THEY HAVE to do it now, don't they? Even if they want Mike Richards to remain captain, even if their internal discussions conclude that this team's fading finishes in two of the last three seasons were no fault of his, haven't the Flyers introduced a virus into their system with their tepid endorsements of the man over the last 10 days?

Haven't they put themselves in the position to either trade him or strip his captaincy?

First, head coach Peter Laviolette was all over the place during a prolonged discussion with the media about what went wrong. At first, he termed questions about Richards' captaincy "a witch hunt," asserting that he took the team to within two wins of a Stanley Cup the year before. (Of course, Chris Pronger was playing more than 25 minutes a game during that stretch, too, tormenting teams on and off the ice, front and center when the dressing room doors opened, too - but I digress.)

Later, asked about their relationship, Laviolette said: "All relationships are built. You don't come in and put your hip on somebody's hip and say, 'You and I are best friends.' Mike and I continue to work on our relationship. I respect him. I like Mike as a person and we continue to work on that."

A day later, general manager Paul Holmgren, who also seemed surprised at the line of questioning, blurted out this unforgettable line: "He's a quiet kid, a reserved kid. I think we all in our own way, I don't want to say have communication issues, but he's a hard guy to talk to sometimes for anyone, probably even his closest friends."

Finally, there was Ed Snider, to me, when asked whether he was sure his team had the right captain: "I'm the last guy in the world to ask that. I don't know any more than you do. I really don't. I'm not there every day. I'm not in the locker room. You've been around hockey enough to know there's an inner sanctum there. In that locker room, you don't know what's going on. It's up to the coach who probably has a handle on it by now."

Rightly or wrongly, the murmurs about who should wear the C for this team have mushroomed into a messy, ugly, North American debate. After Richards tweeted last week in response to a Philly reporter's assertion that he was moody and withdrawn, Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons had this piece of advice for the Flyers' 26-year-old center:

"Grow up."

Ironically, Richards is now at the age at which sewing the C on his jersey would make more sense than it did when he was still feeling his way through the NHL in his early 20s. Think about it: When he signed his 12-year, $69 million contract in December 2007, Richards, then 22, had scored only 21 goals over his first two seasons and had only one playoff point in six games. People forget, but a few months before John Stevens made him captain, Richards told reporters he wasn't ready for it. He also said this, when named the team's 17th captain in September 2008:

"I am going to do my best to do it. We have a lot of great team leaders right now on our team, and you don't have to change anything. I think everybody really helps out around the dressing room. There are so many leaders, you just kind of have to do your own thing and more worry about yourself and help out where things are needed."

That still seems to be his operating philosophy, leading by example, adding to dressing-room discussions, but rarely, if ever, initiating them. When Pronger has been healthy and playing, it hardly seems an issue. When he is out of the lineup, as he is likely to be at the start of next season, it most certainly has been and can be.

At least one account, by the guy Richards tweeted at, has included anonymous digs at his captaincy. On the record, Scott Hartnell told the Courier-Post's Chuck Gormley Richards was "one of the most well-liked players I've ever played with."

I have no doubt about this. Players appreciate effort, and there is no dog in Richards' game. You look at his wiry, unchanged body every fall and think he could maybe do more to ward off the beat-down he gets each season, but there is no denying he plays every one of his minutes hard. Even his harshest critics concede that.

But well-liked alone does not make a captain. Darren Daulton wasn't real popular on those nights in 1993 when he banged on the door to the off-limits training room and demanded someone besides him emerge to answer questions. When a borderline hit in the Buffalo series made Richards a postgame focus, he slipped out without speaking to reporters, later giving a brief, orchestrated and unenlightening interview with Flyers publicity man Zack Hill while on the team bus.

Hot start, slow start, the moment things get messy next season, this debate will resurface like a bad case of shingles. Richards' critics will again talk about the stumbling regular-season finishes of the last three seasons, will again talk about players and a team that has fallen short of expectations while he was wearing the C. This will override all discussions about tangibles - power-play execution, shuffled lines, lower-body injuries - and it will be counterproductive, for sure.

That's what I would tell Richards in proposing he take a break from the job. As he himself has said, plenty of guys can wear the C, and Pronger is the obvious choice, when and if he gets healthy. Meanwhile, Mike Richards can deal with the media any way he would like, play unfettered and see whether a little time can heal a reputation that already has taken too many hits. *

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