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Richter's Ranger Roots Run Deep

Goalie has spent entire career in New York and he's still protecting the net.

November 10, 2002|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Mike Richter found out his NHL debut was just a day away when Hall of Famer Phil Esposito gave him the news at practice.

The first set of tasks from his new coach was simple: Get in the net at Madison Square Garden, shut down Mario Lemieux and the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins, and keep the New York Rangers from playoff elimination.

He wasn't able to pull all that off, but 13 years and 300 wins later Richter is still the one the Rangers count on in goal.

"There are so many things that you can't predict," Richter said.

He was speaking of all the years that followed his unique entrance into the NHL. Richter has always worn the red, white and blue of the Rangers -- the team that drafted him out of high school in Philadelphia Flyers territory.

Richter became the 19th goalie to reach 300 victories last month when the Rangers beat Phoenix. He's only the third player to spend his whole career with one team and reach that mark.

"What's fortunate for me is I've been part of an exceptionally run organization for all these years," Richter said. "I've had so many great players and great teams around me."

New York found him in the second round of the 1985 draft while he was living in Abington, Pa. Richter went on to play two years at Wisconsin and then to the 1988 Olympic team. He finished that season in the IHL and played one more before coming to New York in the spring.

Richter served as a backup twice before getting the shocking news that he would start for New York, with the team down 3-0 in a best-of-seven, first-round series.

Esposito, the GM, fired coach Michel Bergeron with two games remaining in the regular season and took over. He lost five straight contests before turning to the 22-year-old Richter to replace John Vanbiesbrouck.

"I just wanted to get myself in there and get a win," Richter, 36, said. "It didn't happen perfectly, but it was an awful lot of fun."

The Penguins completed the sweep with a 4-3 win, but that isn't what sticks out in Richter's mind now.

"I can remember the first couple of shifts of the game, Lemieux and (Paul) Coffey came down on a 2-on-0," he said.

If not for a major injury to his left knee in 2000 and then to his right in 2001, or for two decisions he made to stay with the Rangers when free agency called, Richter's milestone victory would've come sooner and possibly somewhere else.

There was doubt as late as last season that Richter would reach No. 300 in New York. He missed the final nine games after a skull fracture when he was struck by a shot.

"You don't really get too far ahead of yourself if you can help it, and because of that you're probably less aware of a lot of the milestones," Richter said. "They sneak up, and then they're acknowledged. You give pause for a second and then you go back to work."

Richter entered last offseason four wins away and without a contract. On July 4, he signed a two-year deal worth $8 million to stay.

"I always felt a strong allegiance to this team and this organization," said Richter, the winningest goalie in Ranger history.

And in doing that, he has been able to form a core trio with captain Mark Messier and Brian Leetch. In 1994, they led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years.

"Of course, that year there were so many great memories, so much success, so many great feelings that it's tough to sort them out and keep them all in perspective," Richter said. "I think you do that more when you're finished playing."

Leetch and Richter have been together since 1989, and their 14 seasons as teammates is tops among current NHL players.

"He's been able to play and be here because he's been successful," Leetch said. "He's worked hard and that's the biggest reason."

Messier won five Stanley Cups with Edmonton, before being traded to New York in 1991. For so long, Messier was linked with goalie Grant Fuhr, who backstopped the Oiler dynasty.

Incredibly, Messier has played only one season fewer with Richter than the decade he spent with Fuhr.

"That's amazing. It goes so fast," Richter said.

Messier would've had more time with Richter if he didn't go to Vancouver for three years after the 1997 playoffs.

"Nobody has worked as hard at his game than Richter," said Messier, who returned two years ago. "Coming off two major knee surgeries as a goalie is unbelievable. Not many guys would be able to do it, and it goes to show what kind of character he has."

As for comparisons to Fuhr, Messier said they were very different except that both were at their best in the big games.

"Mike's a real pro," said Coach Bryan Trottier, who played against Richter during his Hall of Fame career. "He wants to be a wall in net."

Pavel Bure has only been Richter's teammate since late last season. But they were brought together by a moment during the 1994 finals when Bure starred for Vancouver.

Bure was awarded a penalty shot in Game 4. Richter turned him away, sparking the Rangers to the win and a 3-1 series lead.

"I wouldn't make another move," Bure said. "I think I did everything right, but in that situation he outplayed me and made a great save."

Richter and Bure both said that they haven't reminisced since they've shared a locker room. It was so long ago and now they are trying to get the Rangers back into the playoffs after a five-year absence.

"I still hope my best memories are ahead of me," Richter said. "I really believe this team can win the Stanley Cup. I believe in this organization."

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