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Brad Richards comes full circle with Lightning Hall of Fame induction

TAMPA — Brad Richards holds a major place in Lightning history.

He was a part of the franchise’s original big three along with Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, putting hockey on the map here and first bringing the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay in 2004. A home-grown product, Richards took his play up a notch in the postseason, with a Conn Smythe Trophy to prove it.

As far as the Lightning Hall of Fame goes, St. Louis and Lecavalier — members of last year’s inaugural class — already have their numbers retired and banners hanging from the rafters at Amalie Arena. Team founder Phil Esposito, the other member of last year’s class, has a statue outside Amalie Arena. And a statue of the 2004 team captain, Hockey Hall of Famer Dave Andreychuk, raising the Cup greets fans to Thunder Alley.

Richards is the perfect example of why the Lightning created its own Hall of Fame, to honor players who played just as important a role as those with banners and statues, and recognize them among the organization’s all-time greats.

Richards spent seven seasons in a Lightning uniform and still ranks among the top 10 in franchise history in most statistical categories, including points and assists, average points per game, goals and games played.

“It’s an honor for sure,” Richards said of his pending Hall induction. “It’s my original team and half of my career was here, and I felt I never really wanted to leave. It was the worst day of my career waking up and going to the airport knowing it’s over here. So it’s nice to be recognized and come back and be part of the history here because it was a very special place.”

Richards, along with Andreychuk, will be honored as members of the second Lightning Hall of Fame class during the annual alumni weekend. They will be presented with their blue Hall of Fame jackets during a ceremony at Amalie Arena on Friday night. They will also be recognized during a pregame ceremony before the Lightning’s home game Saturday against the Flyers.

“I had pretty much all my firsts here,” Richards said. “When you look back at your career, that was the most fun time for me because there wasn’t a lot of pressure, everything’s new. We had a lot of fun growing together.

“I didn’t have a family then. So to come back and show them that dad just doesn’t wake up and go golfing every day, he actually did something a few years ago, I get to show them kind of what my life was like before meeting them and having kids. This was obviously a big part of my life.”

Richards went from unheralded third-round pick in 1998 to a franchise fixture two years later. He led the team in scoring as a 20-year-old rookie. He had played with Lecavalier since he was 14, and St. Louis also became one of his best friends. They formed the young core that was the foundation of the Lightning’s first Stanley Cup team. Andreychuk, who joined the team in 2001-02, was the veteran leader the young guys needed to become winners.

Richards said that St. Louis and Lecavalier helped push him to become a better player. It often went unspoken, but from the beginning of training camp, they tried to beat each other to get the top testing scores. They kept track of each other’s stats, who was doing better on the power play, and in the case of Richards and Lecavalier, who would line up against the opponent’s top center.

Things started to click in the middle of the 2003-04 season for the Lightning. Under coach John Tortorella, who will be in town this weekend coaching the Flyers, they played a different brand of hockey for the time. Tampa Bay was a young, fast team, and centering around the big three, the Lightning were able to push the pace and create offensive opportunities for themselves.

In the 2004 postseason, Richards set an NHL record with seven game-winning goals. He led all players with 26 postseason points, a Lightning record that stood for 16 years. He also led all skaters with 12 power-play points in the playoffs and was the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1992 to have at least seven postseason power-play goals.

“Let’s face it, it was an unreal run,” Andreychuk said of Richards’ game-winning goals record. “It was, and whether it’s one goal (in a game) or five minutes in, it has never happened since then and it might not happen again. And so it was an incredible run, and he’s got the hardware to prove it. He deserves it 100%.”

Richards planned to spend his entire career in Tampa. In 2008, he had just built a new house and was in the second year of a five-year, $39 million contract. But the window began to close on that Lightning team, and the front office felt Richards’ contract was the one they had to move. He waived a no-trade clause to allow a move to Dallas.

“In your head, you’re going to get another Stanley Cup here, you’re going to retire here, your family is here,” Richards said. “I was still 28 but you’re getting close to 30. And you’re like, ‘We’re going to be here.’ I just signed a contract. It was tough.”

“You don’t really realize it right away,” he added. “Once you wake up in the morning and you leave and it’s like, ‘Oh wow, this is over. All of these great memories, it’s over.’ Now you look back, it is what it is and you laugh. But in the moment, it was a sad day. I’m not being macho, but I didn’t cry much in my life, but that was a tough morning.”

Richards would win another Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2015, ironically enough, against the Lightning.

“We got to grow together and do something together,” Richards said of his Lightning career. “And now, the franchise and organization, it’s probably one of the top two or three places where people want to play. And we kind of were part of that growth.

“Obviously, this group now has taken it to another level and done a great job, but I think if you were born in the ’90s and you were a hockey fan in Tampa, you got to see a lot of great things.”

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