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The Globe and Mail

Rangers banking fresh air helps team with fresh start

New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault gestures during NHL hockey training camp Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, in Greenburgh N.Y.


He is from Murray Harbour, PEI, so Brad Richards knows something about natural beauty – the wonders of Cavendish Beach, the power of the Atlantic Ocean.

This, though, is different.

As NHL training camps approach their mid-point, the New York Rangers have been plunked down in the Rocky Mountains to continue preparations for the new NHL season.

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In a 48-hour span, the Rangers went from the hustle and bustle of mid-town Manhattan to this serene mountain setting. Out here, they joke Rangers general manager Glen Sather owns half the town – and he has been bringing in hockey teams since the early 1980s, when different editions of Canada's Canada Cup entries would also train out of the Banff Recreation Centre.

Largely thanks to Sather's influence, the Rangers participated in a charity golf tournament at the Banff Springs resort Thursday to raise money for Alberta flood relief.

"It's a beautiful part of the world," Richards said. "Fresh air, a little different from Manhattan air. It was great this morning waking up and seeing the mountains. And that brisk air? It feels like hockey."

For a lot of the Rangers' travelling contingent – from Richards to Rick Nash to Marc Staal to head coach Alain Vigneault – the 2013-14 season is chance to start fresh; and what better place to start fresh than in this place of renewal?

Last year did not end well for Richards, the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.

New York had been the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, the last full 82-game season, and Richards had finished second on the team in scoring, with 66 points, behind Marian Gaborik. They played a tight defensive style under former coach John Tortorella and relied on exceptional goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, plus strong defence from the emerging young corps of Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonough, Dan Girardi and Staal.

It was a formula that worked well and when Rick Nash was added to the mix via trade in the off-season, the Rangers seemed poised to reach even greater heights.

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Instead, it all went sour in the 48-game sprint to the finish line in 2013. Gaborik fell further out of favour and was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Richards had an okay regular season – 34 points in 46 points – but by the time the playoffs had rolled around, Tortorella ultimately decided to pull Richards out of the lineup.

The tactic of benching a star player one time for motivational purposes is not uncommon in the NHL. It was the decision to bench him for a second time that raised eyebrows.

"It's a new start, like any year would be," Richards said. "Obviously, personally, with what happened, there's a little more emphasis on it. But no matter if that happened or not, we didn't win last year, and we didn't get to where we wanted to go.

"With the new staff, the whole thing is exciting because everybody wants to know what that's going to be like and what style we're going to play – all these things – and how's it going to work. So everybody's trying to put their best foot forward and try to make good impressions so there's a lot of enthusiasm.

"So we've got this trip to really come together. I love this time of year. It's a new beginning for everybody – and everybody's excited."

Richards is now entering the third season of a nine-year, $60-million (U.S.) contract. There was some speculation in the summer Richards might even be a candidate for a buyout, but that made little sense. At 33, he is just two summers removed from a wild bidding frenzy for his services.

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Getting a chance to play for Vigneault, and with Nash again, in a year where they have a full training camp together rather than the short version necessitated by last year's player lockout, should help the chemistry emerge.

Vigneault has a reputation as a player's coach, while Tortorella is considered a taskmaster.

Richards will concede it is different, but says pointedly: "I'm not going to get into how tough or not tough it is. I don't think A.V. is coming in here to try and turn it into a big playground. He wants to win, too. The one thing that has been instilled here, the last few years, when Torts was the coach is the professionalism and the work ethic and how we competed – and that can't change. … But AV's going to bring other ideas and another viewpoint on how we get to where we want to go – because this group hasn't got there yet."

Rangers captain Ryan Callahan has played with Richards off and on for going on two years now.

"You can see it in him, he seems like a new guy," Callahan said. "He's come in excited. The thing about Richie is, he's a pro. He realizes he needs a bounce back from last year, but he's done it for so many years. I expect great things from him."

The Rangers are currently missing Callahan and Carl Hagelin, both recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, and Derek Stepan because of a contract dispute.

"I'm very confident in the team," Richards said. "We have a whole line out right now. If you put that line back in, it's a pretty good line – and we still have other good players. … We feel pretty deep at all positions.

"Two years ago, we were one win away from going to the Stanley Cup final, so … we're definitely in the mix. There are so many things that go into it. We've got him in net," Richards said, pointing at Lundqvist – "and our [defence] is great and we have some good depth at forward. Now, we've just got to put it together."

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