TAMPA, Fla. — Eleven years ago, Brad Richards was a fresh-faced 24-year-old star leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup.
Much has changed for Richards since then, and it hit him when his family recently spent time with Vincent Lecavalier and his kids. Lecavalier was a another young star on the Lightning’s 2004 Cup-winning team, while Richards took the Conn Smythe trophy that year as playoff MVP.
Now Richards is 35 and a role player on a playoff-seasoned Chicago Blackhawks team led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith that’s facing the Lightning in the final.
“Brings back memories where I was on the other side,” Richards said Tuesday. “It’s full-circle, I guess you could say. Now I’m trying to win one the other way.”
During Tampa Bay’s 2004 run, Richards had 12 goals and 14 assists in 23 games. But he also looked to captain Dave Andreychuk and veterans Tim Taylor and Darryl Sydor for direction.
“If they were nervous, I guess I’m nervous and if they were happy I would be happy,” Richards said. “Now, you’re your own person, your own player.”
As Chicago’s second-line centre, Richards had two goals and nine assists through three rounds. It took some time for the Murray Harbour, P.E.I., native to adapt, but he finally found a niche in Chicago.
His road from hoisting the Cup in 2004 to now has been a twisting one. The next season was marred by a season-long lockout — “You had to be living on the moon if you didn’t think there was going to be a lockout in ’04,” Richards said — and that prevented his Lightning group from challenging for another Cup.
Traded to the Stars in 2008, Richards considered returning to Tampa Bay as a free agent three years later. He spoke with general manager Steve Yzerman but ultimately decided to sign a US$60-million, nine-year deal with the Rangers.
Suffice it to say that didn’t work out, as coach John Tortorella, his coach during the ’04 Cup run, demoted and scratched him. A trip to the final under Alain Vigneault last year ignited his desire to get back to a contender after the Rangers bought him out last summer.
Richards was seen a missing piece for the Blackhawks, who had Michal Handzus in 2013 but had been searching for a second-line centre since.
“Any time you lose a centreman like that, you’re trying to find that for your team,” GM Stan Bowman said. “In talking to Brad, obviously his desire was to play on a strong team, have a chance to get back to the final.”
A salary-cap friendly $2-million, one-year deal with the Blackhawks made it happen.
“When Chicago called, it was a no-brainer,” Richards said. “It was a fresh start where I could kind of regroup and kind of build towards something. Now I feel as good as I have probably in three or four years.”
Richards worked out with Martin St. Louis’ trainer, Ben Prentiss, to improve his conditioning, and the veteran has tried to work on his speed to keep up in the ever-quicker NHL. He had to earn coach Joel Quenneville’s trust and eventually did, playing alongside Kane.
“I think he got better with a little bit more ice time,” Quenneville said. “Got a chance to play with Kaner. Took off. Looked like there was a little magic there. Looked like he got more quickness to his game, more puck possession. I think he got more comfortable in our system.”
Just being around Toews and Kane reinvigorated his love of hockey, and playing with them made him ratchet up his game.
“The players around me are so exciting to play with,” Richards said Wednesday. “Coming here and seeing this culture and how professional these guys are, it’s easy to get on board and try to follow the lead of these top guys.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press