All the praise for Swedish-born netminder Henrik Lundqvist seems pretty well-deserved.
He holds several Rangers team records, including most games played in one season, most shutouts, most career wins, and most consecutive Game 7 wins. He’s been named the Rangers’ MVP seven times. He’s got a gold medal and a Vezina. He has more shutouts in the rarefied air of Madison Square Garden than any other NHL goalie.
By blood I am three-quarters Swedish, but by every other measure I am American. And while I’m indifferent to the Rangers as a team, in a pinch I’d take Mike Richter in his prime over King Henrik any day of the week, and my reason for doing so is the dumbest possible reason you can imagine.
The Penalty Shot
Easily the most talked-about save of Mike Richter’s career occurred during game 4 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver. The Canucks held a 2-1 lead in the game, but were down 2-1 in the series. At around the thirteen minute mark, Canucks goalie Kirk McLean stones eventual MVP Brian Leetch with a great save, sending the puck to the corner. Leetch attempts to carry the puck to the high slot but loses control, and for Rangers fans the ultimate nightmare ensues: Pavel Bure leaps on the loose puck.
“When he turned the corner on you or decided he was gone, adios.” — Brett Hull
And adios it was. Leetch can only hook him at the blue line, earning Bure perhaps the most famous penalty shot in Stanley Cup history. If he scores, the Vancouver lead becomes 3-1 and maybe go on to win the game.
But Mike Richter, who not too long ago graduated from Yale, is no fool. He may have remembered Bure’s tendencies on the breakaway from the All-Star game five months earlier:
And he probably saw Bure’s breakaway heroics in double OT in game 7 against Calgary just weeks earlier.
Whatever the case, Bure dekes backhand and goes forehand– again– and Richter makes a sensational save.
You can argue that this play changed the game’s momentum and sparked the Rangers to a three goal comeback and eventual win, giving them a 3-1 series lead. But they would drop the next two games, and Richter would surrender 10 goals in those games.
In game 7 Richter stopped 28 of 30 shots to help bring the Cup to New York for the first time in four decades.
The 1996 World Cup of Hockey
In his book “Playing With Fire,” Theo Fleury is effusive with praise for Mike Richter’s MVP performance in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. He writes that Richter was “on another planet entirely” and says it was the best display of netminding he has ever witnessed:
He made some saves you won’t ever see again. Think about it this way: The best players in the world put in our best effort and we couldn’t get it past him. Shots were Canada 37, USA 25. Cheers to Mike Richter. Seriously, Man.
All that said, I could continue to occupy this space with this stat or that stat supporting my decision to take Richter over Lundqvist, but why bother when I already know the main reason why.
The Best Hockey Conversation I Ever (Think) I Had
Every hockey season I take part in a fantasy hockey league and every season I lose. I don’t just lose, I come in last. Among other reasons, this happens because I’m picky about my roster. I only want players I like. I don’t have this hang-up in fantasy baseball, where I do much better. But in hockey, I’ll take a 25 goal scorer who I think highly of over a 40 goal scorer who I perceive to be an ass. While I don’t doubt that Lundqvist is a nice person, the difference between the two for me occurred over the course of about ten minutes one spring day in Central Park.
Every April, a handful of organizations put on the Parkinson’s Unity Walk, a fundraiser in Central Park that brings together much of the Parkinson’s Disease (PD) community, from patients to physicians to advocates and more. What began in the 1990’s as a modest affair with some 200 people has blown up to become perhaps the premiere annual Parkinson’s fundraiser in the nation. My father had PD and every year at the Unity Walk an award is given in my father’s name. For several years I was fortunate enough to be able to present the award myself.
One of those years was 2007. The walk took place on April 28, a Saturday. Before I left for New York, I mentioned to some friends that I’d be ‘meeting’ Michael J. Fox that weekend (as in ‘hello’ and a photo op) and I really didn’t want to say anything related to “Back to the Future”, even though yes, it’s one of my favorite movies. My friend Jeff says “He’s a huge Rangers fan, there you go.”
Before the actual walk begins, a number of speakers would address the several thousand people seated or otherwise gathered around a platform. Being someone who spends 364 days like a semi-hermit, spending day 365 speaking to thousands of people always made me so nervous that I would not sleep the night before. I remember Fox speaking before me; no notes, all charm, impromptu acknowledging a couple of clever signs in the crowd. A gifted and experienced entertainer, Fox thrilled the crowd. If you’re me, you don’t even try to measure up.
When all of the speakers, including me, were finished, I was still on the platform when my main contact gestured for me to come over to her. Before I knew it, Fox was standing there doing the photo ops and I was next. I stepped up and, recalling the Rangers’ game 2 semifinals playoff loss to Buffalo the night before (with Lundqvist in net), said, “Too bad about your Rangers last night.”
Fox says, “Mike Richter’s right over there.”
Sure enough, America’s greatest goaltender, the guy who stoned Bure and all Canada had, is Fox’s guest and just ten feet away from us, minding his own business. At the time he was a student at Yale and their hockey team’s assistant coach; he was on the verge of co-founding a $100 million private equity fund, and the following year he would be inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame.
Having gone to school in Los Angeles, I’m not all that impressed with celebrities, but this was different. I bolted straight for him. And for the next ten minutes, Mike Richter and I had the finest, most enthusiastic and intelligent hockey conversation of all time. At least, that was my impression. My impression, that is, immediately afterwards and later in the afternoon.
And it remains my impression today, even though I was so exhausted from not having slept that I’ve never been able to remember a single word of it.
At any rate, Henrik fans can flaunt Lundqvist’s better career numbers or his incredible record in game 7’s, but Rangers fans know that the only number that matters is the one only Richter has: Those 16 playoff wins in 1994.
Yet while big games did bring out the best in Richter, I’d take him over Henrik mainly because of a ten minute chat that left an indelible impression on me; one that I’m confident he can’t recall and one that I wish I could.
It’s a dumb reason, I said that earlier. But for anyone who remembers how electrifyingly athletic and competitive Mike Richter was in net, it’s hardly a bad choice.