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He leads debate team too

Brad Richards doesn't back down, whether on the ice or in discussions with his coach.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002


TAMPA -- It wasn't exactly an argument. More like an intense discussion between two strong-willed men, each believing his point of view was the right one but willing to hear the other one out.

It was the day after a recent game. Brad Richards had a problem with the way Lightning coach John Tortorella felt about a play his second-year center had made. He wanted to know why, and to tell Tortorella why not.

"It's weird that when you have a problem and you complain, it turns out to be good," Richards said. "I wasn't really complaining. But when you see a stat sheet that says something and you don't know where it's coming from, you want to know what (Tortorella's) thinking is. I put in my opinion, he told me his and everything was fine."

A few months ago Tortorella began making a "scoring-chances" videotape of each game, illustrating postgame stats listing when each player was on the ice for Tampa Bay scoring opportunities and those given to the opposition. He'd show it to the players, then leave it for them to study on their own.

"I told them, 'If you have a beef, come to the coaches. If you don't agree that you were on the ice for a chance against, let's sit down and do it.' Brad is the only player who has come to me and said, 'I want to sit down and watch.'

"He came to me the other day and said, 'What did I do wrong here?' And he told me his thinking. He argued with me, in the right way. That's why we're doing (the tape), to bring conversation between players and coaches so they can understand what we're thinking and we can also understand what they're thinking. ... I told the whole team, 'He's the only guy that does it.' That's another indication of what he's doing to try and elevate his game."

Tonight the Lightning plays the Buffalo Sabres in its ninth game since the Olympic break. Tampa Bay is 4-2-1-1 in its previous eight. And Richards, at 21 one of the team's youngest players and its leader in goals and assists, has elevated his game quite a bit in this stretch with a career-high eight-game scoring streak (six goals, eight assists). He also leads all NHL second-year players with 113 points. Minnesota's Marian Gaborik is second with 91.

Last season he led NHL rookies (and set Lightning rookie records) in goals and assists and was second in the voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy, the rookie of the year award.

When Lightning injuries began piling up in January, Tortorella began throwing lines together, trying to find more offense. He put Richards with Vinny Prospal and Ben Clymer.

They struggled at first, but as their timing improved so did their scoring, "and they've played against some of the top lines in the league, too," Tortorella said. "We're not just trying to hide them. ... I think that's a tribute to all of them, but Richie tends to be the guy that makes things happen."

Since the Olympics, Tortorella has been calling this the second season, a way of washing away memories of the disappointing first 41/2 months, "and since it started here Brad's been one of our top offensive forces, along with (Dave) Andreychuk and Prospal. But Richie has just taken off."

Richards said part of the turnaround could be attributed to general manager Jay Feaster telling Richards to ignore trade rumors. "Probably deep in your mind it can affect your game," Richards said. "I think sometimes things change when you realize you're wanted."

What hasn't changed, Tortorella said, is Richards' daily dedication to improvement. "He just has a tremendous respect for the game. I always go back to that. He knows he has to continue learning every day and he looks for answers. That's what I respect about him the most, that he never thinks that he has all the answers. He never thinks that his game is where it should be."

To Richards, respecting the game means never being complacent, never resting on past performances, realizing things could change in a heartbeat.

Andreychuk has played with many talented young players in his 22 NHL seasons. "Talent-wise, and the way (Richards) approaches the game, he's one of the top. Guys like him don't come around very often," he said. "He knows there's a lot more to learn, that he can never be satisfied. All great players are never satisfied. I see that in him."

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