'We were not prepared for this'

NEW YORK -- It was a sad day for hockey.

Mike Richter, the Rangers' 36-year-old goaltender, was forced to hang them up because his brain can no longer risk what his heart wants his body to do.

Ever since the collision with Edmonton forward Todd Marchant on Nov. 5, 2002, life for Mike has been fuzzy. The Rangers beckoned. The game beckoned. He wanted to be back on the ice. But a simple glance around his house, at his wife and two kids, put things into perspective. It was time to move on.

It was impossible not to cry while talking with his wife Veronica.

"This is so much harder than any game," she said with a sigh and a smile. "The only game I ever cried after was at the (2002) Olympics when he won the silver medal. That was very emotional, but so much different than this."

"This" wasn't like anything these Rangers had experienced before. These teammates have shared everything. Now all they'll share as Rangers are memories.

"No one had anything to say. We just looked at each other. We were not prepared for this," said Brian Leetch. "(The get together) wasn't like getting ready for a game. It won't hit me for a while. Mike wants to play, I know it's ripping his heart out."

It was ripping everyone's heart out.

Mark Messier couldn't bear to watch. When the video tribute to Richter began, the Rangers captain stood up and and walked out of the room, tears running down his chiseled face. It's one thing for an athlete to walk away from the game he loves when it's on his own terms. To have a doctor in a white coat tell him it's over is quite another.

Leetch managed to provide a bit of levity at his own expense. While watching Richter make one acrobatic save after another as his career flashed before them on the screen, the team's all-time best defenseman leaned over to its all-time best goalie and whispered: "Why in every clip that they picked out is he trailing the play?" Because that's when Richter was at his best, when he was bailing out his buddies. "Couldn't they have picked one clip where I was in the position he asked?" Leetch added. "Mike got a chuckle out if that."

Richter and Leetch had been the longest running teammates in the NHL -- 14 regular seasons. Toss in a playoff game in 1988-89, the 1988 Olympics and countless other U.S. national team events and the men have been close friends for half of their lives.

"Last year we couldn't seem to get in the lineup at the same time together," Leetch said. "I'm not sure what the last game we played together was." It was a 5-2 win against the Oilers. "It will be weird to be on the flight (to games) and not to be sitting next to Mike."

Sure, Mike Richter will have a great life after hockey. He has the money. His name is engraved on the Stanley Cup. Come Feb. 4, his No. 35 will forever hang in the rafters of Madison Square Garden. It just shouldn't have ended like this. Not for Mike.

"He's always been a good guy," said Rangers general manager Glen Slather. "You never had to worry about Mike getting in trouble with the cops, or drinking to much or beating his wife. He was a standup guy."

Richter's 301 wins are the most in Rangers history, but his sons won't remember a single one. Thomas is three and James is one. Veronica said they didn't totally know what was going on, but they knew that their dad was home a lot more now. "In fact," she added, tears rolling, "Thomas thinks every goalie he sees is his dad. Mike could be sitting next to him watching a game and Thomas still thinks it's him in goal."

And we'll be watching, wishing it was.