One year after falling short, Brad Richards looking for a different ending

TAMPA, Fla. -- Brad Richards had one destination in mind, but before he committed to the Chicago Blackhawks on July 1, the veteran center had an unusual request.

He and his agent, veteran Pat Morris of Newport Sports, asked Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville to get on the same conference call while assuring Richards of his role and place if he indeed signed with the team.

"I think because the team was so deep, 'Is there really going to be any room for me here?'" Richards said this week, recalling the conversation. "'What are your thoughts, what do you envision?' As much as a GM can place you in there, I didn’t want to come for a year and maybe the coach had his guys and stuff like that. It was good to talk to both of them, a couple of times actually, not that it was a leap of faith but I knew it was probably just going to be one year and I didn’t want to have any regrets. Just doing due diligence; if we’re going to do this for one year, let’s really see if it’s going to be a fit."

Smart, really. More free agents should do that, make sure both the coach and GM are on the same page before signing on the dotted line.

Richards, three wins away from his second career Stanley Cup, can look back and be at peace with his decision to sign for just $2 million on a one-year deal. Isn’t it nice when a plan comes together?

Win or lose in this Cup finals series -- which resumes Saturday with Game 2 in Tampa, the Blackhawks up 1-0 -- just being back is proof Richards made the right call. And at the time, it was based on the soul-crushing feeling of losing in the Cup finals to the Los Angeles Kings while with the New York Rangers.

Bought out by the Rangers shortly after last season, all Richards could think about was finding a team that would get him right back here.

"I had told Pat that this is nothing about anything other than trying to get back there [to the Cup finals]; I had to get back there, I forgot how special it was,” said Richards, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup in 2004.

"When Chicago called, it was a no-brainer," said Richards. "It was just trying to figure out if [they could] work the cap. Stan and Pat did that perfectly. I really never got into any other conversations. When the Blackhawks are calling, you perk up pretty quick. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to play for this organization."

Richards, in fact, looks quicker this season than he did the last two seasons in New York. Part of that, he says, is not having people hang that big contract over his head as was the case in New York, but also his total refocus on his workouts and regimen, which began two years ago after hitting rock bottom, being made a healthy scratch at one point during the 2013 playoffs.

That’s when in the summer he hooked up with trainer Ben Prentiss, Martin St. Louis' man, and got himself right physically.

"Two years ago with everything that happened with the scratch and everything, I had to turn every stone over and try to figure out ... if you don’t adapt in this league right now, it’s so fast, and Ben Prentiss was unbelievable in bringing me in and helping me get back on track, everything from diet and preparation and all that stuff," said Richards.

"I loved playing in New York but that kind of hung over me, that’s not around me anymore. I got a fresh start, was kind of under the radar for the regular season, I could do all that and not really have the pressure of having to justify a contract and all that stuff. The combination of those things, I just feel like I can just play hockey again. If you’re not having fun and just playing the game, it gets clogged up, up there, that’s never good for anybody. ...

"Now I feel as good as I have in probably 3-4 years."

Prentiss, whose shop is based in Connecticut, credited Richards.

"For someone like him who has won a Conn Smythe, a Stanley Cup, made tons of money, for him to come here, I mean, what we do here isn’t for everybody," Prentiss told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We put guys through the wringer and expect dramatic results. Brad was all-in. He bought in. What we do here is everything -- without sounding corny, it really is a lifestyle change. We talk about sleep, nutrition, supplements, obviously training, recuperation, all of those things.

"He looks faster now than he probably did five years ago," added Prentiss. "He was never a burner, but one of the things he’s bought into which I was advocating was to keep training hard even during the season, which a lot of guys don’t do. I’ve been giving him workouts all year. We’ll do workouts on game days, we’ll do workouts on the road. We keep the intensity high. I don’t know if it’s me being biased or not, but I feel like on days he trains, he feels like he has a little more jump on the ice that night."

So, in the end, his low point two years ago in New York actually led to a renaissance for Richards, whose play this season and in these playoffs suggests a player who should be of interest come the July 1 free-agency market. There’s lot of hockey left in him.

It’s always interesting to think how different things could have been depending on the decisions you make. When Richards became an unrestricted free agent in July 2011 after a couple of big years with the Dallas Stars, several teams made him huge offers. They all came to Morris’ Newport Sports office near Toronto and made their pitch in person. That included a pitch from Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.

"I had a good talk with Stevie Y, face to face," said Richards. "It came down to 2-3 teams. I just had this wanting to try New York, Original Six city, I didn’t exactly know where Tampa was at then, they were still under transition. Stevie explained what was going on here. ... I just had a feeling about going to New York. Almost won it there."

Yet here he is playing Tampa Bay in the Cup finals with Chicago -- so funny how things play out.

Memories -- well, there are many here. Richards won’t ever forget his Cup triumph here as a kid 11 years ago.

"Just so many great memories," said Richards, 35. "No matter what happens this week, [it] can never take anything away from my 2004 team."

Four years later, he was gone. Forced by ownership for financial reasons to lower payroll, the hardest day in Jay Feaster's hockey career was dealing Richards to the Stars on Feb. 26, 2008, at the trade deadline. It’s a trade he never wanted to make.

"That was a low point," the former Lightning GM told ESPN.com this week. "I loved Brad, I loved him like a son. I just felt he was such a good player and such an important player. The ownership was changing and the new owners coming in wanted certain things done. It was unfortunate that he had to go that way. It was very emotional. I was emotional in telling him. He had a no-trade, no-move, and I had to talk to him about it beforehand. So it wasn’t like neither one of us didn’t know this was coming. When it finally happened, to be the one to call him and tell him, it was an emotional time for me."

Feaster, in fact, as Flames GM in the summer of 2011, tried to reconnect with Richards.

"When he signed with the Rangers, I tried to get him signed in Calgary," said Feaster.

Looking back, both Richards and Feaster wonder what could have been here with the Lighting after that 2004 Cup. The season-canceling lockout of 2004-05 and subsequent $39 million salary cap forced the kind of changes that denied Tampa Bay a true chance to defend its title.

"It was tough on Jay to get handcuffed coming out of the lockout with a salary cap that we had no idea if it was going to grow or when it was going to grow. None of us knew," said Richards. "So it’s tough to see it all go like that. It doesn’t change what we did. Who knows if we would have won another one, but it would have been fun to keep the group together longer and kind of ride it a bit. But that’s life."

Real life is also a factor in making decisions, such as the fact that Richards became a father during preseason in September. His 8-month-old son and Australian wife moved with him to Chicago. Big decisions in a short period of time.

"That was another thing with the one-year [contract], which was tough, my wife had her doctors in New York, our baby was due in late September, going to a new city and she’s from Australia," said Richards. "Do you want to have your baby in Chicago and you’ve never seen the place? But we took our time and made sure everything felt right. She’s a trouper and agreed to all that."

Baby and mom are here this week in Tampa. Richards said they’re hanging with old pal Vincent Lecavalier and his family.

"Slightly different than the last time we were hanging out in Tampa together," Richards said, chuckling about his friendship with Lecavalier and their younger days together here.

One thing you notice about Richards, though: Wherever he goes, he leaves a positive impression with teammates. It speaks to who he is as a person.

"When he came to New York, it was my first year being captain, and I thought he supported me a lot throughout that," said Lighting winger and former Rangers teammate Ryan Callahan. "He was so good for us in our room in New York. He had been there before, won it before. As good as he is on the ice, I think off the ice is what I really appreciated from him."

Added another former Rangers teammate and now Cup finals opponent, Anton Stralman: "Great guy and great player. He obviously took some heat when we were in New York, but I don’t think he let that faze him too much. He’s very experienced and seems to thrive on the big stage. He’s going to be a tough player to defend for us throughout this series."

In Chicago, Richards joined a dressing room that didn’t really need another leader, so he’s simply done his best to fit in.

"I don’t want to say it’s an intimidating team but it’s a tough locker room to walk into," said Richards. "They’ve done so much winning and you try to find your role. They have so many offensive guys, not like the other teams I’ve played on where you get a lot of minutes on the power play or a lot of offensive minutes. It’s a lot more spread out here. It took a while to figure out where I could fit in. But when I signed there, I knew I wasn’t signing there for October or even January or February. I knew once we got to the playoffs, this team had a chance. Was just trying to get my game to gain trust in Coach Q and figure out where I could fit in. ... It’s been fun here in the playoffs to grab a role. It’s the best time of year, so here we go again."

One year later, however, Richards is hoping for a different ending.