tampabay.com

Richards makes charity work personal

Growing up, the Lightning star had an up-close look at the effects of cancer. Now he helps children forget their pain.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published December 22, 2005


There is a moment after every Lightning home game that reminds Brad Richards what truly is important.

It happens shortly after the final horn, when Tampa Bay's star center walks into a room under the stands of the St. Pete Times Forum and into a world of smiles and thank yous.

It is when Richards meets the childhood cancer patients who watched the game from his suite.

"Sometimes it's tough," Richards said. "I run in there 10 minutes after a game, and sometimes I have different emotions.

"But then you go in there and see their faces and the great attitudes they have and how happy they are and how they think the world is great. That's all you have to see. It really puts things in perspective."

Richards' perspective was formed on his native Prince Edward Island, when he lost his cousin and best friend, Jamie Reynolds, to a brain tumor.

Jamie was 5, Brad 7. So strong was the connection that when Richards signed a three-year, $9.25-million deal before the 2003-04 season, he leased Suite 521 at the Times Forum for an annual fee of about $100,000 and set up a safe haven for children fighting cancer.

The kids - Richy's Rascals, as they are known - can watch the game, play at the arts and crafts table or on a PlayStation or watch DVDs. Parents get to network and bond with others in the same situation.

There are hot dogs, chicken tenders and pizza.

"I know firsthand how families and people around this can be affected," Richards said of a cancer fight. "It's just fun to know they are getting away for a little bit."

"He must have a very sensitive heart," said Tampa's Sara Edwards, whose daughter, Molly, a lymphoma survivor, was a suite regular. "He's had some experience with childhood cancer, and once you are touched by that, you can't help but move it forward. And I think that's exactly what he's doing."

Richards, 25, said he doesn't usually dwell on emotions, but Christmas can cause them to churn.

The holiday was a big deal growing up. Christmas Eve was for hanging stockings. Christmas lunch was at Jamie's house. Supper was with grandparents who lived next door.

It just wasn't the same without Jamie.

"It was tough," Richards said. "I didn't understand why and what was going on. I didn't understand what cancer was. But I remember my parents saying, "He's gone now. You have to move on,' when I was pouting and didn't want to do anything."

"It always stuck with him," said Richards' father, Glen. "As the years went on, he thought about it and realized that, as a pro athlete, he could give back and always have Jamie's memory."

Richy's Rascals director Kasey Dowd said four or five patients from Tampa's Children's Cancer Center and Pediatric Cancer Foundation usually attend games. With 18 tickets available, there is plenty of room for family and friends.

After games, all go downstairs to meet Richards, who sometimes, so as not to keep them waiting, shows up in a sweaty uniform.

"They're all charged up to meet him," Sara Edwards said. "The kids just want to touch him and shake his hand. They idolize him."

"He's one of the warmest, most caring people I've ever met," said Tampa's Holley Wade, whose son, Daniel, 11, is battling brain tumors. "I'd adopt him in a heartbeat."

But as Richards reminded, "This isn't for me. This isn't so I can go home and feel good about myself."

It is, he said, so the kids can get away from hospitals and doctors (unless they are invited guests) and enjoy an event in an environment that can accommodate wheelchairs and oxygen tanks and shields from inconsiderate stares.

That is key for Wade.

"So many of the kids are so immune-compromised, to put them in the general population is risky," she said. "In the suite, we have the sanitizing stuff and it's a small group. There's no stigma. They can bounce around and be kids and not have people look at them and have parents explain that they have cancer. It's very relaxed."

"And it gives you something to hold on to," said Molly Edwards, 15, Sara's daughter and a freshman at Plant High. "You can keep up with the team."

Richards is on the board of directors of the Children's Cancer Center and visits without fanfare when his schedule allows. Molly said it reinforces that "he is really reaching out."

At last year's Fashion Funds the Cure, a fundraiser for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, Richards escorted a female patient on the runway.

"When you experience it, you get it," said Mary Ann Massolio, executive director of the Children's Cancer Center. "Anybody can give a check. Brad actually meets the kids. He knows the kids. There's a difference. I absolutely adore him."