Mike Richter knew things did not look good. As he attempted to slide across the crease and make one of his patented kick saves on February 19, 2001 at Madison Square Garden, Richter's worst nightmare was relived. Just over one year earlier the netminder tore his left ACL at the 2000 NHL All-Star Skills Competition in Toronto. This time around it was his right knee that was injured ... same result. On Wednesday, Richter returned to the ice at the team's practice facility in Rye, New York, five months after undergoing his second reconstructive knee surgery in as many years.
For about 15 minutes, Richter skated on his own in full equipment, one of the first few times he has returned to the ice since undergoing surgery in March. Although he will not be facing shots for a few weeks, the ice time is part of his progressive rehabilitation process, which has gone incredibly well over the last few months.
"I usually never skate this early and honestly my legs feel like they're in pretty good shape," noted Richter after his brief workout. "What I wanted to do is start skating early rather than cram it all in before training camp. I wanted to do the skating in increments. It will be nice to have the luxury of having a few weeks of actually just being able to skate around and begin to take shots in a week or two and move on from there. I'd much rather do it this way than go right into camp and feel like I'm already so far behind everyone else. My first time skating last year was up in Burlington at camp and by then, the guys had been skating for a few weeks, so this will be really good for me."
Having been through the same procedure and rehabilitation process the previous year in his left knee, Richter has been able to learn from that experience and has used it to prepare himself for the challenges that lie ahead.
"I really can't complain about this whole process," said the netminder. "I'm more educated about the injury this time around, so I have better patience and awareness, but I think along with that, my expectations are higher, so I just have to be careful. Things are going very well, though. The doctors did a great job, as did the training staff and my therapist in New York City. The rehab is going along as planned, probably even better. My right knee is in much better condition than the left one was at this time last year. But you're never really satisfied until you're back where you want to be."
The big question is whether the Rangers' all-time wins leader will be ready in time for training camp and the start of the 2001-02 season. Richter certainly believes so.
"I think I'll be ready," Richter predicted. "I'll have to see how the next few weeks go. I'll skate a few times a week and be able to add things as I go along - stops and starts, vertical and lateral movement - before I go out and take part in a scrimmage. The good thing is that hopefully two weeks before training camp starts, I'l be ready to begin taking shots and work the knee hard and see how it responds. It's going to keep getting better and I think the big thing is not overdoing it, which was probably a bigger issue earlier in the rehab process."
Currently Richter stands as the only goaltender with significant NHL experience on the club's roster, which has caused the speculative juices of the media to wonder if a move to bring in another netminder is on the horizon. This is not a cause of concern for the 1994 Stanley Cup champion.
"For me, that aspect of the game is secondary to getting myself healthy. The only way I'm going to make a contribution to the team is if I'm playing at 100%. All I'm concerned with is getting back on my feet and letting my play take care of me from there. Until I'm able to play and make a statement on the ice, there is no use worrying about anything else. My responsibility to the team is to get healthy and be ready to play as soon as possible. I've done everything in my power to get myself in that position. All of the outside talk is out of my control, but what is in my control is how I play and how quickly I come back to play."
Many wonder how much the Rangers will be able to rely on one of the game's most dependable goaltenders in 2001-02, considering the league's condensed schedule due to the Olympics. According to Richter, he's focused on returning to top form.
"I feel like I'm going to be able to play an awful lot of hockey games this year right from the start. We'll see how it goes, but I expect to play better than ever."
Those are lofty expectations coming from a player who has gone through as much as he has in the last two years. But as he has proven in years past, Mike Richter has often rose to the occasion to silence many of the game's toughest critics. This time around, he's looking to show that things won't be any different.