By now, most people are fully aware of what New York Rangers star center Brad Richards can do once he steps on the ice. But few people understand how all the things that define him on the ice – the dedication, the loyalty, the burning desire to help in any area he’s able – also define him off of it.
Indeed, as Richards’ agent, Pat Morris of Newport Sports Management, said of his client, “when you get into Brad’s inner circle of friends, you have to do a lot to get out of it.” And a recent story of the friendship between Richards and Morris illustrates that fact perfectly. The preface to it began at the Brad Richards Foundation’s celebrity golf tournament that was held for seven years in P.E.I. and raised more than $400,000 for Children’s Wish Foundation and Autism charities in that province. One year, Morris brought along his father, Rich, a fellow Maritimer born in New Glasgow, N.S., and Richards and his dad hit it off immediately.
Fast forward to this year, when Rich passed away May 3. With the Rangers taking on the Washington Capitals in the second round, Richards was unable to attend the funeral, but sent his cousin, Dave, to represent him and pay his respects.
After his cousin filled him in on the details of the service, Richards reached out to Morris. “The message said, ‘Dave said the service was brilliant – I hope you found it the same way,’ ” Morris said. “Then he said, ‘I will score a goal for your dad in the next game.’ ”
It took Richards 59 minutes and 52 seconds to make good on the promise, but he did just that in Game 5 against Washington in the East semifinal, forcing overtime (which the Blueshirts won) in the last moments of regulation. “Boy, did that create emotion,” Morris said. “I told him later, ‘My dad knows you scored.’ He said he just wished it hadn’t taken him so long to do so.”
It may take Richards time to achieve his goals, but he almost always does.
Rewind 11 months back to July 1 at Newport’s West Toronto offices, where the then-unrestricted free agent was plotting out his future. On that first day of free agency, while rumors swirled that a contract with the Rangers was all but a fait accompli, NHL management members from a slew of prospective employers lined up to pitch themselves to him. But while the star center, Stanley Cup winner and 2004 Conn Smythe recipient was polite and respectful to all teams who wanted him and took more than a day to weigh his options, he wasn’t going to do anybody any favors. For the first time in his adult life, Richards was in complete control of his destiny. And after he chose to sign what amounts to a rest-of-his-career contract with the Rangers, he has been proving himself worth the nine-year, $60-million investment the Manhattan Hockey Project made in him.
Prior to that first day of July, Richards had been jettisoned by Tampa Bay ownership after leading the Lightning to their first championship. The Dallas Stars team to which the Bolts traded him in 2008 also gave the star center the heave-ho, though not willingly, as ownership difficulties prevented GM Joe Nieuwendyk from retaining his services.
So when it came time to choose a new home, Richards wasn’t about to be charitable. All who know the 32-year-old know him to be the ultimate team-first, ego-last player, but he no longer was bound by loyalty, as he was when he signed a five-year, $39-million contract extension with Tampa Bay in 2006. There was no way he would again be beholden to the whims of ownership as he was when incoming Bolts owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie forced then-Lightning GM Feaster to deal him at the 2008 trade deadline. He was going to approach unrestricted free agency with the same attention to detail and professionalism he uses every day.
That said, it was going to be difficult for any team to outbid the Rangers. Richards’ coach in Tampa Bay, John Tortorella, was now bench boss for the Blueshirts. He had friends in Manhattan to help him acclimate to a new home. And, perhaps most importantly, New York City was at once the type of hockey town Richards hadn’t previously played for in his NHL career, yet also a place where he could disappear once the games were over. He never could have had that semblance of privacy in a Canadian market, but it is a measure of the respect Richards has for the hockey world that he listened to any and all GMs who wanted to sign him.
One of those GMs was Calgary Flames boss Feaster, who knows Richards as well as anyone from their time together in Tampa Bay. Feaster didn’t have the cap room to acquire Richards until he traded Robyn Regehr to Buffalo at the end of June, but even then, from a short talk he had with Richards during 2010-11, he realized it would be tough to convince him to remain in the Western Conference. “When I started in Calgary, we were on a trip to Dallas and beat them and I asked the visiting equipment room guy to see if Brad would meet with me,” Feaster said. “He came out and I knew it was tough for him, because he hates to lose. But he said to me, ‘How about the travel in the West?’ and, ‘In the West, every night is like a playoff game. Every game is a battle.’ I knew then it was going to be a difficult sell to get him in Calgary. And his family is in Prince Edward Island. The one thing we couldn’t compete with was geography.”
When Richards chose the Rangers and signed the contract at Morris’ house around 4 p.m. July 2, he was all in and driven to ensure Blueshirts GM Glen Sather didn’t regret the signing. Indeed, the Murray Harbour, P.E.I., native always has been the most competitive person inside or outside the rink.
Already an avid golfer, he caught the tennis bug in recent years and wasn’t happy when he couldn’t beat Morris, who’s much more experienced. Richards worked on his tennis game at the Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa and befriended 6-foot-9 pro John Isner, who was part of the longest match in Wimbledon history in 2010, along the way. He tried to best Morris in Florida last June, but Morris won again, though Richards said his mind was on the free agent process and would try again soon. The next chance came minutes after Richards signed with the Rangers. He asked Morris for a rematch to blow off a little steam and when the two were tied 1-1 in sets, it was enough of a temporary victory for Richards to end the battle for the time being.
Like many players, Richards has always needed a little adjustment time to new environs. He amassed five points in his first game as a Star (after Feaster traded him for a package that included goalie Mike Smith and left winger Jussi Jokinen) and helped Dallas to a lengthy playoff run that spring, but his first full season in Dallas was filled with injuries and adjustments (as reflected in his career lows of 16 goals and 48 points in 56 games). And when he began life as a Ranger, it took a while for him to find his groove, scoring just one goal in the first eight games.
However, goal scoring wasn’t the chief reason Tortorella and the Rangers wanted him in their lineup. The things he did behind the scenes, such as taking his new teammates out one or two at a time on the road to foster familiarity and team cohesion and sell his coach’s message, were equally crucial. And it is this side of Richards – the loyalty he cultivates in a dressing room, the support he provides to his fellow players – that’s one of the biggest drivers of his success.
Former Lightning teammate Martin St-Louis recalls the days shortly after they won the Cup in 2004, when both he and Richards were at the NHL Awards. “Richie thinks of the team before anything else,” St-Louis said. “I remember in ’04, he’d won the Conn Smythe and I was nominated for the Lester B. Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award for the game’s most outstanding player as voted on by the NHLPA) at the time. We had gone to Toronto together, but they were presenting the Pearson early in the morning. He came to that ceremony to support me – that just showed what kind of teammate and individual he was, because that morning wasn’t about him.”
That’s typical of Richards’ humility and willingness to let others occupy the spotlight, but the truth is, like all the sport’s true greats, he steps up his game at the most crucial of times. Before his NHL days, Richards often heard he was too small, wasn’t strong enough or fast enough. In response, he became a fanatic about his health, about working out and eating properly. His nutritionist is as important as his physical trainer. He only drinks almond milk and he’s specific about the foods he eats. One of the reasons he rented the apartment he did in Manhattan was because there is a Whole Foods health food store on the main floor.
And whatever he lacks in strength and speed, Richards more than makes up for in the departments for which you can’t simply choose to improve. “ ‘Richie,’ he just out-thinks everybody,” said former Bolts teammate Vincent Lecavalier. “He’s probably not as fast as (fellow Ranger) Marian Gaborik, but the vision and smarts he has, you can’t teach that. I’ve known him since age 14 when we were at (Saskatchewan hockey factory) Notre Dame and he’s always been this big, intense competitor. He’s a clutch player who has the drive to take it to another level.”
Richards found the next level for the Rangers in the post-season, leading the team in goals and points. But there is much more to him than just production. He wants to win when he competes, but as evidenced by the $500,000 donation he made in 2010 to the pediatric unit of P.E.I.’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital – in honor of his cousin and best friend, Jamie Reynolds, who died in 1989 of a brain tumor at age seven – Richards wants to make a difference off the ice as well. “I love Brad like a son and I think the world of him,” Feaster said. “He’s just a wonderful young man who was raised the right way. And he’s a student of the game. He isn’t a guy who looks at the team he’s playing that night and that’s it. He’s watching the other teams in the playoffs. He knows what’s going on and not every guy in the league does that.”
Loyalty. Dedication. Professionalism. That’s the essence of Brad Richards. The Rangers paid a premium for him, but he’s been worth each and every penny. “He’s a heck of a hockey player,” St-Louis said, “but he’s twice the person.”
This story appeared in the June edition of The Hockey News magazine. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
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