May 29, 2012
DeBoer, Richards linked forever
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI AGENCY
NEWARK, N.J. - One man was an out-of-work coach, the other the captain of an Eastern Conference team about to get rocked as hard as anything he's ever faced on the ice.
But look how their worlds have changed -- and are about to collide again -- in the 12 months that followed.
The connection forged between New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer and Los Angeles Kings star Mike Richards more than a decade ago means a lot to both men.
It was when they were together with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, that the coach and the captain began paving their respective paths to the NHL, a road that hits high speed Wednesday night when they face each other in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
For DeBoer, winning the 2003 Memorial Cup in Quebec City enhanced a reputation that would soon take him to the NHL.
For Richards, captaining that team was one of the many big moments that would lead to him becoming a first-round draft pick (23rd overall) by Philadelphia later that spring.
While with the Flyers, Richards led his team to the Cup final two years ago and was confident he would returning soon. He had no idea, however, that he would be doing it as a Los Angeles King.
He has tried to hide it, but Richards acknowledged Tuesday that the trade, made just days before the 2012 NHL entry draft, broadsided him and teammate Jeff Carter, who was sent to Columbus before being reunited with his former captain mid-season.
"It was frustrating, something that was new to me and that I didn't have to deal with before," Richards said at the annual Cup media day session. "I don't handle change too well, so it was an adjustment.
"We were pretty mad. I'm not going to lie."
DeBoer had his own issues, having been fired by the Florida Panthers. But he always had a soft spot for Richards and reached out to a player he knew would be hurting inside.
"We exchanged a text after he got traded and just said 'Good luck. I know it's tough right now but it's going to be great there,'" DeBoer said. "He bled for Philadelphia. He was their captain. He loved the city. He loved the team. Those guys are hard to find. Any team with Mike Richards on it, for me, has a chance to win it."
As Richards' resume would attest.
Should he add a Stanley Cup title sometime over the next two weeks or so, the Kenora, Ont. native would claim the last reward in just about all that hockey has to offer. While with Kitchener, Richards also won a world junior championship and, two years ago in Vancouver, captured Olympic gold.
It is clear the relationship with DeBoer means a lot to Richards as well.
"He taught me to be a professional and that's what he did in junior," Richards said. "He ran things very strict and like you'd expect when you got to the NHL, if you did."
If we were having this discussion in March, the verdict on Richards' impact with the Kings would be considerably less glowing. There was a new time zone to deal with, Western Conference hockey, more rigorous travel and a completely different roster.
Between Christmas and mid-March, Richards had just one goal in 35 games and it seemed clear why the Flyers let him go.
"It was a big change for him going from captain to a new team, a huge emotional challenge," said Kings assistant coach, John Stevens, who was also the Flyers head coach early in Richards' career. "But as the year has worn on, he's become a lot more emotionally attached to the L.A. Kings, much like he was in Philadelphia."
While Richards said he has no idea when it all came together, the arrival of Carter, who was a bust in Columbus and eventually rejoined his Flyers pal, in a trade on Feb. 23 might be a good place to start.
The two are roommates, teammates and sometimes linemates and that comfort level seems to have brought out the best in Richards. In the Kings' late push to qualify for the playoffs and in there blitz through the Western Conference bracket, the world-class centre has been everything he was at the previous high points in his career, scoring 11 points in 14 games but providing the leadership and grit that has long been his calling card.
"Winning follows him around," said DeBoer. "We won a Memorial Cup together, we won a world junior championship together. I'm very happy to see what he's done, but I also know Mike Richards would run you over with his car to win a Stanley Cup."