There was a brief moment in time when Mike Richards seemed to be etching himself into Philadelphia sports folklore, in ways that only a cherished select few have managed to accomplish.
His case was likely never stronger than in Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals when he delivered what would later be appropriately dubbed, "The Shift."
In many ways, those fleeting but glorious 45 seconds of nostalgia illustrate exactly the type of player Richards was during his time in Philadelphia. He played a high octane, hard-nosed, physical brand of hockey. Often sprinkling in thunderous hits and the occasional fisticuffs, he was no slouch on the scoresheet, either. "Richie" eclipsed the 30-goal mark twice in his stint with the Flyers, his best season coming in 2008-09 when he was better than a point-per-game player (80 points in 79 games).
The Flyers would go on to win their series against Montreal that very night, taking home the Prince of Wales trophy in just five games. Of course, their underdog story would be thwarted at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, who were only just blossoming as the eventual dynasty of the early 2010s.
In the following season, despite a stellar regular season campaign (47-23-12), the Flyers would fall short once more. Suffering a sweep in the second round against the Boston Bruins, winds of change began to blow. The drama filled off-season that followed the disappointing early exit would drastically reshape the Flyers for the next decade and the rest of Mike Richards' career.
On June 23, 2011, GM Paul Holmgren shockingly traded Richards and fellow star center, Jeff Carter, just hours later. Carter was acquired by the Columbus Blue Jackets, while Richards was shipped off to the Los Angeles Kings. The pair would reunite in LA halfway through the 2011-2012 season, eventually going on to win two championships together.
Holmgren's blockbuster shuffle sent shock waves through the city and the NHL. The trade primarily opened cap space for free agent goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov. Ed Snider had been publicly unhappy with the team's goaltending performance in the playoffs and vowed to fix the problem. There were also rumblings that Richards and Carter had fallen out of favor with then head coach, Peter Laviolette. Additionally, the organization was very high on rising star Claude Giroux, and the absence of the two centers would give him room to flourish. Although they received a haul in return (Jake Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and picks that would turn into Sean Couturier, among others), many around the league were left scratching their heads. Why would the Flyers move arguably their two best players and seriously deplete their center depth in the process?
Truthfully, we still don't really have a definitive answer, and Richards never got one either. He recently sat down with Jackie Spiegel of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and had this to say regarding receiving an explanation: "No, there was no conversation like that. To be honest, even now it doesn't really matter to me. I was never looking for a conversation or anything and probably at the time wouldn't want to hear it, either...it's just one of those things about sports."
Since that day, the Flyers have not been back to an Eastern Conference Final, let alone a Stanley Cup Final. They've won just two playoff series in the 12 seasons since Richards last donned an orange sweater. Coincidence? Maybe, but perhaps not. The trade dismantled a core that was only a season removed from a finals appearance. Bryzgalov's arrival directly led to Sergei Bobrovsky's departure, who went on to win two Vezina trophies for the league's best netminder. Given the 12 years of mediocrity that followed, it's hard not to imagine what could have been.
Richards will be making his long overdue return to Philly on Friday night for an alumni game against the Boston Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center. He's been doing rounds with local media, and even made a surprise appearance on the Flyers' TV broadcast during intermission for an exclusive interview.
He remains the same reserved and humble guy that was introduced to Philly over 20 years ago, referring to his famous shift as a "lucky bounce." Almost predictably, he's not quite sure how his return will be received by the fans: "When I played there with L.A., it was kind of a mixed reaction I think. ... I’m not really sure what to expect, but I’ve always loved playing there. I always loved going back, so I’m looking forward to it one way or another."
Mike should be in for a nice surprise. He was a fan favorite in his playing days and remains one to this day. You can consistently find fans still sporting #18 jerseys throughout the Wells Fargo Center on a nightly basis. The reception for the captain of the last great Flyers era should be warm, welcoming, and loud.
It feels like a bit of closure for fans that never got an opportunity to say goodbye. There was no farewell tour or even a warning this was on the horizon. Richards signed a 12 year, 69 million dollar contract in 2007, just four years before being traded. For fans who were happy to move on, like myself, it's a chance to right a wrong and show appreciation. It is a challenge to wear the "C" in a Flyers uniform. So much so that the team has been operating without one since the start of last season.
Players like Mike Richards don't grow on trees. His style of play perfectly embodied the city of Philadelphia. For years, we watched him represent the Flyers with a combination of grit and skill that we haven't seen since. Let's remember that on Friday when he takes the ice as a Flyer for perhaps the final time.