"I think that's what everyone here likes about Mike Richards, is that he has his own identity and he is his own man."
For some, the captaincy is an invitation to the podium in the usually boisterous Flyers locker room. For Richards, who spent the first two seasons of his captaincy undergoing a constant personality inventory from outsiders, it was a test.
Richards, 26, is normally quiet, shy and reserved, when others expect something else. Pronger calls Richards an "intellectual."
He is not cut in the typical mold of the cheerleading captain. Drawing on his small-town roots, he has earned respect from his teammates and around the league for what he does, not for what he says, at least when surrounded by microphones.
"There's a lot that goes on in a locker room, but I'd much rather be quiet than be out in the open," Richards said.
But Richards realized last February in Vancouver - while representing Canada at the Winter Olympics with the weight of the country on his team's shoulders - that he already has what it takes to be a successful leader in the NHL.
"He's pretty guarded with his personal life," Pronger said. "But when you spend 3 weeks with a person, almost 24 hours per day in a dormitory setting, you learn a lot about them. I think the Olympics were a big step for him, being in that atmosphere and having those types of players around to see what kind of dedication it takes.
"That translated how he approached the team after the Olympics."
When he returned to the Flyers - who went on to lose eight of their final 12 games of the regular season but made the playoffs on the final day - Richards changed by not changing at all.
"I think that experience, what we went through last season, allowed us to be much more comfortable with each other," Richards said. "I think we're a lot more open in this locker room now. Losing streaks aren't usually constructive, there's rarely anything positive said. But I think you have to lose to get to where you want to be."
Skating off the ice on June 9, with the Blackhawks hoisting Lord Stanley's treasured chalice in the background, was the antithesis of tasting Olympic gold medal success on home soil less than 4 months earlier.
Richards, though, will be the first to tell you that he has matured as a person and as a captain since that heartbreaking loss.
"I think I've done a lot of growing up," Richards said. "For me, I've never been a big believer in embarrassing people in front of their teammates. I'm more subtle, I'd much rather pull you aside. When you embarrass people and yell at them, that's when you start to have problems.''
To understand Richards, you have to understand his roots. Kenora is 3 hours east of Winnipeg, in a remote part of northwestern Ontario. The population of Kenora is 15,000; Richards' high school, Beaver Brae Secondary School, has fewer than 900 students.
Richards says he lives the best of both worlds because he lives "the big city life in the winter," and he is "out in the bush" in the summertime. He says he leads the same way his predecessors did growing up in Kenora.
"If I'm not blocking shots, I can't ask other players to go block shots," Richards said. "If I'm not giving my best effort, I can't ask anyone else to do the same."
Within the Flyers' locker room, Richards is known as a protector. Though he does not offer much in the way of a quote with the media, Richards is aware of what is being said and what is being written about his teammates. They say that he often comes over to offer a brief word of encouragement after a mistake, turnover or loss.
"Because he's such a good player, his influence goes a long way," coach Peter Laviolette said. "He constantly sticks up for teammates. If somebody had a bad game, or somebody had a bad shift, he makes sure that he goes around and smoothes things out. He's good that way, that he goes around and gives someone a pat and a positive response or positive feedback. I see that a lot with him.
"That's part of being a good leader, to motivate and help others. I think he does a good job at that."
Last season, much was written about Richards' relationship with Pronger. At first, other media outlets portrayed Richards and Pronger as clashing personalities.
Both players are from northern Ontario. But that's where the comparisons stop. Both could not have more contrasting styles when it comes to their leadership. Pronger has never run from a camera - and there are few players in the NHL who capture the attention and imagination of fans like Pronger's personality does on a nightly basis.
Rather than clash, Pronger is the one who takes the heat off Richards and allows him to handle the day-to-day operations of the locker room. During losing streaks, it is often Pronger who is answering for the Flyers - and not the captain. In most NHL cities, the captain is the one required to answer.
Media savvy does not result in sound leadership - and vice versa.
With the Flyers, Pronger shines when the lights are on and the cameras are rolling, and Richards thrives when they're shut off.
"Going through that rough stretch we had last season, a lot of folks in the media were questioning him and our relationship and everything under the sun," Pronger said. "They made more of nothing than any one of us in here knows.
"We're not all perfect. We're all going to make mistakes. Everybody has to learn from them. He's no different. The different experiences that he's now had can only add to that maturity level."
Laviolette said Richards' leadership style and play are "contagious."
"I think Mike is one of those guys that, the bigger the game or the situation, the bigger he responds," Laviolette said. "The biggest thing about what we do here is that we're unwavering in our approach to each game. And I think that stems from our leadership and from Mike.
"Since I've been here, he has not changed based on the fact that he is the captain of the team. It doesn't change from Game 1 to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. That's who he is as a person."
That person is not Bobby Clarke, though the parallels have been drawn and continue to be drawn.
"He's got a lot of the old school in him," one teammate said. "He likes going out with the boys, he likes to have fun and he loves his chewing tobacco. He's different than most [leaders] in style, but you know that there isn't anyone in here who will have your back and stand up for you more than him."
Last November, Richards had a very public spat with Montreal rookie defenseman P.K. Subban after teammate Scott Hartnell was choked at the Bell Centre, Sean O'Donnell had a beer thrown on him by a fan and Subban continued to run his mouth.
"He's come in the league and hasn't earned respect," Richards told the Team 990-AM in Montreal after the game on Nov. 16. "It's just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here and so much as think that he's better than a lot of people.
"You have to earn respect in this league. It takes a lot. You can't just come in here as a rookie and play like that. It's not the way to get respect from other players around the league and hopefully someone on their team addresses it, because I'm not saying I'm going to do it but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky."
For Richards, it was not only a cerebral reaction to defend his teammates but also an example of his "old school" mind-set that there is a right and wrong way to play.
Richards shares that one important quality with Clarke, in that he puts his teammates before himself. In many ways, Richards is still the same small-town kid he was when he arrived in Philadelphia as a first-round draft pick in 2004. And after all of the questions and trials, Richards has found himself in the big city. He finally has the confidence to be at peace in his role.
"I don't want to be someone that puts myself in front of a group and starts yelling," Richards said. "Eventually, people will want to tune you out and you'll sound like a broken record. It's a line I've got to walk. I think people see right through you if you try to be something you're not."
James van Riemsdyk (minor lower-body injury) and Dan Carcillo (illness) missed yesterday's practice as the Flyers prep for tomorrow night's visit by Toronto. Chris Pronger (hand/wrist contusion) and Blair Betts (lacerated finger) will know more about their availability today.
For more news and analysis, read
Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at
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