By Shawn P. Roarke - Courtesy of www.nhl.com.Mike Richter
worked extra hard this summer, rehabilitating a second season-ending knee injury in as many years, with the thought of playing in the 2002 Olympic Games as an added -- and necessary -- motivating force.
"For me it was a tremendous motivator over the summer and last year, and something where it's a heck of a challenge," Richter said of the thoughts of earning an Olympic team berth with the United States. “In order to make the Olympics in February, you better be able to be getting ready in the first game and feel like you can contribute and play well fairly early on. To me it's been a great motivation to not just get back, but get back on top of your game."
Consider Richter back on top of his game.
Using the Olympics as a motivating tool, Richter returned to the New York Rangers at the top of his game. His stellar play is one of the biggest reasons the Rangers are in the playoff hunt after four years of mediocrity.
It also made it imperative that the United States add him to the Olympic roster for the tournament in Salt Lake City. They did just that in mid-December, picking him to join Nashville's Mike Dunham and Carolina's Tom Barrasso as the team's three goalies.
Richter, his career in doubt for much of the last two seasons, was ecstatic with the selection.
"It's very limited in how many opportunities you get to do something special," said Richter. "That's what you work your whole life for are those opportunities. This is one of those chances."
Richter has already done more special things for the United States in international play than almost any other player in the history of the program. It is not a stretch to argue that he is the best goalie to ever represent the United States on the international stage.
"Mike is a great competitor and he's done some wonderful things for us in the past," says Herb Brooks, the coach of the American squad for this Olympics, as well as the author of the Americans' "Miracle on Ice" campaign at the 1980 Olympics.
The 2002 Olympics will be his 10th international tournament for the Americans. He has been a central figure in his country's three greatest triumphs during that time.
In 1986, Richter appeared in the World Junior Championships in Hamilton, Ontario, sharing the netminding duties with Alan Perry. Richter went 3-1 with a 2.60 goals-against average as the Americans earned the bronze medal -- their first-ever podium finish at the World Juniors.
Five years later, Richter was the starting goalie for the U.S. at the 1991 Canada Cup. He played in seven of the eight games in that tournament, going 4-3 with a 3.00 GAA as Team USA finished second, its best-ever finish in any Canada Cup.
But, it was his performance in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey that proved to be the seminal moment of Richter's international career. In that tournament, he appeared in six games as the U.S. won a surprising gold medal at the expense of the heavily favored Canadians.
In Game 3 of the best-of-three finals, Richter was stunningly brilliant, making 35 saves in a 5-2 victory. He made 22 saves in a second period that should go down as one of the finest performances in international hockey. It was a performance that went a long way to earning him MVP honors for the tournament, which he finished with 4-2 mark and a .923 save percentage.
"Without him we probably wouldn't be here right now," said U.S. forward Tony Amonte, who scored the tournament-winning goal. "He held us in there for 40 minutes."
Overall, Richter has played in 35 tournament games with Team USA, going 17-15-1 with a 3.42 GAA. He also played in 29 games in a pre-Olympic tour before the 1988 Olympics, winning 17 and posting a 3.31 GAA.
Come February, Richter will be appearing in his third Olympics. He played four games in 1988 in Calgary, and also played in the 1998 Games in Nagano.
"I obviously would have liked to have stopped more pucks, but it didn't happen that way and hopefully, it will happen next time," Richter said after the elimination at Nagano. "If there is a next time."
Now, there is a next time. Richter is the leading candidate to earn his third starting assignment in Olympic play.
"In a short tournament, experience is very important for a goaltender to have, assuming he is healthy," said Brooks, who rode red-hot goalie Jim Craig to gold in 1980. "We believe that if Mike is healthy, he gives us that experience going into this tournament."
If it comes to pass, he will have the chance to eradicate the memories of past Olympic failures and add to his legacy as the preeminent American goalie of his generation, and perhaps the best American goalie ever.