A discussion with Todd Richards, part one
This is the first segment of a three-part interview with Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards.
Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards is an affable guy. It shows through on rare occasions throughout the season. But, when the off-season arrives, he wears an ever-present smile with a kind word for every fan he comes in contact with. I recently was able to chat with him at the Columbus Blue Jackets Open House about the past, the present and the future of the club.
In the lockout-shortened season of 2012/2013, the Blue Jackets finished 24-17-7 after a slow start. The incredible run that they went on in the second half of the season caught many, who had pegged them to finish dead last in the league, by surprise. It was no surprise to the players and staff within the organization.
“There was a confidence,” said Richards, “a new found confidence. When we were struggling at the start, I think we were hoping to win. By the end (of the season), we were expecting to win. Which, to me, is two different mentalities. I think we got that from a number of places. Lining up expecting to win, if you knew your goalie was on his game, which Sergei (Bobrovsky) was, it gave the team confidence that they could go out and play.”
“I think once we started having success, individuals started to have success, they became more confident in their game”, he said. “I also think another factor in us having success was, I think guys started to understand their roles and accept their roles. When you have a lot of new faces coming in, maybe guys on different teams had different roles and they come in and want more of a role than maybe what they’ve had previously, maybe it wasn’t working out that way.”
He goes on, “We (coaching staff) started to understand that and the players started to understand that. I think the biggest thing was accepting that. Because, if you aren’t accepting of your roles, you’re going to play 8-10 minutes instead of 14-16 minutes (per game). Again, that can create some waves and create some problems. Guys accepted their roles. And, it wasn’t just them having success, it was that the team was having success.”
A change has come over the players on the club from season past, in that they wanted to win but might not have expected to win games. Todd Richards expounded on this theme. “I think it was a gradual change. But I think the culture started to change when we started bringing in these new players, new blood. And, not only that, from the management side and the coaching side, I was new (along with assistant coaches Craig Hartsburg and Keith Acton), John Davidson (President of Hockey operations) and Jarmo (Kekalainen, GM) were new. And then, you bring in a lot of new players.”
“There were some games that we were losing that we were playing well”, Richards said. “We were just on the wrong side of one goal games. So, I think it was a gradual thing. But, once we got there it became really a part of us.”
The seemingly swift culture change within the organization comes as no surprise to Richards. It’s almost as if they were playing with a chip on their collective shoulders. “As a coach,” he said, “I expect to win every night. I don’t think anybody expected us to do what we did last season, outside of the team. The league (NHL) and all of the experts had us finishing 3oth. Again, once we got going, we still had to prove people wrong.”
“It wasn’t until the end, but some of the positive things we were getting were from our peers, whether it’s the coaches or players. They were just saying how hard we were playing the game. And, even though we were losing some games, it was how hard we were playing. We were a tough team to play against. When you’ve got opposition guys saying that, it’s steps in the right direction.”
One thing that stood out for this club last season was the way that players that were called up from Columbus’ AHL affiliate club, the Springfield Falcons, fit right in with the way the Blue Jackets played the game. There wasn’t a sharp learning curve, as in years past. “It’s an organizational thing”, said Richards. “The coaches in Springfield did a great job preparing the guys. And, you have to give a lot of credit to the scouts, too. You have to get the right guys in your system.”
“We’ve got some young players coming up. We are really deep on defense, which is a good place to be deep, because it gives you great assets in moving forward. The message I’ve always told the guys when I was coaching at the American League level (Milwaukee and Wilkes Barre/Scranton), was that your road to the NHL might not be through the Columbus Blue Jackets (or the team that drafted them). If you prove yourself and become a good asset, other teams are going to want you.”
He goes on about Springfield, “our coaches down there did a great job and they had a great season. A lot of times in changing the winning attitude in the NHL club, (it equals) winning in the American League. And, they did that last year. They had 99 points and they won two rounds of the playoffs. Again, it starts there. All these young players are coming up, they know what it takes to win and they expect to win, because they’ve done it there. Now it becomes an organizational culture that you’re creating.”
Coming up in parts two and three of this series, we talk about the effect of bringing in elite-level talent, expectations for the new season, some of the prospects that might be ready to make the jump to the NHL and his thoughts on the Columbus Blue Jackets moving to the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference. Finally, we stroll down memory lane, as he reminisces about the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team after being named an assistant coach on the Team USA coaching staff for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.