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10/08/2005 12:03 AM - Defenseman Travis Richards has been a pillar of strength for the Griffins for the past decade

Story and photo by Mark Newman

You may associate any number of landmarks with Grand Rapids: the Grand River, the painted Calder stabile (La Grand Vitesse), John Ball Zoo, the Ford Museum or the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

If you’re a hockey fan, it’s Travis Richards.

Now entering his 10th season in Grand Rapids, Richards has been here longer than most sculptures in Meijer Gardens, a fixture on the Griffins blueline so long that you might take him for granite.

His face is defined by sharply chiseled features, the look of the brave soldier who has stood proudly, even monolithically, in defense of his share of the Van Andel Arena ice.

But if he’s won his share of the battles, he has yet to win the war – bringing the coveted Calder Cup to Grand Rapids is his one remaining challenge.

As far as Richards is concerned, a championship is what playing hockey is all about. “It’s the only thing,” he says. “I don’t care about anything else.”

Named not for artist Alexander Calder, but for Frank Calder, who served as the NHL’s first president from 1917 to 1943, the trophy would mean everything to Richards and his teammates.

“The more I play, the more it seems like it’s something you’re either destined to win or you’re not,” he says. “We’ve been right there so many years. I’ve got to believe it’s going to happen.”

He’s eager to get back to work after being limited to 35 games last season following a debilitating back injury.

His return to the ice may have to wait – he has been slowed this fall by a knee injury suffered in training camp – but he is determined to make his presence felt once again.

“There was no way I wasn’t coming back this year – I knew I had to play,” he says. “I’ve played too long to have it taken away just like that.”

Richards isn’t the type of player who can carry a team on his back, but his rock solid reliability is a characteristic coaches love. Last season was the first time in his career that he had suffered any serious injury.

During his first eight years in Grand Rapids, the durable Richards had never played less than 71 games, so he tried to shrug off last year’s pain as “no big deal,” even when it was clear that it was.

“I’ve had sore backs, but I knew this was worse than usual. When I woke up the next morning, it took me 40 minutes to get downstairs. For two months, I couldn’t put on my socks or tie my shoes.”

The diagnosis was a herniated disk. The treatment was less clear, the debate being between rest and surgery. “For every five people who told me to have surgery, there were five who told me, ‘Don’t do it.’ It was amazing.”

Richards chose to rest his back, opting to stay behind the Griffins bench for the remainder of the season. It gave him his first taste of coaching and he was surprised by how much he liked the experience.

As it was, the time away from the rink only fueled his desire to get back on the ice. “There was talk of me getting into into coaching, but I didn’t even really think about it for a second. I knew I had to play.”

Last season marked only the second time that the Griffins failed to make the playoffs, an ignominious feat that Richards never cares to repeat as long as he keeps playing.

“Not to be able to contribute last year because of the injury only made it worse,” he says. “You want to help but there’s nothing you can do. Just to sit and watch is painful.”

Over the years, Richards has endured his share of painful exits from the playoffs. “It’s weird, but most of the games that stick out for me are the ones we lost.”

And so he remembers going to triple overtime – the second longest game in IHL history – only to lose to Orlando in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals.

He recalls everything about getting knocked out by Houston in the seventh game of the conference finals two years ago after having become only the third team in AHL history to win consecutive overtime games when facing elimination.

And try as he might, he can’t forget his first season in Grand Rapids when the Griffins won their first two playoff games against Orlando, only to lose the series away from home.

“That one still bothers me. They all bother me. They stick in my mind because I think we were good enough to have won it all. Some of those teams were awesome.”

Looking back on his years with the Griffins, Richards realizes how lucky he’s been to have played on so many winning teams. He knows there are other organizations where he might not have been so fortunate.

“As a player, when you first get here, you might be upset that you’re not in the NHL but I can’t imagine a better place to play in this league.”

Richards’ roots are firmly in the Grand Rapids area now, having bought a house in Kentwood a couple of years ago.

“We return to Minnesota every summer, and for the last three summers we’ve gone back for a shorter and shorter period each time. It used to be the whole three months. This year it was 10 days.

“We used to say we were going home. Now we say we’re leaving home. That’s what Grand Rapids has become for us.”

For the past two summers, he’s run summer hockey camps with his brother Todd, a former IHL defenseman who is now an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Admirals. “He comes here for two weeks, then I help him with his. We have a ball. I just love it.”

Richards also is enjoying being able to watch his son Riley learn the game. “This is going to be his first year on a real team with refs and the whole business. He’s really excited.”

Riley, it turns out, is fairly competitive. “They don’t keep score in those games but he’s probably the only kid who knows the score. If it’s 18-14, he’ll know. That’s just his personality.”

Life father, like son.

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