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Richards returns to Philly, in a Kings jersey

NEWARK, N.J. - Mike Richards can't hide from it anymore. His whirlwind started almost 2 weeks ago with a preseason game in Las Vegas, before the Kings opened the season in Germany and Sweden. It included a 3-day stop in Maryland for practice, and it won't end until the team returns to Los Angeles on Sunday.

NEWARK, N.J. - Mike Richards can't hide from it anymore.

His whirlwind started almost 2 weeks ago with a preseason game in Las Vegas, before the Kings opened the season in Germany and Sweden. It included a 3-day stop in Maryland for practice, and it won't end until the team returns to Los Angeles on Sunday.

"It's been here, there, everywhere," Richards said. "Planes, trains and automobiles."

The extended travel kept Richards' mind off his long-awaited return home. Now, tomorrow night's game against the Flyers is staring him in the face.

"It sounds cliché, but I try not to think about it as much as possible," Richards said. "I've tried not to think about it."

The summer's wounds are still fresh, even in October. It was apparent yesterday when he spoke, as if last night's matchup against the Devils, a 2-1 shootout loss for the Kings, was nothing more than an appetizer for the main course, an obvious look-ahead before his first game back at the Wells Fargo Center since his mind-blowing June 23 departure that sent shock waves through the NHL.

"We've had other things on our mind, with the trip to Europe," Kings assistant coach John Stevens said. "But obviously, when you get to this point in the trip, it's upon us. When you think of Mike Richards, you think of Philadelphia."

Richards says he has "honestly" tried not to think about what it will be like to walk past the locker room he called home for 6 years, or what it will be like to hear his name announced as a visitor instead of one of Philadelphia's own.

In reality, the Flyers have been on his mind for weeks - if they even left his stream of consciousness at all. When the Kings landed in the United States last Sunday and headed to Maryland, Richards broke away from his new teammates after practice on Monday and went to hang out with his old mates in Old City.

He went to dinner with Scott Hartnell and later joined up with most of the remaining players from last year's squad. Richards even stayed the night in town before rejoining the Kings.

No amount of carousing will change the fact that Richards and his buddies will line up across from each other tomorrow night.

Most of the Flyers, meanwhile, have moved on. Last Friday afternoon, the Kings' game in Europe was playing in their locker room in Newark while they practiced and prepared for the Devils. The Flyers barely flinched when Richards notched his first goal in a Kings uniform. Most continued to unlace their skates or unravel the tape off their shin pads.

"It is not going to be easy for Mike," said Kings teammate Simon Gagne, who experienced the same emotions last year in his first game back with Tampa Bay. "The first time, it's almost [like] you are going back home. Last year, it took a while to realize I wasn't with the Flyers and not wearing the jersey.

"It was one of the toughest days in my career as a player."

For Richards, life now couldn't be more different. When he was traded, he swapped Old City for Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he is no more than three blocks from the beach. He has traded No. 18 for No. 10. And he has a jersey that, for the first time in 4 years, doesn't hold the weight of a "C" or an "A." That alone has alleviated a ton of pressure.

"It's fun coming to the rink again," Richards said. "You don't have to worry about anything. It's not little groups anymore, it's just one big group. They've made me feel at home right away. We've got a great group of guys here. We come to the rink every morning and we joke and tell stories.

"It's a real close group, but they've welcomed me in."

That doesn't mean Richards isn't one of Los Angeles' leaders.

"I don't think anything has changed other than the uniform," Stevens said. "I still think he leads by example and has a way of doing things. He still taps guys subtly on the pads or he communicates in a circle in a timeout. Whether he has a letter on his jersey or not, I don't really see a big difference in the way he carries himself."

Richards, 26, left the Flyers ranked eighth all-time on the points list among centers and 21st on the franchise all-time scoring list. He was the 17th captain in team history and fifth all-time with 23 shorthanded goals.

Richards started his first season in LA on a line with Gagne and is now playing with Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner. Richards has a goal and an assist through the first three games.

Richards said it has been easier to cope with so many changes by seeing the familiar faces of Gagne, Stevens, head coach Terry Murray and assistant GM Ron Hextall. At one point or another, all have played starring roles with the Flyers and are now with the Kings.

Since they won a Calder Cup with the Phantoms in 2005, Stevens has helped mentor Richards in the league. The two kept in touch during the two seasons they spent in opposite conferences.

And Stevens himself made the jump from an interesting ousting to the Kings 2 years ago. His family just settled on the West Coast this summer, though he still maintains a shore house in Sea Isle City.

"He is getting adjusted to a new team, a new city, a new situation," Stevens said of Richards. "It's a big change, just geographically, with the time change and communication, there's a lot of things that go into that. Every day he has looked more and more comfortable."

Comfort is relative. For Richards, the surroundings - and even the fan response - may be familiar. But the feeling, packing up after the game, will be anything but comfortable.

"I was excited to play in front of the [fans] and I'm excited to play in front of them again on Saturday," Richards said. "It will be good to be back."

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