TAMPA -- Brad Richards can feel it now. He won a Stanley Cup here in 2004, and there is still much work to be done. But now, more than ever, he knows why he didn’t take any calls after talking with the Blackhawks last summer.
“I couldn’t be happier with my decision,” Richards was saying. “From the group of guys I play with, to the organization as a whole, it’s been everything I had hoped for, only better. I was lucky. It wasn’t about money.
“I was 35. I wanted another shot at winning. That’s why I told my agent, when Chicago phoned, no more conversations. From the outside, I could see this wasn’t some young team worried about piling up 120 points during the regular season. What I’ve learned since, being around them, I’m even more impressed.”
On Thursday, following a 2-1 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Blackhawks were free to do whatever. They have more days off than college professors. The sun was out, the hotel pool inviting. But first, Richards, who knows this territory, drove captain Jonathan Toews over to a place where they make and sell juice. Healthy stuff. Spinach, kale and other green things unfamiliar to us flaccid types.
“We brought a bunch of juice with us, but that’s all gone,” Richards noted. “Time to replenish. It’s not like the old days, where everybody goes for beers. I’m a throwback, but seeing how these guys even eat, I want to be on that train. I don’t want to be left behind. The league is faster than ever. These guys prepare like you wouldn’t believe.”
Richards advanced to the Final last spring with the New York Rangers. Much is regurgitated about his brief assignment to their fourth line. In fact, he was important to them. He was also expensive, which is why he stressed on occasion and eventually had to leave.
“It was like I did something terrible to the organization with my contract,” said Richards. “It got to me at times. I tried to do everything perfect. I wound up paralyzing myself. Still, I enjoyed the Rangers and New York. But like I said, the professionalism here, the lifestyle and attitude with the Blackhawks…if we can just finish this job off.”
When Richards earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player during the Lightning’s 2004 championship run, he and his mates took pride in cementing hockey to the local infrastructure. Then came the nuclear winter. A lockout erased an entire season.
“We never got to go to the White House, never really got a chance to defend,” Richards recalled. “Then we got hit with a $39 million salary cap and lost a lot of good players. Too bad. Talk to Patrick Sharp. He said our Eastern Conference Final here against Philadelphia was the loudest he’s ever heard a building. Those memories are special. You want more.”
It took a little while for Richards to grasp fully the ways of these Blackhawks, and naturally there was a transition period before he evolved into a vital asset.
“I’m going to use a word that sounds bad, but really isn’t,” Richards said. “In the middle of the season -- December, January -- I almost felt some of our guys were bored. They’ve played a lot of hockey the last few years, they knew what it was about and, like I said before, they weren’t in it for the Presidents’ Trophy.
“Then, after that Minnesota series, I really began to see the next level. Sweep. Final four. You get extra rest, which is vital. So focused. Pretty crazy how hard these guys work. And what talent. I knew Duncan Keith was good, but never this good. Go down the line. Niklas Hjalmarsson. How about the kid last night? Teuvo Teravainen.
“And there’s just such an overall emphasis on preparation, from the meals to the charter flights to the medical and training staff. Plus the coach. Joel Quenneville doesn’t micromanage like you see elsewhere sometimes. He trusts his players. If you have to show up with an umbrella strapped to your forehead to be ready for a game, show up with an umbrella strapped to your forehead. But be ready.”
Now Richards had to take off. Still immensely popular in these parts, he found wheels to take Toews and others to that juice establishment. Not like the old days. In 2004, we didn’t know what kale was.
“In 2004,” Richards added, “that place wasn’t there, either.”