Like any mid-season exhibition, this weekend's 2013 Dunkin' Donuts AHL All-Star Classic is a unique opportunity for some of the game's best prospects to congregate in a relaxed environment.
"I'm honored to go represent our team," Eakins, the Toronto Marlies coach who will appear in the game for the second consecutive year, said. "But selfishly, I haven't been able to see Luke a whole lot lately. I'm really looking forward to hanging out and catching up."
The American Hockey League's All-Star Game, which takes place Jan. 28 in Providence, RI, should be the perfect place for the two longtime defensemen to rekindle a friendship that began almost 30 years ago with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.
Entering the 1985-86 OHL season, Richardson was a lanky 16-year-old junior prospect leaving home for the first time. Eakins was a local product and future team captain. The two would soon form the top defensive pair on a team packed with future NHL players. While most Canadian junior-hockey teams barely have one legitimate NHL prospect in net, that Petes team had two in Kay Whitmore and Ron Tugnutt, who played a combined 692 NHL games.
With legendary junior coach Dick Todd behind the bench, the Petes of the late 1980s were a winning squad that demonstrated hard work on the ice and closeness off it -- a balance perhaps best exemplified by Eakins and Richardson.
"They were two hard guys to play against. You got in the corner against either one, you were coming out feeling something," Kris King, a teammate on those Petes teams and currently NHL Vice-President of Hockey Operations, said. "Those guys got the key minutes against the other team's top players and gave us a chance to win games. One was always there to back the other guy up. And they were best friends off the ice."
A first-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1987, Richardson left Peterborough in the fall of that year to embark on his NHL career. Eakins was the Capitals' 10th-round pick in 1985 and left in 1988 to start a 15-year pro career spent mostly in the AHL. Through it all, the pair never lost touch.
"Our lives have been so busy. The odd time we've played each other we've gone out for a quick bite after. That's only been a couple of times over 20-something years," Richardson, who was selected as an All-Star Game coach in his first season as coach of the Binghamton Senators, said. "He was actually in our wedding party, too. Since then, it's just been travel, different teams, different cities. We're both married with children, so it gets busy. But we definitely stayed in contact and always wish each other well when someone gets a chance to play or coach."
In 20 NHL seasons, Richardson was a reliable leader and tough, stay-at-home defenseman. Eakins may not have been as prolific a player, but he did help mentor a number of young up-and-coming defensemen. Late in his playing career, he was a key veteran on a Chicago Wolves team featuring future NHL defensemen Kurtis Foster, Mike Weaver, Garnet Exelby and Joe Dipenta. In his final season, played with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, Eakins helped mentor a 22-year-old Kevin Bieksa.
As the Marlies coach, Eakins imparts on his players the wisdom given to him by Todd in Peterborough. It's the same knowledge that helped him form a bond with Richardson.
"The teams we had in Peterborough were stocked full of character and were very tough," Eakins said. "When Luke showed up on our doorstep, we brought him right into the group. That's where the relationship started. Those days are the strength of the relationship today. Luke needed commitment and a work ethic and discipline to play over 1,400 NHL games. And I needed those things just to hang on and have any kind of career in pro hockey."
Their time together became more brief and sporadic as they finished their lengthy playing careers and started coaching. But when Richardson was confronted by the unthinkable in 2010, Eakins was there for his former defense partner.
Following the tragic suicide of Richardson's daughter, Daron, in November 2010, the hockey world rallied around Richardson and his family, culminating in a large ceremony attended by thousands at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. In his second season behind the Marlies bench and mired in an exhausting 10-game road swing, Eakins boarded a plane and made it to Ottawa to see Richardson. It's a gesture Richardson hasn't forgotten.
"There are certain people that bring comfort when they're around," Richardson told NHL.com. "I remember he gave me a big hug and said, 'I'm sorry. I have to go.' I think they played that night. You make that effort no matter what and then you get back and refocus your mind on your job, which is tough at times. I know that's what he did for us. It was meaningful, even if it was only for 10 minutes."
Like most of their exchanges over the past few years, that meeting was short, which is why the two AHL All-Star coaches will take their time this weekend.
"I've already texted him a couple of times," Richardson said. "We're planning on spending as much quality time together as we can. I'm sure we'll have to put a little wager on the game, too."
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