Manhattan was mad about Mike
Richter's Cup-winning heroics make him a legend in Gotham
In the mid-1980s, the New York Rangers were in the midst of a string of mediocrity not unlike the past six years.
A parade of goaltenders including Steve Weeks, Glen Hanlon, Bob Froese and John Vanbiesbrouck minded the net on teams that more often than not finished in fourth place in the Patrick Division and made early exits from the playoffs. The team's Stanley Cup drought rolled on and on, creating a touchy situation because their rivals 30 miles to the East were in the midst of a four-Cups-in-a-row dynasty. Cheering "Potvin sucks!" was fun, but it only carried so much weight when he ended up hoisting the Cup each May.
The Rangers spent the 28th pick of the 1985 NHL Entry Draft on a smallish goaltender from Abington, Pa., -- a Philly guy of all things! -- probably not expecting much given their recent spate of ordinary tenders.
He wasn't physically imposing and he talked with a Philly accent, no small stumbling block for Rangers fans to get past. "This is the guy who is supposed to lead us to the promised land?" Rangers fans surely thought.
Four years later, Richter stormed Manhattan like King Kong and won the fans over in a hurry. It was the beginning of a bee-yoo-tee-ful friendship.
He took classes at Columbia to continue his college studies. He rode the subway to work from his apartment on the Upper West Side. And, most important, he won some games early in his career and endeared himself to the notoriously fickle Madison Square Garden fans. Soon he was whispered in the company of Broadway Blue crease legends Gump Worsley, Eddie Giacomin, Chuck Rayner and Davey Kerr.
It all came together in the perfect year of 1994. Richter won the All-Star Game MVP, led the league with 42 regular-season wins and played just plain silly at times during the postseason to finally bring the Rangers their first Stanley Cup since 1940 when Kerr was in goal. The highlight of the 1994 postseason may well have been Richter's sprawling save of Pavel Bure on a penalty shot, but that heroic moment almost never happened. Richter gave up the game-tying goal to the Devils with 7.7 seconds left in regulation of Game 7 of the East finals, a goal that may have crushed lesser goalies. But Richter buckled down and played spectacularly, keeping a clean net until Stephane Matteau lit the lamp in the second overtime to send the Blueshirts to the finals.
Richter didn't redefine the position like Patrick Roy did with the butterfly style. He didn't need to build an addition on his house like Dominik Hasek for his Vezina Trophies. Nor did he dominate year after year. But Richter played the marquee position in the largest media market in North America at a high level for 14 years, and helped the Rangers end their 54-year Stanley Cup hex. That's the stuff of legends.
So where does he rank among the best American-born goalies of all time?
John Vanbiesbrouck tops the list of star-spangled netminders with 374 wins, while Tom Barrasso ranks second with 368. Richter is two good seasons behind Barrasso with 301, but he also played 111 fewer games (almost exactly two full seasons for a goalie) than Barrasso. And Beezer played 216 more games win just 73 more games than Richter, a total Richter surely could've approached if not for late-career ACL tears and concussions.
Vanbiesbrouck and Frank Brimsek are tied with 40 shutouts each, while Barrasso and Guy Hebert have 37 apiece, and former Blackhawks goalie Mike Karakas had 28. Richter ranks sixth with 24.
In goals-against average, Richter's Rangers replacement, Mike Dunham, tops the list at 2.63, followed by Hebert (2.81), Damian Rhodes (2.84) and then Richter (2.89). Any of those other three have a Stanley Cup on their resume?
Barrasso's legacy may be tainted a bit by his surly nature, while Beezer hurt himself with an unfortunate incident involving charges of racism with a player on his Sault Ste. Marie OHL team last spring. That leaves Richter, by virtue of his consistency of 14 seasons, to stand atop the pedestal as the Yankee doodle dandiest of them all.
While his exploits on Broadway made Gotham fans tingle with excitement, Richter also captivated a nation of hockey fans by donning the red, white and blue whenever USA Hockey called to ask. Richter played in three Olympics (1988, 1998 and 2002), but the high point of his international career was his MVP performance in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, where he posted a 5-1 record, a 2.43 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
Richter stopped 35 shots -- including an incredible 23 in the second period -- of the third and deciding game in Montreal, a 5-2 U.S. victory. The Americans' upset of the star-studded Canadian team that featured Paul Coffey, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier and Joe Sakic was especially sweet to Richter because of the raucous anti-American crowd at the Molson Center. For those U.S. hockey fans who didn't live in New York, it may be the lasting image they have of Richter.
But my indelible image of Richter comes from more than a decade earlier, when a baby-faced goaltender started for the college program that I lived and died with every Friday and Saturday from October through March.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I had the good fortune to watch Richter tend net for the Badgers for two seasons in the mid-'80s. Madtown Mike posted a 33-25-1 record with a 3.71 GAA in two seasons in Madison, and he paved the way for Curtis Joseph, Jim Carey and Duane Derksen. Some of Richter's teammates at Wisconsin included future NHLers John Byce, Tony Granato, Scott Mellanby, Paul Ranheim, Gary Shuchuk, Chris Tancill and Steve Tuttle. He spent just two seasons in Madison before leaving to train with Team USA for the 1988 Winter Olympics and then turning pro with the IHL Denver Rangers after the Calgary Games. As he advanced through his splendid NHL career, it was fun to watch a guy who I cheered for while growing up develop into one of the best goalies of my generation.
Richter's importance to the Rangers' organization also was underscored when Glen Sather announced that the Blueshirts will retire Richter's No. 35 sweater before their Feb. 4, 2004, game against the Minnesota Wild. This will make Richter just the third Ranger to have his number retired, joining Rod Gilbert (7) and Giacomin (1).
Many greats who donned the Rangers' sweater (Jean Ratelle, Andy Bathgate, Walt Tkaczuk, Ron Greschner, Steve Vickers and Vic Hadfield) haven't had their number retired. It's assumed that Brian Leetch and Mark Messier will be so honored once their careers come to an end. But it's a high honor to tell Richter on the day he announces his retirement that no one ever will wear his No. 35 sweater again.
Richter's stats never will put him in the first tier of netminders, but the quality and timing of some of his victories place him among a second tier behind Roy, Terry Sawchuk, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall, Ed Belfour, Grant Fuhr and Mike Vernon.
Richter's 14-year career ends with a 301-258-73 record, 24 shutouts and a 2.89 goals-against average in the regular season, but he stepped it up in the postseason with a 41-32 mark, nine shutouts and a 2.67 GAA. He was at his best when the spotlight was shining the brightest, something the people of the Big Apple have always appreciated -- from the heroics of Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, to the ultimate ignore-the-pain moment of Willis Reed limping back on to the court in the 1970 NBA Finals.
Richter may not have been the best at what he did, but his best was good enough for the die-hard sports fans of New York City, and that should say a lot about how good he was.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.