Handsome, rich, and a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings, Mike Richards was on top of the world.
But Richards, once the face of the Flyers, finds himself out of professional hockey and trying to stay out of jail after allegedly carrying painkilling prescription drugs across the United States/Canadian border in June. He awaits a Dec. 8 hearing in Emerson, Manitoba, about 70 miles from Winnipeg.
Richards, 30, has battled concussions throughout his career, and there may be a connection between his injuries and the drugs he is accused of possessing.
"I was very shocked because I'm good friends with Mike and still talk to him quite often," Washington winger Justin Williams, who was Richards' teammate with the Flyers and Kings, said last week. "But people aren't going to just voluntarily tell you their issues, and that certainly was the case. He hid a lot. But at the same time, he's still a friend of mine and a guy I'm going to support. He needs help."
The Kings, who visit the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday, terminated Richards' contract June 29, citing a "material breach." Twelve days earlier, Richards was arrested at a Canadian border-entry stop, near North Dakota, and later charged with possession of the controlled substance oxycodone, after a two-month investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
"Unbelievable. I could not believe what I was reading," Buffalo assistant Terry Murray said before the visiting Sabres faced the Flyers last month. Murray was briefly Los Angeles' head coach during Richards' first year there, and he also was a Flyers assistant during Richards' first three seasons with the team.
Murray said he did not know if the information released on Richards was accurate, and until then, "I give him the benefit of the doubt because I love the guy."
Whether it was coaches, scouts, teammates or fans, it seemed everybody loved Richards because of the follow-me swagger he displayed on the ice.
"He was a heart-and-soul-type of player," said Dallas winger Patrick Sharp, who was Richards' Flyers teammate early in their careers.
Peter Luukko said the Flyers front office was unaware of Richards' problems when they traded the center to Los Angeles in 2011. Luukko, the Panthers' executive chairman, was Flyers' president at the time of the deal.
"He never had any issues like that at all," Luukko said last month.
Richards had a reputation for a partying lifestyle. Early in Peter Laviolette's Flyers tenure, the coach reportedly asked players not to drink for a month in what became known as "Dry Island." Richards was among the Flyers who did not commit to the program, team officials have said.
'A great teammate'
"I played with Richie when he was coming out of junior," Sharp said. "He came to Philadelphia and we won a championship in the minors together [with the Phantoms]. He was a great teammate, great friend off the ice. . . . We're from a similar part of the world - Northwestern Ontario - and I hope he can get through this and come back playing."
Richards is a free agent and he has been skating with his former junior team, the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. He apparently is trying to get into shape to make a comeback, hoping a team takes a chance on him.
On Oct. 9, the Kings and the NHL Players Association avoided going to arbitration in the Richards matter, reaching a settlement on a contract that had five years and $22 million remaining. The total payout was $10.5 million, with part of Richards' salary counting against the Kings' salary cap through the 2031-32 season, according to Sportsnet in Canada. The Kings are absorbing a $3.12 million cap hit this season, which will drop to $1.57 million for each of the next four years. The cap hit will be between $400,000 and $900,000 from 2021-22 to 2031-32.
"When I heard the news about Mike, I didn't know what to take from it, didn't know what to believe," Sharp said. To see a settlement reached, "I guess is the best for both sides," he added.
In explosive written comments he sent to the Los Angeles Times in October, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi called the Richards situation a "tragedy," said the center was caught in a "destructive spiral," and claimed he was "played" by the ex-Flyers captain.
Richards was part of the Kings' 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup championships, but his production slipped so much last season that management sent him to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, N.H., after the all-star break. He finished with just five goals and 16 points in 53 games with the Kings last season.
"Without a doubt, the realization of what happened to Mike Richards is the most traumatic episode of my career," Lombardi, a onetime Flyers scout, told the Times. "At times, I think that I will never recover from it. It is difficult to trust anyone right now - and you begin to question whether you can trust your own judgment. 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."
Some members of the Kings front office, sources say, knew of Richards' party reputation when they acquired him in the summer of 2011, dealing Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and a second-round draft pick to the Flyers. At the time, Richards had nine years left on a contract that had an annual cap hit of $5.75 million.
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, a Kings assistant GM when Richards was acquired by Los Angeles, was asked if the center's personal life was addressed before the deal was made.
"You always do your research on any player; that's pretty normal," he said.
Asked if there were any red flags with Richards, Hextall said, "If there was, I wouldn't [talk about it]. I think that's one of those things that's off the record for me. I wouldn't talk about stuff like that."
Later, Hextall said, "I know this: I know Mike Richards is a good kid. I know Mike Richards was a very good hockey player and I know he cared. All the other stuff that happened, I really don't know enough about."
Murray was an assistant under Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock when Richards broke into the NHL in 2005.
"When you see the quality of the player, the person, the intelligence, the on-ice smarts [it's difficult to believe his alleged off-ice problems]," Murray said. ". . . He had an 'I'm-going-to-show-you-the-way' kind of attitude, so it was very shocking when it all came out."
Show of support
Murray doesn't think Richards' playing days are over.
"I think he'll end up back in the league," Murray said. "He's such a high-character guy. Obviously, there's something [problematic] out there - whatever it is, I don't know - but I think he'll end up back in the league. I absolutely want to see him back in."
"Mike is a great person and I think he'll overcome these issues," Luukko said. "This is personal for me and I just wish him the best and that he gets himself going together. I really enjoyed him. He knew my family, and I knew his mom and dad and brother. He's got an issue right now, but I really believe he can deal with it."
Lombardi said he "tried everything" with Richards, saying he sent him to concussion specialists, met with him constantly, and visited with him at his summer house.
"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," Lombardi wrote to the Times. "The reality is that I was 'played.' "
According to the Department of Justice, more than 13 million people have abused oxycodone at least once in their lives.
Paul Holmgren, the Flyers president, was the team's general manager when he dealt Richards to Los Angeles.
At the time of the trade, Flyers officials said it had nothing to do was Richards' lifestyle. Holmgren sticks by that story.
"Well, at the time, we made a trade that we thought was going to improve our hockey team over time," he said earlier this month, adding that he had not reached out to Richards since he was arrested in June. "I think it was a hockey trade at the time, and it's still a hockey trade."
Holmgren said he would "love to see Mike Richards back in the game. Mike Richards was a very good player for a long time, and it's unfortunate what's going on. Hopefully he's doing better and hopefully he can get back. I have a very high opinion of Mike. He was a very good Flyer for us."
Richards and his agent, Pat Morris, did not respond to interview requests. One of his attorneys, David Humphrey, told the Winnipeg Free Press that Richards "intends to vigorously defend the case."
Hymie Weinstein, who is acting as an agent for the Toronto-based Humphrey, said Richards "will certainly not be saying anything while this matter is before the court." Weinstein said he expects Richards to plead not guilty, and that he believes the Dec. 8 hearing date will be pushed back "months and months and months."
Richards, of course, won't be with his good buddy Jeff Carter and the Kings when they face the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center. He is getting in shape at a junior rink and perhaps preparing to give testimony next month in a hearing that could shape his uncertain future.