The pitches are in for Richards

Brad Richards is the biggest fish on the NHL free agent market this offseason. (JIM McISAAC/Getty...

Brad Richards is the biggest fish on the NHL free agent market this offseason. (JIM McISAAC/Getty Images/AFP)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:12 AM ET

TORONTO - All of them as optimistic as the next, contingents representing NHL teams arrived at the offices of Newport Sports Management in downtown Mississauga at lunch-time Friday, armed with handouts and clutching team caps, whatever it would take to woo Brad Richards.

The Toronto Maple Leafs. The Los Angeles Kings. The Tampa Bay Lightning. Each of these representatives were given time behind closed doors to convince Richards that their organizations, their cities, their fan base was the perfect fit for the gem of an otherwise diluted 2011 free agent crop.

Is this what NHL free agency has become? Is it now simply hockey’s version of the recruiting process we have long seen in U.S. college football, where blue chip high school prospects receive personal visits from coaches from various institutions who wave all kinds of incentives in front of these kids in the hopes that their schools will be picked?

We have seen these types of actions from organizations before come July 1.

Perhaps the most memorable example came in 2002 when then-Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks, GM Doug Armstrong and coach Dave Tippett showed up at the door of former Bruins forward Bill Guerin just one minute after free agency had officially opened. There reportedly also was a plea from then-Texas Rangers star Alex Rodriguez, whose team also was owned by Hicks at the time.

It worked. Guerin went on to ink a five-year, $45 million US deal with the Stars.

Richards, 31, was said to be mulling over the offers overnight, with an official announcement potentially coming on Saturday.

Either way, most of the scuttlebutt swirling on Friday suggested the frontrunner in the Richards sweepstakes was a team that was not on hand in person — the New York Rangers.

Richards, for one, won a Stanley Cup in Tampa with coach John Tortella, now the bench boss of the Broadway Blueshirts. Secondly, there are reports the Rangers have told Richards they will match any other team’s offer — or at least will listen to what is before responding.

The Rangers, Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens all made their pitches to Richards via conference call.

The goings-on at the Newport offices were almost surreal, to say the least.

There was the Leafs contingent, led by senior VP Dave Nonis and advisor Cliff Fletcher. Their meeting with Richards and his agent, Pat Morris, lasted about an hour.

The Kings, meanwhile, were well represented by an eight-man group led by Tim Leiweke, chief executive of the Kings’ parent company, AEG. That 90-minute presentation was said to include recruitment messages from Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a video showing Richards how he would fit in as part of the Kings’ Stanley Cup aspirations, and even suggestions on where he might live in La-La-Land.

Finally, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman entered the offices, both to talk to Richards and to meet with Don Meehan, the representative of restricted free agent Steven Stamkos. In the end, Stevie Y is optimistic about Stamkos, not so much about Richards.

Maybe the Leafs should have invited Toronto superfan Mike (Wayne’s World) Myers to talk to Richards.

Asked if he had ever seen such a massive in-person recruitment of an NHL free agent, Nonis smiled.

“Not on the same day,” he said. “But it’s not that uncommon. July 1 is always an interesting day.”

It certainly was in downtown Mississauga where, by late afternoon, a crowd of about 25 people, several wearing hockey jerseys, had gathered outside the Newport offices presumably to get a glimpse of Richards, who could be the highest paid player in the NHL.

Given the crazy deals handed out throughout the league on Friday, expect Richards to get at least an eight-year pact that is frontloaded, meaning he likely will earn at or near the maximum $12.86 million next season. The salary is expected to whittle down through the course of the deal, leaving an annual cap hit between $7.5 million-$8.5 million.

What do you think of those numbers, Kobe?


Videos

Photos