© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2003
TAMPA -- Left leg first.
Every shift begins the same way for Lightning center Brad Richards. He slings his left leg over the boards, follows with the right and hops onto the ice.
He'll be back in 45 seconds.
In less time than it takes most people to brush their teeth, Richards will take part in a frenzied symphony of motion -- skating, turning, stopping, starting, sprinting, gliding, colliding, crunching, shooting, reading and reacting.
When he is done, his legs will burn, his lungs will scream and sweat will roll off his chin like someone opened a faucet. If he has done his job properly, he will be exhausted.
In just 45 seconds.
In just one shift.
"If you told 20 guys to run 400 meters 22 times in the span of an hour, how tired would they be?" Richards said. "Most people run one 400 meter, and they're almost dead. I have 25, 30 shifts in a game. It's just like running sprints -- 400 meters, not 100 meters."
During a recent victory against the Canadiens, whom the playoff-bound Lightning plays tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum, Richards opened the game with a typical 45-second shift, carving a path on the ice akin to a bee buzzing around a hive.
After winning the faceoff, Richards skated nearly 4 lengths of the ice, changed direction seven times, stopped and started once, made at least 10 strategic decisions, handled the puck twice and took one shot on goal.
When he returned to the bench, he was happy to use the door.
"A lot of people don't realize how tired you get," coach John Tortorella said. "If you're playing properly, no matter what type of shift it is, and you're going all-out, you should be tired. If you're able to play a minute and 15 seconds, you're not working hard enough."
Shifts used to be longer. More than a decade ago, they approached two minutes. But today's fast-paced game is more aggressive physically and more taxing mentally. Anyone who stays on the ice longer than 45 seconds likely is doing more harm than good.
"Now, with players being bigger, stronger, the game being faster, you really can only go that long. After that, you're tired," veteran center Tim Taylor said. "That's all you can give. You need to get fresh guys out there."
Richards' shift against Montreal, though arduous, could have been more demanding. No one attempted to separate him from his senses. He did not skate hard into the boards. Did not fall. "Contact is a big thing," said Richards, an average-sized center at 6 feet 1, 194 pounds. "If you get hit a couple of times in a shift, or you have to stop and start again, that takes a lot out of you."
By the end of a period, 45 seconds can seem like an eternity. The ice, slick and fast to start the 20-minute session, is a gouged mess during the final minutes.
"It feels like you're dragging a piano," Richards said.
Wearing thick, sweat-soaked pads.
And carrying a long stick.
"If I have a shift over a minute in the first period, I'll feel it for the rest of the game," said Richards, 22, in his third NHL season. "You don't really recover from it if you have one of those tough shifts where you're out too long."
Wait, there's more.
Hockey is a fluid game. So in addition to the physical exertion, there is an endless stream of split-second decisions to be made. All teams play within a system, a guideline for handling situations. But players must constantly read and react.
To make the correct play, Richards must consider the locations, responsibilities and tendencies of teammates and opponents. Communication can be as direct as a few quick words -- "I got it" -- or as subtle as eye contact. Richards' head is always up, his mind constantly processing information.
"Nothing is ever the same twice," he said.
Play revolves around the puck, a frozen rubber disc that takes wacky bounces and leaves a nasty mark when it finds -- and doesn't it always? -- those soft, vulnerable bits of flesh in between the pads.
If he is lucky, Richards will have possession of the puck for a paltry 90 seconds -- all game. A recent study by USA Hockey determined key offensive players handle the puck for an average of 1 minute, 19 seconds. For most, it is less.
Near the end of his shift against Montreal, Richards skated into the Canadiens zone and took possession of the puck. He had less than two seconds to settle it into the curved blade of his stick and flip a backhand shot at goaltender Jose Theodore before momentum carried him beyond the goal.
His last gasp.
This chaotic ballet has been going on for more than 30 seconds, and Richards' rapidly fatiguing muscles -- aided sometimes by the booming voice of Tortorella -- tell him his time is up. He looks for a place in the game's many transitions to head toward the bench. It is someone else's turn.
Like most teams, the Lightning rotates three primary lines, occasionally using a fourth. If the whistle does not blow, it will be Richards' turn to go back on the ice in about two minutes -- not that long to wait, or rest.
He will get to his feet, take a deep breath.
Ready for anything.
Left leg first.