Playing in his backyard

JIM BENDER -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 7:15 AM ET

A kid from Kenora is still among the leading candidates to become the on-ice leader of our national junior hockey squad. And don't think Michael Richards has not pondered the possibility.

"It would be awesome," Richards readily admitted after practice at the MTS Centre yesterday. "Just making the team would be exciting. To add on top of that, being the captain or an assistant captain for this great country would be pretty cool and something that you would take really seriously."

Richards, 19, is among the 12 returnees and was one of the nine Team Canada hopefuls told to sit out last night's match versus the University of Manitoba Bisons because it looks like they have a lock on making the squad.

"Going into a camp like this, you just go in there and try to play your game and the chips just fall where they may after the team's chosen," added Richards, who scored two goals and five points during last year's World Junior Hockey Championship in Helsinki, Finland. "You want to go out there and make the best impression you can on the coaching staff."

Richards is captain of the Kitchener Rangers (OHL) and certainly feels like a local lad during this training camp.

"You somewhat feel like you're a Winnipegger," said the 5-foot-10, 198-pound centre. "I played all my minor hockey here, played summer hockey here and kind of grew up here a little bit. It's nice to be in a city that you know so, that's makes you feel a little more comfortable. I've got a lot of friends here, a lot of guys I played minor hockey and summer hockey with. I know (Team Canada teammate) Nigel (Dawes) really well from playing against him growing up. So, it's nice to see (familiar) people around."

In fact, playing the tourney in nearby Grand Forks, N.D., will be like skating in his own backyard.

"It'll be a little bit closer than Finland, that's for sure," said Richards, who has been drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers. "It will be nice to have my friends and family there. It just gives you a little more support when you're at the tournament -- someone to pick you up and things like that when things aren't going well. It's always nice to see a friendly face."

Although his parents went to Finland last year, Richards' brothers, Matt and Mark, stayed behind.

"So, I'll be anxious for them to actually see me play hockey for once," he said.

Richards won a gold medal with Canada's Under-18 team in 2002 but settling for silver in Helsinki last year still sticks in his craw.

"Everyone's focusing on this year and putting last year behind us," he said. "This is a whole different team, a whole different coaching staff, different playing surface."

Sheesh! Sounds like they finished last.

"(Silver) is good but we, as Canadians, are always strive for being the best," Richards said. "That's what makes the country so great. We always want to be No. 1, especially in hockey."

Spoken like a true leader.


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