the gears of the Russian tank known as Ovechkin.
But Richards embodies – albeit internally for the most part – that great fighting Philly spirit that must be unleashed to combat the assault Ovie is going to lay on the Flyers.
Richards, despite his modest size, is physical. He’s smart. Skilled. And most of all, he lives for this stuff.
In many ways, he’s reminiscent of a player who shares his namesake, Brad Richards of Dallas. Though Mike surely plays with more of an edge than does Brad (no relation), both carry the quiet intensity and will to win that is so valued come playoff time.
Brad Richards is a Conn Smythe winner; everything in Mike Richards’ history suggests he’s got the genetic makeup to be one, too.
When Brad Richards won the Cup with Tampa in 2004, the Bolts beat Philly in a seven-game East final. That was the last time Flyers fans saw what true leadership was, when captain Keith Primeau grabbed his team by the throat and dragged them to within one game of a Cup final appearance.
That’s the kind of performance Mike Richards must put forth for Philadelphia to keep this season of rebirth humming. It’s about a commitment to making a difference at both ends every shift and providing a visual reminder to your teammates that anything less than your best simply won’t hack it.
Richards has it in him to be that player. And it’s time to prove, just like on that outdoor rink in Kenora, that he can stick it to the big boys.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.
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