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Mike Richards not offering apology as he moves forward with Caps

Mike Richards signed a pro-rated one-year, $1 million deal with the Capitals. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Everyone loves a story of redemption.

And if Mike Richards accomplishes what just a few months ago seemed a remote possibility and resumes a productive NHL career with the Washington Capitals, this will surely be a good story.

But know this, Richards isn't going to follow the well-worn redemption script.

In meeting with the media for the first time since the Capitals signed him to a prorated $1 million, one-year contract, Richards seemed very much the man we have known since his days as captain of the Philadelphia Flyers.

There was a slight unease in dealing with the media, something that has always been a Richards trademark.

There was more than a little defiance.

There was an edge to him -- not impolite or curt -- but a reminder of the player he was and the player the Capitals are hoping can be rediscovered.

Contrite?

Not so much, even in the wake of being arrested with oxycodone at the U.S.-Canada border last June, having his former team the Los Angeles Kings void the remaining years on his contract and spending last winter in the minors.

Any acknowledgment of wrongdoing or having made mistakes?

Not so much, either.

But in the end, maybe Richards doesn't owe us an ounce of contrition.

Maybe he doesn't owe us an apology -- even though that's the general script followed by athletes who fall from grace and there is no disputing that Richards has endured such a fall.

Maybe the contrition is reserved for those he does owe gratitude to: the Capitals, for instance, for rescuing him from a men's league hockey in his hometown of Kenora, Ontario.

We asked how he was a different person than a year ago.

"I'm not sure," the 30-year-old said. "2015 wasn't great, so hopefully 2016 will be."

But what has he learned through this period?

"Just don't take anything for granted," Richards said. "It's a privilege to play in the NHL and not everyone gets to do it. It's a privilege to play hockey at the highest level. It's not fun being 30 years old, sitting on the couch and not having much to do. It's exciting to be back here and obviously fortunate and thank the Capitals for taking a chance on me. Hopefully I can do some good things with them."

As for change in his life, Richards surprisingly suggested he wasn't going to be any different.

"I'm just going to be myself," he said. "That's all I know how to do. That's all I'm going to be. I'm not going to try to change anything. I'm not going to try to change myself. I am who I am and I've had success being that way."

The Capitals have been following the Richards saga for months now.

General manager Brian MacLellan has been intrigued by Richards' skill set and his pedigree as a winner, even if things flamed out in Los Angeles in a spectacular fashion.

MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz met with Richards when the team was in Toronto in late November.

"We had conversations about what he was looking for, what we were looking for," Trotz said. "I think we had a very honest discussion of the fit. A very honest discussion of what he wanted to do."

MacLellan said part of the conversation involved hearing Richards's side of the story about what happened in Los Angeles, especially given some of the comments made by Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi.

In an emotional treatise shared with the Los Angeles Times last fall, Lombardi said he felt betrayed by Richards, whom he likened to a son.

"The only thing I can think of that would be worse would be suspecting your wife of cheating on you for five years and then finding out in fact it was true," Lombardi wrote when the two sides reached an agreement that made Richards a free agent in October.

"I heard the rumors that Mike might have some off-ice issues, but I refused to believe that they were true despite some obvious signs. The reality is that I was 'played.' My only regret, though, is that I wish Mike had been able to come to me with his problem -- and that was the last message I left for him on his cellphone when I learned of the incident and all the history leading up to the incident."

Richards admitted he has not spoken to Lombardi in a "really, really long time."

He opted not to respond to Lombardi's comments and "take the high road."

Lombardi, however, did wish Richards well during a conference call Wednesday night that was organized after the Kings' acquisition of Luke Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier from the Flyers.

"I think now that everything is out in the open and the team can work with him without things being hidden, I think he's got a great shot," Lombardi said.

"I think, given the breadth of what I learned after, and what he was going through, like I've always said, the frustrating thing was you weren't allowed to know, and I think that this is a great opportunity for him. The biggest thing is you've got a good man there in Brian MacLellan, and it's a strong organization, and now everybody knows the facts and can help instead of everybody worrying about how you can't say anything. I think he's got a great chance, and I'll be pulling for him now."

Trotz has a long history both in his personal life and as a head coach of being open to working with players who have off-ice issues. Those experiences can't help but make Richards' transition back to the NHL easier.

"I can be honest with the player," Trotz said. "I've dealt with it in my personal life and also with the players that I coached. It's just being honest and everyone in the group knowing where everybody is. Mike's in a good spot and our players are in a good spot."

Stories of redemption aren't necessarily about escaping the past but reconciling it with the present and the future.

Can Richards do that?

Certainly his Capitals teammate Justin Williams, whom he also played with in Los Angeles, believes it is possible. He threw his support behind the signing when asked by MacLellan and Trotz.

"The one thing we wanted to get a sense of is, you know we bring him into our locker room, what's he going to be like?" MacLellan said. "I think Justin basically said there's no chance he'd be a bad influence within our room, he's a good person, brings a lot to the table. [Williams] spoke very highly of him."

Williams said he explained to his coach and GM that Richards was a proud man and that he'd taken some hits but wasn't ready to pack it in.

"First off, you always remember who you win with and you cherish that and you have loyalty to that," Williams said outside the dressing room after Thursday's 4-1 win over the New York Islanders. "Mike's obviously had a well-documented tough last few years, had a lot of time off right now to think about what's been going on. He's only 30 years old. And he doesn't want to give up on hockey just yet.

"His ego took a hit and he's a proud guy and that's exactly what I told them. I told them about his character and that he's going to prove a lot of people wrong. I hope this is a good redemption story."

And it doesn't necessarily have to be the final chapter, added Williams, who won two Stanley Cups with Richards in Los Angeles after winning one with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

"This could be the start of a good story," he said. "I know he had some options, not as many as he would have liked, obviously, but there were some options there for him and he came here for the same reason that I came here: One heck of a team and a chance to win. And that's all you want as a player when you get to our age. You want a team to want you. You want to play a role on the team and you want to have a good chance to win; actually mean it when you say it."

For the Capitals, there is little risk. The half million dollars in salary is a pittance.

They've been in contact with Richards' lawyers in the criminal case and they have contacted immigration lawyers. Richards has a court hearing at the end of January, and MacLellan said Richards was expected to plead not guilty and they were optimistic there would be a favorable resolution to the criminal proceedings. Whether that's sooner or later is unknown, MacLellan said.

Richards met with commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Wednesday in New York where it's believed it was explained to him that further transgressions would not be looked upon favorably, although Richards declined to provide any details.

Richards will start skating with the team Friday and then they'll figure out how close he is to being game ready. He might play some games in the American Hockey League for conditioning purposes, but MacLellan figures Richards will start by centering the team's fourth line and they'll go from there.

Given how dramatically Richards' play dropped off the past two years, it is by no means a given that he will fit in with a Capitals team that leads the Eastern Conference and has established itself as the favorite to advance to the Stanley Cup finals.

But there has always been something about Richards that has made him appealing to teams and teammates alike. And even if it's a longshot he can rediscover that part of him, it's worth it to the Capitals to let this play out and find out for sure.

"I think the player that he was," MacLellan said in explaining the allure of bringing Richards into the fold. "He's got over 120 games playoff experience. He's been on a lot of championship teams from junior to American League to NHL to Olympics. I think that doesn't happen by accident. He just didn't fall into all of those. There's a quality person, teammate there that we were interested in and we think we can get a lot of that back out of him."