Richards setting tone for Rangers

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

The heartbeat of the franchise continued skating long after the coaches had left, tapering off with long, looping swings accompanied by the occasional burst and a shot on goal.

The ice is the stage, or maybe more accurately, the canvas, for strokes broad and fine by the guy around whom the surprising Kitchener Rangers revolve, captain Mike Richards. Like many exceptional athletes, Richards is at his most comfortable in his milieu.

It is Richards who is most responsible for Kitchener's epic arrival at the John Labatt Centre to open the series against the London Knights this evening. The Rangers got to this juncture by falling behind two games to none to the Erie Otters before staging a major comeback and then, with a feat that obliterated the form chart, they ousted one of Canada's top junior teams by sidelining Owen Sound in four straight games.

Richards led the way by accumulating 21 points, same as the Knights' Corey Perry.

You could say talks have broken off between Richards and Perry. The Kenora native became pals with Perry and London captain Danny Syvret when they were teammates during Canada's run to the world junior championship gold medal.

They stayed in contact via e-mail. That was until a couple of weeks ago. Playoffs are serious business and there'll be no resumption of talks until this is over.

Kitchener has to solve Perry. London has to counteract Richards and he probably will see more of Brandon Prust than he'd like.

All eyes are on the clever and relentless leader as he does his work -- coaches, teammates and anybody hanging around. If you were trying to identify the team star, you needed only to follow the eyes.

A minor hockey coach in the seats, Roy Felder, is on hand with his pal Bob to see what they can adopt from Rangers practices for their own kids. They go on at length about the young man who seeks to play in his second Memorial Cup championship, using adjectival flourishes not uncommon among fans.

An off night for the captain? They can't explain what it looks like because they haven't seen one yet.

One thing rings clear in everyone's conversation -- Richards has a work ethic and desire to win that transcends the normal. One suspects it is vast enough to have created a vacuum into which his teammates have been attracted during this playoff season.

That is how general manager/coach Peter DeBoer sees it. "This team is a reflection of its captain," DeBoer said. "He sets the tone every day; the way he plays with grit and heart is the character this team has taken on."

DeBoer says there are some nights the puck goes in for his captain, some nights it doesn't, but that doesn't matter because there are no off nights for a player of Richards' style. "The sum is greater than the individual parts," he said. "He's not a guy who'd jump off the page at you on his skill level or skating but all the intangibles take over and night in, night out, he's the best player on the ice."

DeBoer speaks of magic moments his captain unveiled over his four years, the most astounding one coming in the third game of Kitchener's series against the Attack in Owen Sound. Richards had two goals and five points in a 6-5 win to put the Rangers up three games to zip.

"If we'd lost it would have been 2-1 in the series. He has a real knack for recognizing situations where he has to take his game up a notch."

Richards is aware a notch or two up the scale will be required by all beginning tonight. He acknowledges, even celebrates, the underdog status.

"From hearing people talk, we'll be going home in four straight," he said. "We have a good enough team that maybe we can do a little better than other teams have. I don't think we're going to lose the underdog status. There's no doubt about it; London is a powerhouse with four great lines, five great defencemen and two great goalies. Being the underdog might give us a push, give us a bit more adrenalin."

He says Kitchener's surprise playoff performances were hardly expected but part of the postseason territory.

"You don't expect it but anything can happen in the playoffs," he said. "A bounce here and there can mean a lot. Against Erie, we got one, then another that turned the series right around. Against Owen Sound, we just went out and played one game with desperation and a willingness to win and good things happened."

The Rangers sort of revel in the hard-work credo and Richards does nothing to alter that perception. "It's the identity we want. Hard work is our motto. We've had a lot of injuries, adversity after adversity but battled back and never gave up. We treat every game like it's our last."

Back near their first game of the season, Richards and Perry became embroiled in a set-to. It was the second game and Richards laughs about it. "It was just a scrum. He turned around and hit me and we fought. We went to the penalty box and were laughing about it."

How, one wondered, did he, Perry and Syvret get to corresponding regularly?

"Corey and I have been friends a long time, same with Danny. Being together and winning the world junior made us that much closer. We go on the internet and talk about how our teams are doing, how life in general is going. It's been a couple of weeks and it'll be a while before we start talking again. We're friends off the ice but competitors on it."

This season was supposed to start differently for Richards. He was to be in Philadelphia earning some dough with the Flyers after all his years of amateur hockey. The NHL lockout ended that, sending him into a bit of a funk.

"I was angry after working all summer, after waiting all my life to play in the NHL, only to see it gone. But I think it was Patrice Bergeron (with the junior national team) who said everything happens for a reason and maybe that's what it did. It helped me play a bit more, develop as a person and be coached by one of the best coaches in the CHL one more year. On top of that was the (world championship) gold medal, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise."

He relished the world title experience, partly due to coach Brent Sutter. Richards' view on his work ethic is something accomplished through a concerted effort has far greater value than something acquired easily, so toiling for the whip-cracking Sutter was no problem.

"He's a very demanding coach for sure," he said. "He has fun on the ice but at the same time, he makes you work hard and nothing is ever free. I really enjoyed being coached by him."

Richards is prepared for a critical series. He was with the 2003 Memorial Cup-winning Kitchener. He might be more prepared this time around due to adversity.

A nagging groin injury finally sidelined him and the Rangers decided to swallow hard and not rush him back.

"While it took a little longer than I wanted, I might be a little fresher than I might have been," he said.

Ready for more work, in other words.


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