Rozner: Capitals, Steve Richmond have eyes on big prize

Like most hockey players, Steve Richmond doesn't stand up as straight as he once did.

Maybe it's the cumulative effect of a lifetime spent trying to get to the Stanley Cup Final, one that makes a man look like he's been carrying the weight of the world on his back for 40 years.

Or maybe it's just a bad back, the result of a lifetime spent playing, fighting, coaching and traveling, the last 16 of those years surviving so many heartbreaks as the Washington Capitals' director of player development.

But now the 58-year-old Chicago native is within four victories of the party he's been envisioning since before his days at Evanston High School.

"I've been dreaming about it since I was a little kid," said Richmond, a longtime Lake Zurich resident. "All the years in juniors, college, the minors, the NHL … it's all you think about, holding the Cup.

"It seems surreal that now we're this close and it's possible."

Richmond was one of the first really good players to come out of a 1970s Chicago-area hockey program and after two years of junior hockey in Pickering, Ontario, Richmond set a record for goals by a defenseman at the University of Michigan.

Signed as a free agent by the New York Rangers in 1982, Richmond played 159 NHL games for four teams in the '80s, managing 27 points and a ridiculous 514 penalty minutes.

Yup, Steve Richmond would fight anyone. Actually, he would probably drop 'em now if you proposed in proper fashion.

After his last pro season in 1991 with the San Diego Gulls, Richmond went about the business of raising a family with wife Jeanne, herself a basketball and track star at Michigan.

That's when a twist of fate hit Richmond with a right cross.

He was coaching and directing the Glenview Stars hockey program in the late '90s when they ran into a Park Ridge team coached by former Hawks defenseman Bob Murray, who was working in the Hawks' front office.

"He was coaching his son and I was coaching mine, and the game got a little heated," Richmond said. "He was sending out kids to go after my guys and I wanted to fight him.

"I was looking for him behind the benches after the game and I was ready to kill him when he comes up to me and says, 'Hey, you ever think of getting back in the game? You should be scouting for us.'

"So I went from wanting to fight him - I mean, I was really mad - to getting a job. Funny how things happen, huh?"

It was less a crossroads than an on-ramp.

Murray, the GM in Anaheim the last 10 years, didn't last long as the Hawks' GM - not with Bob Pulford around - and Richmond moved on to become the head coach of the Chicago Steel for two years (2000-02), where his son Danny played before also heading to Michigan.

It was then that Steve was hired by George McPhee, the GM of the Caps and his former roommate from their days with the Tulsa Oilers.

OK, well, that's another story and one that would take an hour to tell you, but suffice it to say that the Central Hockey League team is famous in hockey circles for going bankrupt in 1984, being homeless for the final two months of the season, moving to a hotel in Denver and practicing at a shopping mall where they weren't even allowed to use pucks.

Sort of a "Slap Shot" meets "Semi-Pro," only with real-life consequences.

That absurd story ended, naturally, with the vagabond Oilers winning the league championship - played at a practice rink in front of 500 people in Indianapolis - and the CHL disbanded the next day.

"It's worse than it sounds," Richmond laughed. "There was one time we had to buy our own plane tickets back from Birmingham."

Richmond reunited with McPhee in Washington and in 2010 as the No. 1 overall seed it looked like Steve might run into Danny in the postseason, but the Caps lost a seven-game series to Montreal in the first round and the Hawks won it all, Danny celebrating on the ice in Philadelphia in street clothes as a member of the Hawks' AHL affiliate.

His son has a ring and is still playing professionally in Europe.

Steve hopes to now grasp the big trophy as the Caps face the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final beginning Monday night in Vegas.

"I was obviously very happy for Danny and really glad the Hawks treated him so well, but it also hurts," Richmond said. "I've seen a lot of friends win and I'm jealous.

"It's what you play for, why you're in the game. It's why you ride buses and travel all over the world scouting. That's the goal. I'm not doing this for hotel points."

And now the Caps will have to go through Vegas, and old friend McPhee, the Vegas GM, to get what they want.

"I'd run over him to get a ring, but I'd help him up afterward," Richmond said with only half a chuckle. "It's just amazing because Vegas wasn't supposed to be here and we were supposed to be dead."

The Capitals have made the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 years with eight division titles, three of the last nine years as Presidents' Trophy winners, and seven times losing a seven-game series, often to clubs that went far in the postseason.

It's has been a glorious, but tortured run in Washington as the franchise reaches the final series of the season for the second time in its 43-year history and first since 1998, as it tries for its first title in a year in which the experts believed the Caps would be rebuilding.

It speaks to the difficulty the Caps have had, and how hard it is to win in the postseason, that after so many tough endings they started this year's run against the Blue Jackets in the opening series with two overtime defeats at home.

"We played two great games and we're down 0-2," Richmond said. "We got to their place and we're short-handed in overtime and we could be down 0-3, but we get a break and win in double-overtime and suddenly it's a series.

"It's such a fine line when you're playing great teams. All three of Pittsburgh's Cups, they beat us twice in seven games and once in six. You're not playing the Skokie Flyers. It's tough to win in this league.

"Sometimes you just get beat by a great team. This year, maybe it's our turn."

For a hockey lifer enduring a very long journey, it's the ultimate chance to throw the last punch.

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

Signed as a free agent by the New York Rangers in 1982, Steve Richmond played 159 NHL games for four teams in the '80s, managing 27 points and 514 penalty minutes. Now, Richmond is in his 16th year as the Washington Capitals' director of player development, and finally in the Stanley Cup Final. Courtesy of Steve Richmond
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