PHILADELPHIA – Maybe he could have been the next Bobby Clarke. Maybe he could have been a Philadelphia Flyer forever, a legend remembered in video montages like the one shown on the scoreboard before Saturday night's game – Clarke scoring his 1,000th point with blood splattered on his sweater, Clarke holding the Stanley Cup with that famous gap-toothed grin.
Had the Flyers won the Cup in 2010 instead of falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the final, you never know. This might have turned out differently. But they didn't, and it didn't. And so less than four months after his shocking trade to the Los Angeles Kings, Mike Richards(notes) had to settle for this:
An orange sign behind the Kings' bench during warm-ups: "RICHIE YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A FLYER IN OUR [HEART]." A thank-you message on the scoreboard from the Flyers and a standing ovation from the fans early in the first period – while he was preparing for a defensive zone faceoff. Boos just about every time he touched the puck afterward. Oh, and the cherry on top – the first assist on the overtime goal that gave his new team a 3-2 victory over his old one.
"I know he was very anxious about this game," Kings coach Terry Murray said, "and at the end of the day, how fitting is that?"
All things considered, maybe this is for the best.
Richards loved Philly. He didn't want to leave. He wanted to spend his whole career here with best buddy Jeff Carter(notes). That's why he and Carter had signed long-term deals with the Flyers. That's why he was so stunned and saddened when they were split up and sent packing June 23 – Richards to the Kings, Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But it happened for a reason. Reasons, actually.
The end is well-documented – his battles with the Philly media, his cool relationship with coach Peter Laviolette, his love of the nightlife. You can blow it off as overblown. ("A 24-year-old multimillionaire likes to have a few beers," teammate Scott Hartnell(notes) told the Courier-Post. "What a shocker that is.") Think about it, though. Would the Flyers really trade their captain, the face of the franchise, just because of a few beers?
This goes back to the beginning. He earned a reputation as a tenacious two-way player. He could score, defend, do it all. Then came the comparisons to Clarke – and the captaincy at 23. In your early to mid-20s, you're supposed to have a few beers with your buddies, but Richards was also supposed to live up to Clarke's No. 16 hanging in the rafters and the image of a hockey leader.
"I think actually in Philadelphia that gets taken overboard," Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger(notes) said. "Everybody expected Richie to do everything. Well, he doesn't have the experience at some stuff. He didn't have the body of work. I mean, it is what it is. And when you have a young captain put into that position, especially in a city like this where everybody thinks the captain's role is this great huge idea, when really it's about playing the game … If you win, everybody thinks you're doing a great job. But when you lose, it's your fault."
Did the burden of the Philly "C" wear on Richards?
"I'd never worn it anywhere else," Richards said. "This is kind of what I knew. I didn't think there was anything different I had to do. I did the things I was taught and knew how to do and just tried to stay within myself."
The Flyers lost in the second round last season. Richards had only one goal in the playoffs, after dipping to 23 goals in the regular season. One veteran scout said he didn't have his greatest asset – that tenacity.
This is telling, too. The day the Flyers sent Richards to L.A. for winger Wayne Simmonds(notes), prospect Brayden Schenn(notes) and a 2012 second-round pick, Pronger phoned Simmonds to welcome him to the team.
"I kind of got a call," Simmonds said. "I didn't really know the number, so I answered it. It was, 'Hey, Wayne. How you doing? It's Chris.' I just said, 'Oh, how you doing?' I let him talk for a little bit, and I just said, 'Yeah, OK.' "
Seems like something the captain would do. Richards was barely out the door and Pronger hadn't been named the new captain yet, but Pronger was a veteran leader who already was a de facto captain.
Pronger is 37. He has a body of work. He has the swagger for the Philly "C." There is no question it's his room now, and on a team with a mix of older guys and youngsters, that could reduce the chances of cliques.
Richards is still only 26. He's still building his body of work, and he won't be compared to Clarke and carry the weight of the Philly "C" anymore. Separated from his best friend and the only professional organization he had ever known, he has been forced to strike out on his own, to take a different path.
This is a good situation. He has familiarity with several former Flyers in L.A. – execs, coaches, players – and he has solidified the center position on an up-and-coming team that expects to join the elite in the West. He has a defense-minded coach who values two-way play. He also lives near the beach. Could be worse. (Could be Columbus, right, Jeff?)
The return to Philly is out of the way already. Richards had dinner with Hartnell on Friday night and saw a lot of old friends. He tried to go through his normal routine and pretend Saturday night was just another game, not fooling anyone. He threw three hits. He jawed with his opponents. He won 68 percent of his faceoffs. In OT, he faked a shot and sent a sweet pass to defenseman Jack Johnson(notes), who tapped in the winner.
Richards did a TV interview in the hallway afterward as a few of the Philly media looked on. He had settled into L.A. for only about three weeks before the Kings' preseason and early regular-season schedule went nuts – Kansas City, Las Vegas, Hamburg, Stockholm, Berlin, New Jersey, Philadelphia. But he said he was looking forward to the flight back and sleeping in his own bed.
"Homeward bound now," he said.
Sometimes home is where the heart is. Sometimes home is where you make it.