By Mike Richards | Special to LAKings.com
I remember being at the outdoor rink. I used a chair to help me stand up on my skates. That is really how I first learned how to skate – using a chair to help keep me up on that outdoor rink.
In thinking back to the early days on the ice, it is tough to say whether skating was natural to me or not. Back then, you just think about being on the outdoor rink and pushing that chair around with your brother who's skating with you. I know it wasn't easy by any means but in looking back I think I caught onto it pretty quickly.
Playing the game of hockey was very prevalent in our following, even at a young age. I have two brothers, one older and one younger and they both played hockey. My father, my uncle and my cousins all played too. It's safe to say that everyone I knew played.
From the beginning, the game has always been fun for me. I kept at the skating and I kept at the game itself.
As I was getting older, I joined a program called Mighty Mites, where you would go out and skate about once a week. I remember my dad helping me out. It was your typical skating drills but you also learned how to handle the puck. More than anything, I liked being outdoors with my brothers and playing. I skated a lot with my cousin and brothers until I left home for Juniors. Looking back, I played a lot of hockey with kids who were older than me.
Back then, I played on defense a little and that goes back to Pee-Wee hockey really. My coach put me back on the point to see how I would do there. For the most part, however, I have always played forward.
I also played other sports as a kid. It seems like I played everything: soccer, golf, basketball. I would golf a lot with my dad and in the summer I worked at a golf course. Growing up it wasn’t about becoming a pro athlete -- it was about playing golf or playing hockey for fun. I didn't really think that it would necessarily go anywhere.
As a kid, I followed the Winnipeg Jets. I remember Teemu Selanne having a really great year in Winnipeg. I also went to a playoff game when the Jets played the Red Wings. I remember watching Bob Probert fight Tie Domi. It was the first time I had seen a fight.
They were the closest NHL team to where we lived and it was always a big deal for us -- me, my brothers and my mom -- to go to the games as a family. We liked watching the best hockey that we could watch.
One time I was in the lobby of a hotel in Winnipeg and I received autographs from a few players. I got Sergei Fedorov’s autograph on the back of a piece of paper. I don’t know what I did with that piece of paper but I remember it being pretty cool at the time.
I was pretty young when they left so I don’t remember most of the details. I did not understand all that went into it.
Around the time I was getting ready to be drafted, I started thinking I could have my own career. I would hear a lot of talk and thought it might become reality. I thought I had a shot and it was a year where I really started thinking I could make a living playing hockey.
When I did get drafted, I did my best not to think about the path ahead. My focus was really on playing the game. Yeah, you always dream and think how cool it would be to play in the NHL, but I didn’t think about getting drafted and playing hockey for a living. It was about the game and the opportunity more than anything else.
Playing junior hockey was great. I made a lot of friends -- guys who I still keep in touch with -- and I lived with a great family for four years. That helped me out in a big way. After all, I moved away at age 16.
I went down to Kitchener -- which is close to Toronto -- and nowhere near where I live now. I think that was a big adjustment. On the ice we won a Memorial Cup and my coach Peter DeBoer -- who is now in New Jersey -- is someone who helped me along the way. He taught me how to be a professional and prepared me for the NHL.
While playing in Canada it is pretty hard not to know that people are watching you -- that scouts are in the building. My draft year was the year we had success as a team. There is a lot going on during the Memorial Cup and I realized that there are a lot of people there, but it was not a distraction for me.
What I remember the most about that day was how nervous I was. Once I got drafted, I had to go up on stage and it was a relief once it was all over. My family and my uncle were there and it was nice to share that experience with everyone. Overall, though, it was nerve-wracking.
When I was drafted, I didn’t really know if I was physically or mentally ready for the NHL. The first time I went to a training camp I looked around at the people. It can be overwhelming for someone at a young age. It is an adjustment, but we played in an exhibition game and that was cool. It was a great experience and you wanted to gain as much as you could. I ended up playing those final two years with Kitchener and that second year was the NHL lockout year.
I came into camp that year both expecting and hoping to make the team. They had made some changes in the offseason as it related to some of the forwards on the team and that made room for Jeff Carter
and myself. We had just won a Calder Cup with the Phantoms that spring and we had a lot of expectations on us.
We ended up making the team after a good training camp. That camp was a real experience for both of us. It helped for me to go through that with a good buddy.
As I prepared for that first NHL game, I actually wasn’t nervous. I was more excited than anything. We had played so many exhibition games that we were used to the game aspect of it. It was a home game and that was very exciting. And, again, getting to experience it with a friend like Jeff helped take some of the nerves away.