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Flyers' Richards starting to resemble Clarke

by Chuck Gormley
Former teammate and current television analyst Bill Clement once described Bobby Clarke as the best leader he had ever seen in any sport in any era, comparing him to Civil War general Robert E. Lee.

"When Robert E. Lee tried to lead his troops into battle at the head of the front," Clement said, "his troops would silently gather around his horse, shoulder him and escort him to the back of the lines because they didn't want him hurt.

"Clarkie would have fought to the death, I'll guarantee you that. He epitomized what a leader was."

Mike Richards' Philadelphia Flyers teammates may never compare him to a Civil War hero, but when he was drafted by the Flyers in 2003, then Assistant General Manager Paul Holmgren was asked if Richards reminded him of anyone.

"Clarkie," Holmgren responded.

And with that, the comparisons began. Midway through his fourth season with the Flyers, at the age of 23, Clarke was named the youngest captain in NHL history at the time.

Richards, who is also 23, was named Flyers captain last month, just before embarking on his fourth NHL season.

So what does Clarke think of the Flyers' decision to make Richards the third-youngest captain in club history, behind only Clarke and Eric Lindros?

"He's a natural," Clarke said. "Mike's been a captain his whole life. I don't think it was a tough decision for Paul and John (Stevens). He should be the captain, he is the captain and I hope he is for the next 15 years."

Richards' teammates agree.

"He was the right choice," right wing Joffrey Lupul said. "I know a lot of people will say he's young, but we're not going to ask him to do anything he didn't do last year. He's a natural leader and he was definitely the right choice."

Richards had a breakout season last year, setting career highs in goals (28), assists (47) and points (75) in 73 games. He also led all Flyers forwards in ice time (21:30) while quarterbacking the first power-play unit and leading the club in shorthanded goals with five.

Sensing they had something special, the Flyers rewarded Richards with the longest and most lucrative contract in team history, a 12-year, $69 million deal that begins this season and runs through 2020-21.

"Richie was the heart and soul of our team last year and he's got the world ahead of him," Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell said. "Every night he gives 110 percent; he scores timely goals; he's not afraid to drop the mitts; he goes into the corners and comes out with the puck. And he's a class-act guy with a great family."

Yet at the end of last season, when Richards was first asked whether he would accept the captaincy if it was offered to him during the summer, he said he would decline, saying he was not quite ready to lead the Flyers.

"At that time it was devastating for our team and for him as a hockey player," Stevens said of the Flyers' elimination from the Eastern Conference Finals. "In his eyes he was an assistant captain with Jason Smith as the captain."

The Flyers decided not to re-sign Smith, allowing the hard-hitting blueliner to sign a two-year contract with the Ottawa Senators.

"I had too much respect for 'Gator' to say anything else," Richards said, referring to Smith.

But there was truth in the root of Richards' answers. With former NHL captains Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere already in the dressing room, he wondered if it was too early in his career to lead an NHL team with established stars.

Stevens spoke privately with Timonen, Briere and Simon Gagne to get their thoughts on the captaincy and all agreed the "C" belonged on Richards' chest.

"One of the reasons Mike is appealing is he has such respect for the veterans on our team," Stevens said. "He's not going to command them around; he's going to ask them to be his ally in the locker room.

"We still need all of those players to have big voices. But I feel Mike Richards just represents every characteristic you want in our team. The identity of the Flyers is the identity of Mike Richards as a player.

"He can score, he can play defensively, he plays with great enthusiasm, he always puts the team first. He was built in the Flyers mold. Mike's going to lead the way offensively, Mike's going to lead the way killing penalties. Mike's going to lead the way in protecting a lead. Mike's going to lead the way in taking faceoffs. Mike's going to lead the way with his work ethic in
practice and his work in the community."

Is it also safe to assume, then, that Richards is going to lead the way to the next Stanley Cup parade through South Philadelphia? If you ask his former junior league coach, Peter DeBoer, the answer is yes.

"I have no doubts that before he's done, Mike will win a Stanley Cup in Philadelphia," DeBoer said last season, before he left the OHL's Kitchener Rangers to coach the NHL's Florida Panthers. "I'm so sure, I'd bet my house on it. This kid wins championships."

Richards' resume proves that assertion. In 2002, he won the gold medal with Canada in the under-18 Eight Nations Cup. In 2003 he led Kitchener to the Memorial Cup, the Stanley Cup of Canada's major juniors. In 2004 he led Canada to a silver medal in the World Junior Championships, then won gold the following year before leading the Phantoms to a Calder Cup victory in
the 2005 AHL playoffs.

By his own admission, Richards is not the world's best orator. Like Clarke, he is quiet by nature but a bulldog on the ice.

"Mike's been a captain his whole life. I don't think it was a tough decision for Paul and John (Stevens). He should be the captain, he is the captain and I hope he is for the next 15 years."
-- Bobby Clarke

"Standing up in the dressing room, that's not really his thing," Lupul said. "There are times in a season – like when we were on that (10-game) losing streak last year – that he needs to say something."

"He's a little shy," Hartnell said, "but when he speaks you listen."

Richards said wearing the "C" will not change the way he plays or the way he treats his teammates. Clarke said he felt the same way about being a captain, but admits that being a captain made him a better player, a better teammate and ultimately, a better leader.

The season after he was named captain, the Flyers won their first of two straight Stanley Cups. They haven't won one since.

"When you get a young player who's qualified to lead the club and can stay in that position for a long time I think it's really good for the stability of the organization," Clarke said.

"The captaincy is not important on every club, but it has always been important on our club. You can't create the personality of a captain. You are what you are and you do what you do. Hopefully, that's enough."

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