COLUMBUS, Ohio - There's nothing quite like getting the call and being asked to represent your country.
Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards recently received that call from friend and colleague Dan Bylsma, who was tabbed earlier this month to lead Team USA at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Richards, a native of Crystal, Minn., will serve as an assistant coach for the United States in what will be his first Olympic appearance.
Also named to Bylsma's coaching staff today: Peter Laviolette, head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers and a Massachusetts native, as well as Tony Granato, an assistant with Bylsma in Pittsburgh and a longtime ambassador for USA Hockey. Granato also played for Team USA during the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, better known as the first year of NHL participation in the Olympics.
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The opportunity to join the 2014 staff came about over the weekend, when Richards was driving back from Buffalo and a USA Hockey camp with his son. Richards, who grew up idolizing U.S. Olympians and dreaming of one day being part of Team USA, was hoping his phone conversation with Bylsma went in that direction.
"I was in the car, the phone rang and I didn’t take it the first time…it was Dan Bylsma," Richards told BlueJackets.com. "I called him back and we played phone tag for a bit, but eventually he called me back. We talked about some things, and I was kind of hoping the conversation would lead to where it went.
"He asked if I would be part of his staff, and didn’t even have to ask that question."
Richards has strong ties to USA Hockey's management group for the 2014 Olympics, and also knows the other members of the coaching staff very well. He worked with David Poile and Ray Shero for several years as part of the Nashville Predators organization (coaching with their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee), and when he left the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2009 to become an assistant with the San Jose Sharks, the Penguins tabbed Bylsma as Richards' replacement.
The familiarity doesn't end there, either; Richards and Laviolette were both in contention for the 1998 Olympic team as players, and Richards played college hockey against Granato (who eventually made the 1998 team in Nagano).
"The good thing about all of this is that I have relationships with pretty much everyone," Richards said. "I’m really excited. I’m excited to work with players I’ve worked with in the past, seeing some new players and sitting down with the coaches and preparing for one of the best events in the world.
"I think it’s the stage, the players, everything. We all grew up watching the Olympics, and I always wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that as a player, and now I’m able to do it as a coach. I’m really excited, really honored, and just proud right now."
Poile said strong relationships with both USA Hockey and the other coaches made Richards a good fit for the 2014 staff.
"Having a history with Todd, you have knowledge of him as a person and as a coach," Poile said. "When you’re putting together a team, you’re looking for chemistry. Todd certainly seems to have that with all of us."
Richards recently spoke about the significance of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and how he had a family get together at his home in Minnesota as Team USA went on its memorable run to the gold medal game. He saw that group help raise the profile of USA Hockey and energize the American hockey system, and bring a strong sense of pride throughout the tournament.
A similar opportunity awaits when Team USA heads to Sochi, Richards said, not just for the team but for USA Hockey's continued growth.
"You can see more U.S.-born players coming up through the ranks, more U.S. playing in the NHL and really playing important, key roles in the NHL," Richards said. "I think this is another opportunity to vault the program forward. People always get attached to it, I was like that as a child. You always dream of and picturing yourself doing these things in the Olympics, so it’s great to be part of.
"I still say hockey players are the best athletes in the world – now I really get to work with the cream of the crop of U.S. players. These opportunities don’t come along very often whether it’s the timing or your position. It was probably more of a dream than a goal, and now my dream has come true somewhat."