Story and photos by Mark Newman
If life were a movie, Travis Richards would be the surprise hit of the winter, the unexpected film that comes out of nowhere and plays to packed houses week after week, the modest thriller held-over due to popular demand.
The Griffins' captain is far from being a big budget superstar. He's certainly not going to impress anyone with flashiness. He doesn't come loaded with special effects. And while he surely doesn't have blockbuster prowess, he's a definite must-see in order to fully appreciate his abilities.
There are plenty of compelling reasons that Richards has remained in Grand Rapids for as long as he has. He's consistent. Remarkably reliable. A four-star defenseman. They all point to the fact that he's a rare commodity.
You might say they just don't make 'em like Travis Richards anymore.
Forget box office. Richards has never been the type of player to pull people into the seats at Van Andel Arena. But he's a reel hero to his teammates, an above-the-line talent who's quietly content to play a supporting role.
He's Steve Buscemi. He's Vincent D'Onofrio. He's Charles Durning. If you see a lot of movies, you know who they are. The same is true with Richards. If you've seen him play enough, you know who he is.
"Two thumbs up for his performance every single night." -- Griffins general manager Bob McNamara
Richards is the first to admit that he had no idea he would still be wearing a Griffins jersey after seven years, going on eight.
This past summer, he bought a house in the Kentwood area, finally convinced that the curtain wasn't going to close on his career as soon as he added his name to the dotted line.
"I always told myself that I would never buy a house as long as I played," Richards says. "With this job, you just never know where you're going to be year after year. I've seen guys buy homes and then things don't work out."
Richards said he realized that he needed a place to settle down with his wife, Angie, and their two kids, Riley and Ellie,
"With Riley getting into kindergarten, he's at the age now where he wants to play football in the backyard, but we've never had a backyard because we were always in a townhouse or apartment. Now that he's started school, he can have friends over and play."
Riley, he says, is pretty enthusiastic about school. "He'd go seven days a week if he could -- he just loves it," Richards says. "He's a good kid. He's polite and listens, stuff like that. Both of our kids are good. We're very lucky."
The domestic bliss has even carried over to the ice. "Actually, this is probably one of the most fun years I've had," he says. "Things are rolling and everything just seems to carry over."
Richards has never really had any problems on the ice. As extraordinarily ordinary as it appears at first glance, his steady play has always managed to earn rave reviews from his coaches.
"I've been fortunate in that aspect," he says. "If the coach isn't a big fan of yours, you're in trouble. But that's usually up to you. If you go out there and work hard and you're successful, every coach is going to like you."
While his style is never going to sell tickets, it can help the team to win, which -- in theory -- should put people in the seats.
"I don't think if you watch a game, I stand out as a dominant player," he says. "But if you watch a bunch of games, I hope you think, 'You know what? He's not too bad.' I just try to keep things simple. Be consistent and reliable.
"Travis is very good in terms of effort and execution. You can count on one hand the number of bad games he's had in seven or eight years. It's tremendous to have a guy like that." -- Griffins head coach Danton Cole
Richards never figured he'd still be playing in Grand Rapids seven years later. A number of teammates on that inaugural Griffins team of 1996-97 -- Cole, Todd Nelson, Bruce Ramsay -- have joined the head coaching ranks. It's one fraternity that he's not too anxious to join.
"I'd love to coach Riley but that's probably as far as I'll ever go in coaching, I'll tell you that," he says. "It's something I've always felt. I don't think it's my personality. I'll coach his team and that's it. But then again, I'm smart enough to know to never say never."
Riley started playing hockey this fall. "He plays in a 3-on-3 league in Kentwood and he loves it," Richards says. "He's on a team and he has a jersey and that's what it's all about for him."
Richards says Riley enjoys coming to Van Andel Arena to watch his dad and the Griffins. He sees a lot of himself in his young son. "Our personalities are identical. We both tend to get a little emotional. He's definitely not going to be the one bullying other people."
As for himself, Richards isn't ready to retire. He will turn 34 next March and, while he would like to play for a couple of more years, he can't fathom playing for another eight years like the Red Wings' Chris Chelios, who will be 42 in January.
"I don't know how he does it," Richards says. "That he can play at that high level is incredible. I'm shooting for another two or three years and then we'll see where I'm at."
"You look at a guy like Richie and he's the heart and soul of the team. He's not what you would call a young pup, but he comes and battles as hard as anyone. Guys like him are invaluable." -- Griffins teammate Dave Van Drunen
One thing that will keep Richards coming back is the desire to win a championship. The Griffins have come close a couple of times. Last year, the team fell one game short of the Calder Cup finals, and the Griffins were two wins away from the Turner Cup in 2000.
"Obviously, I'd rather lose in the finals than the first round, but that doesn't make it any easier to take," Richards says. "Winning a championship is the No. 1 priority, without question. It completely eats at me that we haven't done it."
Richards is thankful that McNamara has managed to put winning teams on the ice -- the only blemish coming during the 1998-99 season when the Griffins finished under .500 and failed to make the playoffs.
"That's one year I'll never forget," he says. Not that he hasn't tried. "When you're losing, it's complete and utter misery."
He's proud that the Griffins have finished at or near the top of the league standings for the past four seasons. "It's very hard to do what we've done. Winning the majority of your games is difficult. By the same token, what have we really done? We haven't won a championship and that's our goal."
"When you say the name of Travis Richards, it's what Griffins hockey is all about. For any young defensemen coming into this league, I'd tell them to just watch how this guy works. He motivates you to play." -- Griffins player/assistant coach Derek King
Life on the road as a professional athlete can be tough when you're hundreds of miles away from your family and friends.
For Richards, it's not so bad -- as long as there's a good movie to see. He tries to see as many movies as he can, whether he's going to the theater or staying in his hotel room.
"I see almost every movie eventually, but I try not to go in the summer so that when we go out on the road, there's something to watch in the room," says Richards, who is rooming with Michel Picard again this season.
Jaws remains Richards' favorite movie. He's seen it more times than he can remember. "Every time it's on TV, I watch it, which is like 50 times a year because TNT is always playing it," he says.
He loves to tell the story of the time that his father took him along with his older brother Todd and sister to see Jaws when it came out. Todd started crying after the first shark attack and had to be taken home.
Truth be told, Richards had his own demons.
"I couldn't watch T he Wizard Of Oz because the witch and monkeys scared the bejesus out of me. He pauses. Actually, it was the woman on the bike, with Toto in the little basket. He starts humming the witch's theme. I couldn't watch."
And then there was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . "The Oompa Loompas scared me." He launches into the Oompa Loompa song. I didn't like them either."
Richards says he and his wife "fight" over who gets to take Riley to the movies. "We've been going to all the kids' movies since he was about three years old. If Angie wants to take him to a movie when I'm on the road, I won't let her. She has to wait until I get back."
He loves going to the theater. It's his little escape. "I'm there for the popcorn and pop -- the whole experience. Whatever's going bad in your life, it's gone for two hours. I love it."
As far as he's concerned, nothing beats seeing a good movie, except one thing -- and winning a championship is something he hopes the Griffins will achieve later this season.
A good playoff run can generate the kind of excitement that one might associate with a good thriller or murder mystery, which just happens to be Richards' favorite genre of film.
He rattles off The Usual Suspects , Braveheart and Dead Poet's Society as some of his all-time favorite movies. "And that's just off the top of my head," Richards says.
Favorite sports film? " Raging Bull, Field Of Dreams, Hoosiers and Rudy were all fantastic -- they're all way up there."
Favorite comedy? " Dumb & Dumber and Meet the Parents are great. But I'm a big Stripes fan. I used to know all the lines to it."
Best action flick? " Gladiator ." Best sci-fi? "All the Star Wars films and I liked The Matrix but to be honest, I can't figure out all that's going on." Best animated feature? " Lion King by far. I could watch it 100 times. I can't wait for Ellie to start watching it."
Richards doesn't sit through the credits, but he gets there early for the previews. "I hate missing even the first minute of a movie," he says.
As far as he's concerned, showing up late is like going onto the ice with dull blades on your skates. "If I miss anything, I feel thrown way off."
And to a guy who prides himself on his being consistent -- even if it's being on time for a movie -- there's no worse feeling.