Olympics 'tailor-made' for Flyers' Richards
If anyone understands what a hockey team needs to have in order to succeed at the Olympics, it is Chris Pronger.
The 35-year-old is the only skater named to Canada's men's hockey team for the 2010 Vancouver Games who played in all three previous Olympics that featured National Hockey League players: 1998 in Nagano, 2002 in Salt Lake City, and Turin in 2006.
That experience adds weight to his evaluation of what his Philadelphia Flyers teammate Mike Richards might bring to Canada's team.
"He's a guy who is very committed at both ends of the ice, defensively and offensively," Pronger said. "In that tournament especially, you need to take care of your own end first, yet still be creative and productive offensively. I think it's tailor-made for his style of play."
Pronger is far from alone in that evaluation of Richards, who is one of executive director Steve Yzerman's 14 first-time Olympians.
"I think he's a very valuable player," said Brian Burke, general manager of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the U.S. team. "He's very intense, it's clear he's got leadership skills. I think it was a wise selection. For the record, I think Steve Yzerman picked a hell of a team.
"Obviously he's got a very deep pool to choose from, but some of those picks were very astute and I think Mike Richards was one of them."
Should Canada win gold in Vancouver next month, it will do so with a team that is drastically different than the one that captured the country's first Olympic gold in 50 years in 2002.
More than half of the 2002 team — 13 of 23 — was 30 or older when the Salt Lake City Games opened. Six of those players were at least 34 years old.
This year's edition has only nine players age 30 or older.
This team's average age is just a shade over 27, about three years younger than the 2002 squad.
Richards, whose 25th birthday arrives just five days before Canada a opens the preliminary round against Norway on Feb. 16, is not a superstar name like former MVPs Sidney Crosby or Joe Thornton.
Unknown to most casual fans
But on a young and relatively inexperienced team, Richards does not need anyone reminding him about being defensively responsible.
Last season — his fourth in the NHL — the 24th overall pick from the 2003 draft scored 30 goals, 80 points and posted a plus-22 rating. That earned him a nomination for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.
While Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk ultimately took the award for a second straight year, Richards showed why Philadelphia deemed him worthy of a 12-year, $69-million US contract and made him its captain.
This year he leads the Flyers with 20 goals and 39 points in an up-and-down season in which the team fired coach John Stevens after a dismal start.
Richards, who was close to Stevens, thought for a time the team's play and his own slump — just two goals in one 11-game stretch — might have compromised his spot with Canada.
"There was concern, I guess, more than questions," he said. "I obviously wanted to be on the team and had a tough month of December, or end of November and December. But it feels good now and I'm glad to be on the team."
He also brings the experience of winning in high-profile events. He led the Kitchener Rangers to a Memorial Cup under Florida Panthers head coach Pete DeBoer in 2003 and played a key role when Canada won gold at the 2005 world junior tournament.
"The pressure is packed in the world juniors," Richards said. "Obviously not as much as it will be in Vancouver. But whenever you have experience in a short-term event like this, it's always going to help.
For now, Richards maintains his focus is anywhere but on the Olympics.
"I think it was more of a sigh of relief to be on the team, more of a sigh to just get back to relaxing and playing for the Flyers and not have to deal with that anymore," he said. "I haven't really talked to too many people about what the Olympics are like. I know Chris and I are going to talk about it closer to the date, but right now I'm just trying to focus on Philly."
In other words, responsible as ever.
If Richards can keep that going for the Games, Yzerman and Canada's fans will be glad he is on their team.