Paying tribute to Mike Richards, a truly under appreciated enigma

Mike Richards is an underrated name of the past that doesn’t get enough credit for what he accomplished in the NHL.

Maybe enigma is the right word to describe Mike Richards when performing an autopsy of his rollercoaster career in the National Hockey League, but the gritty forward deserves better than that.

In what will be the first of a deep dive into NHL players and personalities that captured my imagination, today I want to focus on a player who was a true throwback to those bloodthirsty days of hockey lore.

The one and only Mike Richards.

While unlikely to ever be mentioned in the same breath as some of the greats to have ever graced this wonderful sport of ours, Richards was truly unique in how he approached and played the game of hockey.

Hardly a giant at 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds, Richards made up for what he lacked in size with the heart of a lion and enough spirit to fill an arena a thousand times over. He was fearless and he played like that too.

In essence, Mike Richards was a featherweight but, boy, he carried himself like the best heavyweight on the planet.

He hit like an absolute train, smashing through opponents with such brutal force that you couldn’t help flinch at times, and the bigger the opponent the harder Richards wanted to make sure they fell.

That was him, that was his game, to go out there every single night and play like his life depended on it, to never back down and to leave every ounce of sweat, blood and tears out on the ice.

It was perhaps apt, then, that Richards was drafted 24th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, a franchise and City built on grit and a hard-nosed approach to life.

Maybe driven by the lack of respect he felt for going so low in the First Round, Richards embraced his new home and adopted the identity of Philadelphia and its people.

Known for its no BS approach and not known for being flashy, Philadelphia or ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ as it is so affectionally referred to, put the very meaning into rolling with the punches and getting straight back up after being knocked down.

They gave us Rocky who was the perfect illustration of toughness, perseverance and Philly grit but, while ‘The Italian Stallion’ was nothing more than a movie icon, Mike Richards was the real deal and he quickly epitomized everything that the City of Philadelphia represents and was built on.

Mike Richards #18

Mike Richards #18 of the Philadelphia Flyers. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

He carried that team on his back, quickly becoming the face of the Philadelphia Flyers and the official leader of the franchise, wearing the coveted “C” on his chest for three seasons and giving the people of Philly a true hero to cheer for and invest in.

Richards was very much the man of the people and he played a real blue-collar style of hockey that resonated with people.

He wasn’t the flashiest of players nor the most easy to watch at times, but you always knew when he was on the ice and he always ensured that he had nothing left to give at the end of a shift.

Averaging over 100 hits during his time with the Flyers, Richards was an absolute human wrecking ball on the ice, while he perhaps didn’t get enough attention for being a polished two-way forward, receiving votes for the Selke Trophy every season between 2008 and 2013.

Richards was also an offensive juggernaut, carving out a career-high 80 points (30 G, 50 A) during the 2008-09 season, while he never dipped below 60 points a year for the Flyers.

Trusted to play in key situations and eat big minutes, Richards was a model professional on the ice and he was the kind of heart-and-soul player that was perfect for a place like Philadelphia.

He was the complete package with a high hockey IQ and Hollywood looks to match, and his desire and hunger to lay it all on the line for his team may have even put him in the same pantheon as Rocky in the eyes of Flyers fans.

He just embodied that never-say-die attitude, as proven by the fact that he’s the only player to ever play with two different teams that have both come back from a 3-0 deficit in a Playoff series, one as a Captain and one while wearing the “A” on his chest.

And, I mean, you don’t have to dig hard for the defining image of Mike Richards in a Flyers jersey, with ‘The Shift’ utterly iconic and a moment that will live on in hockey folklore and in the rich tapestry of the NHL forever.

Boasting a 3-1 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a chance to advance through to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1997, there was a lot on the line.

It was a nervy start to the game, however, as Brian Gionta drew first blood for the Canadiens, before one of those moments that you had to see to believe took place.

With Kimmo Timonen in the box for the Flyers, Richards took to the ice and decided to grab the game by the scruff of the next and take Philadelphia’s destiny into his own hands.

After making a brilliant play to set up a high-danger chance, Richards showed what his game was all about by back-checking to break up a rush, laying on a big hit and then busting a gut to reach out a breakout pass, using his entire body to slide on the ice in order to beat Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak to the puck, before regaining his composure to put the puck away and set the Flyers on course to close the rest of the game out.

It was a breathtaking play that really epitomized and neatly rolled up all of Richards’ admirable shifts into one incredible shift.

That will probably be the play Mike Richards will most be remembered for, and rightly so.

Of course, Richards never got his hands on the Stanley Cup with the Flyers and he was then dealt to the LA Kings as part of a jaw-dropping and blockbuster trade that also saw center Jeff Carter head to Hollywood with Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and a Second Round Draft pick part of the return package for Philadelphia.

It was a move that sent seismic waves throughout the hockey world and one that left Richards utterly stunned too, given his standing in Philadelphia and his perceived importance to the Flyers franchise.

However, you reap what you sow in this world and Richards was eventually rewarded for his never-say-die approach to the game of hockey, winning two Stanley Cups with the Kings in 2011-12 and in 2013-14.

Very much the final piece of the puzzle for the Kings in 2011-12 with 15 points (4 G, 11 A) in 20 postseason games, Richards was more of a role player for their second championship success, but he was still very much a vital cog of the LA machine.

Mike Richards #10

Mike Richards #10 of the Los Angeles Kings. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Of course, you can’t tell the Mike Richards story without visiting what turned out to be a strange and tragic ending to his NHL career. Perhaps with his size and the way in which he so aggressively played the game, the left shot was always destined to fall off a cliff and digress so dramatically.

But, while struggling to make a mark with the Washington Capitals following an ugly breakup with the LA Kings, Richards was arrested at a Canadian border-entry stop, near North Dakota, and was later charged with possession of the controlled substance Oxycodone.

That whole sorry situation effectively spelled the end of Richards’ playing career in the National Hockey League and, bar the odd interview here and there, he’s quietly slipped away from the public spotlight.

It was a bitter ending to a career that brought so much joy to so many people, a career that routinely gets unjustly shoved under the carpet.

For me, someone who was born and bred in the UK but who grew up loving hockey and all that came with it, I prefer to focus on Mike Richards at his prime, the peak of his powers Mike Richards who could will his team to victory and would die trying.

The Mike Richards who treated every game as it were his last, who played with heart and hustle in abundance and who brought real meaning to the terms grit and tenacity.

So, this is my tribute to Mike Richards, who was and still is a truly under appreciated enigma.