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Heart of ex-Lightning star Richards remains in Tampa

With 11 points in Dallas’ first 11 playoff games, Brad Richards has found the form that earned him the Conn Smythe in 2004.

Associated Press

With 11 points in Dallas’ first 11 playoff games, Brad Richards has found the form that earned him the Conn Smythe in 2004.

The voice on the phone sounds familiar. It is still sturdy and forever laconic, although now there is a hint of something else. All these weeks later, is that the sound of loneliness in Brad Richards' tone?

Turns out, it is not so easy to move on. Even when you're young and fabulously wealthy. Even when you're back in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs and back to averaging a point per game.

Even when the team you grew up with makes it clear you're no longer wanted.

"It's been hard," Richards said. "A lot harder than I expected."

This has nothing to do with where Richards landed. Dallas was one of only two destinations he would have approved when it came to waiving his no-trade clause back in February. The Stars are in the middle of their best playoff run in years, and Richards is out of the first round for the first time since winning the Cup in 2004.

Instead, it has everything to do with what he left behind. Richards had just turned 18 when the Lightning drafted him, and he was a couple of months shy of turning 28 when the Lightning traded him in February.

That means for most of his adult life, the Lightning organization was all he knew.

He had been playing alongside Vinny Lecavalier since they were kids, and he had been teammates with Marty St. Louis since he was 20. Richards had a place on Davis Islands and a suite at the St. Pete Times Forum for pediatric cancer patients. The Lightning was his employer, but he had made Tampa his home.

For its part, the team vowed to build around him, signing Richards to the second-richest contract in the NHL. And less than two years later, the Lightning was asking him to leave for the good of the franchise.

His numbers had dipped, and his contract had become a focus. Richards had seemingly gone from essential to cumbersome in a matter of months.

"Based on where the team was going and the budget situation, it was probably the right thing to do," Richards said. "But that doesn't make it any easier.

"I had a few uncertain moments about (waiving his no-trade clause). But I just felt it was going to get harder and harder. The way things were being run, it was turning into a dead end for me. I ended up getting pushed out, and a lot of guys had an entire season of their careers ruined."

You can say it wasn't personal, but it only seems that way from the outside. It's a lot more difficult when you have given your heart to something only to be told that it's not enough.

It has been said around the Lightning bench that the team failed Richards more than he failed the team, and there is a lot of truth to that. Too many poor personnel decisions — and not enough payroll flexibility from ownership — doomed Richards to play on a substandard line for two seasons.

And not once did Richards complain publicly about his linemates. Nor did he complain about the increasing volume of criticism pointed in his direction.

"Now that I'm away from it, I'll just say it wasn't the ideal situation. We had one line. That's all," he said. "I don't know if the criticism was unfair. I had a big contract, so I had to expect that. Deep down, I know what kind of player I am and what I can do.

"I started the year feeling great, but we just didn't have the depth to sustain it."

His introduction in Dallas did not make life any easier for Richards. He had a career-high five assists on his first night in a Stars uniform but had only four points over his next nine games.

There was an adjustment to a new system. An adjustment to new linemates. And an adjustment to being away from the Lightning for the first time since he was in juniors.

It wasn't until the postseason that Richards began to remind you of the player who won the Conn Smythe trophy with Tampa Bay in 2004. He had 11 points through 11 games, including a winning goal against San Jose last weekend.

He's still living out of a hotel room and still spends plenty of free time talking to friends in Tampa Bay.

He knows about Vinny's bum shoulder. He knows Marty is off playing for Team Canada. He knows John Tortorella recently brought up the topic of stepping down.

He also knows when the season finally ends for the Stars, he will be returning home.

That is, to Tampa.

"I have a lot of friends there outside of hockey," Richards said. "I'll spend as much time there as I can in the offseason."

Heart of ex-Lightning star Richards remains in Tampa 05/04/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 2:22pm]
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