NEW YORK - He’s played 779 regular-season NHL games, but few have come with an atmosphere quite like Thursday night in New York.
Because, without question, all eyes will be on Brad Richards right from the drop of the puck.
The New York Rangers’ marquee signing will finally make his home debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs, taking to the Madison Square Gardens ice as a Blueshirt for the first time since signing a nine-year, $60-million deal last summer.
Plenty of other teams made offers, including some in markets with far less scrutiny, but Richards chose New York – in part because of coach John Tortorella, who he won a Stanley Cup with in Tampa, and because he feels ready to finally take on all of the big-market pressure that comes with being a Ranger.
Things will certainly be different than they were during his seven seasons with the Lightning or three with the Dallas Stars, but those around him say Richards is up to the challenge and will succeed where other big-name, big-money signings like Chris Drury and Scott Gomez failed.
“He wants this challenge of dealing with it and everything that comes with the city,” Tortorella said. “It’s a great city, it’s a great sports town, there are different pressures coming here, there’s accountability that comes into play when you come into a big market like this - that’s why Brad Richards is Brad Richards. He wants this. And that’s why we want him.”
Richards has been waiting four months to play a game at MSG, which has been under an extensive renovation and closed to everyone not in a hardhat until earlier this week.
He said the anticipation of being the top attraction in one of the NHL’s top markets has been going through his mind often the past few weeks.
“It reminds me a little of my first game again,” Richards said. “It’s my first time in this type of market. I’m already thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about for a while - seems like its taken forever to get here.
“When you sign with a new team, the first thing you want to do is get into the building and play with those fans. That hasn’t been the case here, but I’m excited. I’m sure I’ll have butterflies.”
Tortorella added that part of what Richards will bring is experience and that they want him to pass that on to younger players like Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.
“We want him to mentor some of our young kids through some tough times on and off the ice,” Tortorella said. “This is a great situation for Richie. I don’t worry about him. I think he’s going to settle other people down.”
Richards is a good story in that he slipped in his draft year all the way to the third round despite a 115-point season, mainly because many felt his huge point totals came as a result of playing alongside Vinny Lecavalier.
While he was picked 63 spots after his close friend, with both going to the Lightning in 1998 and creating the foundation of that 2004 championship team, Richards has outscored every player but Lecavalier taken in that draft.
Since the lockout, the pair have been neck and neck in points per game (Lecavalier at .99, Richard at .98), even as they’ve been separated since Richards was traded to Dallas in 2008.
Now 31, Richards acknowledged that he’s in for a different experience than his last two sunbelt stops, but added that he’s played in enough big games - in the playoffs and Olympics - that the pressure won’t bother him.
Living up to that contract won’t be easy - and he’s already off to a slow start with only one goal and five points in seven games - but he believes coming home for the first time Thursday will be plenty of motivation to find his game.
“This is a lot different feel for 41 games than what I’m used to for home games,” Richards said. “But there’ve been bigger stages than this.
“What this will have is a lot more passionate history to it. This has people growing up with the Rangers in their blood, whereas in Tampa and Dallas, it’s a new thing in the last 10 years, 20 years. There’s a lot of history here and it’s an honour to be part of it.
“I’ve played in this building before, I’ve seen it in the playoffs, and on TV, you know what kind of fans New Yorkers are in general with their sports. I don’t know how to explain all that, but I’m sure everybody knows. I just can’t wait to be on the ice with them behind me.”