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‘UNFORGETTABLE’

10/10/2001 2:20 PM - Nothing will ever erase some of the memories Travis Richards has from his week-long stay in Ottawa this fall.

Travis Richards won’t soon forget the week he spent in the Ottawa Senators training camp. It wasn’t that the experience was entirely new to the veteran defenseman. Before coming to the Griffins organization, he had attended a number of training camps with the Dallas Stars. But that was several years ago -- an eternity in the relatively short lifespan of a professional hockey player. “There were some nerves, but I wasn’t really nervous,” says Richards, who has appeared in more games in Grand Rapids than any other player in history of the sport in the city. Even so, he couldn’t help but feel excited about the opportunity. Sure he knew a lot of the players -- many of them had been teammates with the Griffins -- but this was different. This was Ottawa. This was the NHL. “I went to have fun . . . and it was fun,” Richards says. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was realistic going into camp.

There aren’t too many 31-year-old rookies playing in the NHL.” Richards signed a contract with the Senators this past summer after enjoying what was the greatest season of his eight-year career. Playing in 70+ games for the fifth straight year, he registered a career-high 35 points in helping the Griffins to the best record in the IHL. “It was an extremely good year,” Richards says. “Winning a lot of games like that makes a year fun.” And so he went into the Senators camp with one goal in mind: to have fun. But his perspective changed on the first day of camp -- September 11, 2001, a date that will forever live in the minds of Americans everywhere.

Richards was scheduled to undergo physical testing when news reached Ottawa about the horrendous terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. “I was scheduled to get on the bike at 10 o’clock for my VO2 testing,” recalls Richards, referring to the test that determines overall athletic fitness by measuring a person’s oxygen consumption. “It was like I was in a daze. VO2? Who even cares what my VO2 is? I worked hard all summer and suddenly I didn’t even want to be there. Hockey didn’t seem very important when you thought about what was happening.” But playing hockey is what Richards does for a living and, like other Americans, he wasn’t going to let terrorists stop him from doing his job.

The Senators camp continued and he tried to keep his mind off the terrible events by socializing with the other players. “We went out to dinner, saw a lot of movies,” says Richards, an avowed film buff whose spirits were hardly raised by the sad slate of flicks that he saw while in Ottawa: Summer Catch, Hardball, O and Rush Hour 2, among others. Working out with the Senators did give Richards an opportunity to renew old acquaintances with former Griffins teammates like Shane Hnidy and Karel Rachunek. Rachunek, who was an inexperienced 20-year-old when he came to Grand Rapids from the Czech Republic in 1999, credits his “old partner” with teaching him about the North American style of play. “It was real neat to see Karel again,” Richards says. “Being paired with Wade Redden, one of the best defensemen in the NHL, he’s really developed. He’s so big and strong -- I’m really glad that things worked out for him.”

When Rachunek played in Grand Rapids, his English was not nearly as good as it is today, but that hardly stopped Richards from doing what he could to make the youngster feel comfortable playing for the Griffins. That kind of mentoring role, which is likely to continue this season with young defensemen like Ilja Demidov and Julien Vauclair, is a responsibility that Richards relishes. “It’s tough when you’re a young kid,” says Richards, who recalls how a veteran named Brad Berry helped him when he played in Kalamazoo before coming to Grand Rapids. “I guess I’m the kind of guy -- laid-back, who doesn’t get frustrated -- who has the patience to work with the younger players.” he says. “I’m the type of player who talks a lot on the ice.”

While Richards would have liked to have played in an exhibition game with Ottawa before being assigned to the Griffins, he realizes the Senators need to take a closer look at their younger players. Besides, he didn’t mind coming back early to Grand Rapids, where he still has unfinished business. As much as he enjoyed the team’s record-breaking season last year, losing in the conference finals was “very depressing.” And yet, in light of what happened this past September, it’s not anything he’s going to lose sleep over. What’s done is done and he’s going to make the most of whatever time has left on the ice. “I just want to play good every night, do well, and help us contend as a team,” Richards. “I’m looking forward to another great year.” Richards hopes it’s a good year too for the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

He played on the 1993-94 team that went to Lillehammer, Norway, the last team comprised of U.S. amateur players. While Richards wishes Olympic rosters were still dominated by collegiate players rather than NHL stars, he knows the realities of business dictate otherwise. Although he won’t be attending the games, he’ll be rooting for the U.S. team in Salt Lake City all the same. Surprisingly, he says he wouldn’t worry too much about security if he were going. “Even when I played, security was fairly tight,” he says. “You needed a pass to get anywhere, and I’m sure it will be even better next year.” In fact, Richards thinks the Olympics are coming to the U.S. at an ideal time. “Having all those countries coming here to play will be a big deal. Bringing everyone together will make a statement to the world,” he says.



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