Camp Tour: Kings' Philly connection helping Mike Richards with transition
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Mike Richards' phone beeped. It was a text from a familiar name asking him to call, sent almost immediately after the forward's blockbuster trade in June.
It was John Stevens, Richards' former head coach in Philadelphia and his new assistant coach in Los Angeles.
Still shell-shocked, Richards obliged.
"I told Mike he would love it here," Stevens told ESPN.com on Monday during a break at the Kings' camp scrimmages. "I told him he's going to love the way we play, he's going to love the city, he's going to love living here. As hard as it was that day to know he wasn't in Philadelphia anymore, I told him there was lots to look forward to. And Mike and I have been through a lot together. I'm really excited that he's here. He's really one of the players that I truly enjoy having."
That immediate bond, that instant relationship he could tap into, cannot be overlooked in Richards' transition. It was a life-changing trade. Richards thought he'd be a Flyer for life.
"There are a lot of emotions when you first get traded," Richards told ESPN.com on Monday at the Kings' practice facility. "John and I had a great relationship in Philly. It was tough when he left Philly. ... It's remained a great relationship. We talk and it's an open-ended relationship where we talk about everything on the ice. Coming into a team where you know the coaches trust you already, that's going to be the biggest thing."
The connections in Philadelphia run deep, which is why it shouldn't surprise anyone the Kings were the club that scooped him up. Kings coach Terry Murray was an assistant coach under Stevens, Kings GM Dean Lombardi was a pro scout in Philadelphia before coming here and, of course, Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall was a Flyer all his life before coming to Los Angeles.
If there was any team in the NHL that was going to get Richards, it was the Kings. They knew what they were getting.
"You always try to do your undercover work [scouting]. This league is a pretty small league, but that being said, there's nothing like having firsthand knowledge," Lombardi told ESPN.com on Monday. "The bottom line with Mike, nobody questions this guy's competitiveness; his leadership comes natural. He's a guy that's won at every level."
Signing Richards' former Flyers linemate, Simon Gagne, was another touch in helping the former Philadelphia captain adjust.
On the ice, Richards wants to erase a painful and frustrating season. He battled a hand/wrist injury all season before having surgery in May. He appeared in 81 regular-season games, but was never the player he could be because of it.
"I just had no strength," Richards said. "As the season went on, it got worse and worse. I couldn't shoot the puck very well, had no strength in battles and was poor at faceoffs. I feel better now. I'm shooting the puck better and there's no pain. It's going to be good."
It's a clean slate.
"For me, it's just getting back to playing the way I can," Richards said. "Last year with my hand, it was a frustrating year with a lot of pain and a lot of headache because of it. ... This is an opportunity this year to get back to the top of your game."
Richards is slated to begin the season between Gagne and Dustin Brown. Talk about a line that can do damage at both ends of the ice. And the Kings view the 26-year-old Richards as a burgeoning star who can take yet another step.
"I think Mike is still evolving," said Lombardi. "I think he's only going to keep getting better."
The Kings' GM evoked the name of Steve Yzerman as an example of a star center who took his game to yet another level midway through his career. Richards will have every opportunity to do that in Los Angeles.
"He'll be counted on in all situations here," Stevens said. "I know in Philadelphia, I probably played him a bit too much. He's one of those guys that you want on the ice all the time. If you had to win a game, you had to catch up, you had to protect a lead, he just seemed like the type of player that crossed your mind all the time. He's a guy we really, really trust and I think Mike is the type of guy that wants that responsibility."
Cutting those Philadelphia ties won't happen overnight, though. Richards came out of the locker room Monday wearing a T-shirt from a Philadelphia restaurant. It just so happens he'll get the big game out of the way nice and early -- the Kings face the Flyers in Philadelphia on Oct. 15.
"It's going to be interesting," Richards said with a smile. "I'm not sure what type of reception I'm going to get in Philly, but I enjoyed my six years there. We did a lot of good things there, had a lot of success. I'm excited to get back there. I'm excited to see everyone again, friends and teammates and people in the organization, and playing in front of that crowd again will be nice. I enjoyed that every time I stepped on the ice there and I thought I played my hardest every time I did. It's going to be weird being on the opposite side, but at the same time, I think I'm going to enjoy it."