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The Next Best Thing

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The Next Best Thing

Nicole Sorce's picture

The Next Best Thing

On May 23, 2012, Luke Richardson was introduced to the community of the Southern Tier as the new head coach of the Binghamton Senators, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Ottawa Senators.

"With his experience as a National Hockey League player and as an assistant coach in Ottawa, I think he's a great choice," confirmed Tim Murray, the Assistant General Manager of the Ottawa Senators.

It all started in 1987 when the 18 year-old defenseman was selected 7th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL Entry Draft, bypassing the minor leagues completely to start off his career. Four seasons later, he moved on to the Edmonton Oilers to start the 1991-1992 season and remained on their roster until 1997. The Philadelphia Flyers were Richardson's next stop from 1997-2002 before spending the 2002-2007 seasons in Columbus, Toronto, and Tampa Bay, respectively.

Richardson then joined the Ottawa Senators and played out the last two years of his lengthy career from 2007-2009. He announced his retirement from playing at age 39, proudly owning 35 goals, 166 assists, and 201 points over the 1,417 games of his NHL tenure.

"It's always tough to give up the playing," said Richardson. "Even to this day, you watch the game, and you still feel it."

While the end of his time playing was bittersweet, he was about to begin an exciting new chapter of his life.

"I was lucky enough to have a playing career," Richardson recalled, "but I'm even luckier that I had the chance to go right to an assistant coaching job with the Senators for 4 years."

Richardson's coaching career began in the 2008-2009 season as he transitioned from being a veteran player to an assistant coach.

"In the beginning, my role kind of floated and varied," he explained. "I'd go to Binghamton the odd time and spend a day or two with young players, watching and talking to them."

He was also assigned the task of looking after injured players.

Richardson recalled his initial excitement for this task. "I would get to the rink early with injured players that were trying to get back into game shape and I would skate with them. It doesn't happen very often in the NHL for a coach to do that."

And Richardson would know.

"I remember for myself when I played, anytime a coach took the time and was in good enough shape to skate with me and do the grueling drills to get yourself back into shape, even though you know the coach may not be on the same level, it meant a lot," he explained. The 20-year defenseman missed 10 games of the 2001-2002 season with a broken foot, sat out 18 games in 2003-2004 due to a broken finger and neck injury, and spent even more time on the bench during the 2005-2006 season (17 games) due to a fractured jaw.

Richardson took it upon himself to go above and beyond his call of duty of an average NHL assistant coach, especially in regard to guiding injured players along their road to recovery.

"I thought it was crucial for me to spend time with the players who were injured and that weren't playing," Richardson said, "Because when you're not playing, you're not happy. I wanted to install that into my role. Nobody even asked me to do that. I just wanted to do that."

Aside from traveling to Binghamton or looking after injured players, Richardson also served as a bridge between the players and the rest of the coaching staff.

"I would talk to them on a players' level because I still understand what they were feeling," Richardson said. "I would try to get the same message across that the coaches wanted them to hear, and if they were unhappy with their play, I'd use a one-on-one tone instead of teacher/student or coach/player."

Now, as the head coach of the Binghamton Senators, Richardson is using the mindset he developed as an assistant coach in Ottawa to help the Binghamton squad rebuild from a rough 2011-2012 season. The momentum from winning the Calder Cup the year before wasn’t enough to prevent the B-Sens from finishing last in the Eastern Division and posting the worst record in the league (29-40). Luckily, Richardson had seen this before and knew how to approach the situation.

“Last year, Ottawa was in the same situation,” he said. “They came off a very tough year before and they improved immensely.”

At the end of the 2010-2011 season, the Ottawa Senators finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and 26th overall in the NHL with a record of 32-40 and a mere 74 points. It was during training camp of the following season that Richardson learned one of the most important lessons of his coaching career.

“It was from head coach Paul MacLean. Right from day one at training camp, the message was that we’re going to improve a little bit every day,” Richardson recalled. “Just a little bit everyday. That’s the message that’s going to be sent day one here.”

The Ottawa Senators did improve immensely during the 2011-2012 season, elevating their record to 41-31. Finishing with 92 points allotted them the 8th seed of the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the New York Rangers bested the Senators in a suspenseful seven-game first round.

Richardson has relied heavily on Binghamton's veteran players to help get his message across from the moment training camp started in October, especially those who experienced the 2010-2011 Calder Cup championship firsthand.

“They are going to be crucial to help maintain that message everyday, all the way through," said Richardson. “We won't let one day slip and say, 'Ah, I don't feel like doing that today, getting a little better today.'"

One of Richardson’s many goals for the B-Sens this upcoming season was to instill a strong will in the locker room to never give up, an aspect of his game plan that he hopes other teams pick up on.

"We are looking to rebound from last year and Binghamton not making the playoffs. We should have a consistent, professional outlook on the season and make the playoffs. If we do that, we should be on such a roll that it gives us a good chance to run for the championship again," said Richardson. “If you get better everyday, you have a stronger mental attitude which shows in the standings."

The performance of the B-Sens thus far this season has turned out to be a great display of Richardson's Ottawa mindset. To date, the B-Sens have 29 wins, the most of any AHL team, and stand in first place in the East Division with 63 points. They've held the status of best team in the league since coming off a 3-2 win against the Hershey Bears coming into the All-Star break on January 26.

Aside from getting the team back on the playoff track, Richardson also as a heavy focus on developing the organization's young talent. Among the numerous B-Sens players with career milestones and "firsts" this season includes forward Cole Schneider, who tallied his first two professional points (both goals) on Saturday, November 24, against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. His first goal proved to be the game-winner as the B-Sens came away with a 6-1 victory. Following his feats, Schneider gave Richardson credit and praise for helping him along.

“Playing for a former NHL-er is just unreal,” said Schneider. “It’s been real fun just having him around, and hopefully we keep winning.”

The players aren't the only ones enjoying their head coach's ongoing career in hockey.

"I think going into coaching is the next best thing," Richardson stated. "Everybody always said that, and I didn't really believe it in the past because I still wanted to play. But it is."

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Luke Richardson is handling the bittersweet transition from player to coach very well, writes Nicole Sorce.

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