Mike Richards chose not to entertain the charade. There will be nothing ordinary about the Washington Capitals’ game against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night.
“I mean, it’s not a normal game,” Richards said. “It’s hard to say that it would be.”
Richards, now the Capitals’ fourth-line center, was part of the Kings’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 2012 and 2014, but his tenure reached an unceremonious end in June. After a season in which he was sent to the minor leagues for substandard play, Richards’ contract was terminated following an arrest for possession of a controlled substance at a Canadian border crossing.
The 31-year-old signed with Washington in January, and Tuesday will mark his 12th game back in the league and his first against his former team.
“There was way more highs than lows,” Richards said. “It is what it is, obviously. Everyone knows how it ended, but my time in L.A. was awesome. We won two Cups and went to the conference championship, so I don’t really have a whole lot of bad memories.”
That is, until June. The Kings had been looking to trade Richards and were reportedly involved in negotiations during the draft when they received word of his arrest. His 12-year, $69 million contract, signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008, was terminated on June 29, with the team citing a “material breach” and hoping to void what was owed to Richards.
On Oct. 9, Richards and the Kings reached a settlement, with the center receiving $10.5 million of the remaining $22 million on the contract. That day, general manager Dean Lombardi released a lengthy statement to the Los Angeles Times, insisting that “what happened to Mike Richards is the most traumatic episode of my career” and that Richards had “become caught in such a destructive spiral.”
Richards has never directly responded to Lombardi’s comments, telling reporters last week that he “didn’t make it easy on [Lombardi] to keep me around.” When asked to respond on Monday, Richards mostly demurred.
“I don’t go looking for interviews like some people might, but he obviously wanted to get his — I don’t know, whatever out there, and he went and sought that, and I’m the type of guy that kind of shies away from that stuff,” Richards said. “I don’t really need to comment on that.”
A well-liked player, the Kings could have bought out Richards’ contract after their second Stanley Cup victory in three years and faced no further penalties. Instead, Richards remained with the team and struggled, finishing with just five goals and 11 assists in 53 games plus another 16 games with the Manchester Monarchs.
Richards was free to resume his career and sign with any team once the settlement was reached in October, but it wasn’t until late November, when the Capitals were playing the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road, that Richards’ return was set in motion.
By then, he had been playing alongside his brothers, Matt and Mark, in a men’s league in his native Kenora, Ontario, trying to stay in shape. Capitals coach Barry Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan gauged Richards’ interest in joining the team, and when third-line center Jay Beagle broke a hand in late December, Richards was extended a contract.
Among the first people Richards connected with was Justin Williams, the Capitals’ second-line right wing and, for those four years, a teammate with the Kings.
“I think he wanted to know the same things that I wanted to know when I came here,” said Williams, who will also be facing Los Angeles for the first time since leaving. “Is it a good city to live in? How’s the dressing room? Are the guys good? How’s the team? Where will I fit in? Those are the things that you ask. Those are the things that you want to know, usually, as a hockey player, seeing where you’re going to fit in.”
Richards was sold, and he signed a contract through the remainder of the season that will pay him roughly $23,250 per game. After making his debut on Jan. 16, the center is still seeking his first goal or assist through 11 games, easing into a role on the third line following an injury to Marcus Johansson and occupying time on the penalty kill unit.
Though his legal matters continue — a hearing in Manitoba has been continued three times — Richards believes he has started to settle in with the Capitals. He insisted he doesn’t harbor any will toward the Kings, but he knows one thing that will help him turn the page on that chapter.
“Hopefully, score a goal,” Richards said. “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll be nervous or anything. I think it will be more excitement than nervousness.”