Veteran relishes role as line's mentor

FRISCO, Texas -- James Neal didn't know it last year, but Brad Richards was busy acting as his real estate agent.

When Neal returned from a brief stint with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL last November, Richards told him where to unpack.

"Last year, he just came up to me and said, 'You're living with me,'" Neal said. "There wasn't really a choice. It's Brad Richards. Why wouldn't I want to live with him, right?"

Neal, 22, is still living with Richards in Dallas. And he's not complaining about it -- in public, anyway. The two have become nearly inseparable on and off the ice. Neal is the left wing on the Dallas Stars' top line centered by Richards. Loui Eriksson, who has also established a close bond with Neal and Richards, is on the right side. The three have accounted for 41 percent of the Stars' goals this season, and Neal leads the team with seven goals.

Richards, the unquestioned leader of the line, was all over the ice and the scoresheet once again in Wednesday's 4-3 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He scored two goals, one on the power play, and helped set things up on Neal's overtime winner. Richards won battles along the boards, attracted the Leafs like a magnet and freed up space for Neal and others to operate. The result was a hard-fought two points for the Stars despite some lifeless play in the first two periods.

When he was needed most, Richards delivered. But why would a 29-year-old veteran all but demand that Neal live with him?

First, Richards felt sorry for Marty Turco, who had Neal staying at his home despite dealing with a newborn.

"But more than that, I got helped out when I was that age and had a place early in my career, and I know it made the transition easier," said Richards, who stayed with his best friend, Vincent Lecavalier, when he came up with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2000-01 season. "You go to the rink together and feel more a part of things and not isolated at home. I could see 'Nealer' needed that. I'm single anyway and he has a lot of energy, and that's good for me too."

Richards has taken the role of mentor to Neal seriously. In addition to real estate agent, Richards acts as big brother, assistant coach, personal trainer, nutritionist and accountant.

"He's big on saving money," Neal said. "He's on me about that and to pay my rent checks. I try to get on him and act like the big brother, but he's pretty stubborn. It doesn't work. I'm just the little brother."

Eriksson doesn't escape Richards' tutelage either. The 24-year-old certainly listens when Richards shares his advice with him as they sit on the bench in between shifts.

"He's focused and he likes to talk if we do something wrong," Eriksson said. "He'll come up and say, 'We can do this instead.' He helps me do the right things on the ice and he's been in the league longer than I have, so of course I listen when he gives advice."

Richards said he talks to Neal and Eriksson about learning from previous shifts and applying them to future time on the ice. If they haven't had the puck much, they talk about how to better support each other to get more possession time. If it's been a shift or two without many shots, they focus on peppering the goalie with shots the next time they hop over the boards.

He wasn't always a chatterbox on the bench.

"When I was young, I was very quiet and I was too nervous or shy to say anything," Richards said. "I played with Martin St. Louis and he used to talk my ear off on the bench and sometimes you got sick of it, but it helped so much. When you get older, you realize you need that communication out there. It works."

Stars coach Marc Crawford sees Richards' leadership as critical to the success of that line. He also sees Neal and Eriksson growing up quicker thanks to prodding from Richards.

"He's really good with them," Crawford said. "He's a very professional player, a very responsible player. I think maybe not so much for Loui, because he's been around and he's developing good habits, but I think it keeps James grounded. James has only been around for a bit, and when you're having success as a young player, sometimes maybe you won't pay attention to the details, and Brad knows what the details are."

Those details include a proper diet. Richards shakes his head at Neal when the youngster succumbs to the urge to have a soft drink or a junk-food snack.

"I can tell you from living with him that he's eating better," Richards said. "He's starting to get rid of the Dr Peppers and root beers and little things. It's not drastic, but it will help in the long run."

Richards also sees Neal and Eriksson, two different types of players, improving on the ice. And he sounds like a proud older brother as he talks about their talents.

"Loui is a very smart player, very methodical and always in position," Richards said. "He might not do the one dazzling thing that everyone sees, but he'll do 100 good things a game. He's not a big, muscular monster, but he's in those tough areas to score goals. Not every player will do that."

As for Neal, Richards said he's growing into a professional.

"That's constantly an effort with him," Richards said, with a sly smile indicating that there are some stories, but he isn't sharing them. "He's making a natural progression to a top-level player that many guys don't go through. He has every tool you need. He's big, uses his size, is fast for a big guy, and his shot is one of the quickest I've seen in this league."

Neal is quick to praise Richards as an extremely hard worker who does all the little things well.

"We wouldn't have had the goals last year or this year without him," Neal said. "He's such a good passer. He draws guys to him and hits you with speed. He's very deceptive. We're lucky to play with him."

And Neal thinks he's lucky to live with him. At least until Richards jumps on him when the rent check is due.

Richard Durrett covers the Dallas Stars for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at richard.durrett@espn3.com.