It all started in an outdoor hockey league when Luke Richardson, retired 21-year National Hockey League veteran, was just five years old.
“I remember that it was so cold, I had to bring a mat,” Richardson recalled, “because when you changed shifts, you would sit in a snowbank.”
As you can imagine, growing up in Ottawa, Ontario, can be quite the chilly experience, and being a young kid, Richardson was stuck with those early Saturday morning time slots.
At that age, Richardson not only adored the sport of hockey, but he also had a front row seat to watching his favorite player during his childhood: his dad.
“My dad played junior hockey and some semi pro, and then he played senior hockey, which was big back then,” Richardson said. “So I used to love watching him play, and he was noticeably good. He was always a big influence all the way through my career.”
His father lived away from home during his junior career, and since there were only six NHL teams at the time, the competition was rough. So, like a majority of the players at that time, he decided to come home, start a construction business, and raise a family. By the time Luke reached his teenage years, the Richardson family had realized his professional potential.
“Again, my dad was a pretty big influence, so he helped guide me and tell me what was probably going to happen in the next few years,” said Richardson. “I remember he didn’t want to get me a new pair of gloves because he said, ‘you’re gonna get a new pair of gloves next year with the team you play for.’”
At about age 13, Richardson noticed he was physically big for his age, and when the skating and coordination started to catch up to him, his confidence kicked in as well.
“And when the confidence comes in, then you’re really close in sports,” he added.
During his second year of juniors, Richardson began creeping up the rankings, and as the draft approached, he knew he was up high.
“We went to the draft knowing the rankings, and I got drafted through Toronto in the first round,” Richardson said. “It was pretty exciting at the time because growing up in Ottawa, there were no Senators, and I was more of a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.”
And there’s no doubt that he remembers every detail about his first moments on NHL ice.
“It was in Chicago Stadium, which is probably the best sports experience I think anybody could ever have. It’s so loud, from the first note of the National Anthem,” reminisced Richardson. “There were 21,000 people there screaming when they played the National Anthem with the organ. My ears were ringing, and they always watched the rookies, so I just got chills. It was pretty exciting.”
“We won that game,” he continued, “but to have that experience for my first NHL game – I don’t know if you could have a better one.”
In order to have the career Richardson had, which included 35 goals, 166 assists, and 2,055 penalty minutes through 1,417 games as a defenseman, he didn’t allow distractions.
“I had my fun, but when it came to preparing for the game and playing the game, I took complete professionalism and took it very serious,” Richardson said. “Sometimes the guys would joke around and call me ‘Luke Serious’ instead of just Luke, and I would just kinda growl and look at them sternly. They would have fun with it, but they stayed an arm’s length away.”
Richardson entered the prime of his career during his time with the Philadelphia Flyers from 1997-2002 and appeared in the playoffs in three of his seasons there.
“I matured as a hockey player at the right time getting there because it’s a tough place to play. They want to win, and they’re hard on the players if they don’t,” said Richardson, who’s physical game fit the Flyers’ style perfectly. “I played for five years there, and I found that those were probably my top years in the NHL.”
While every season has ups and downs, Richardson only carries the highest of highs with him in his memory bank from Philadelphia, including playing for “the best sports fans, probably in North America.”
“When people ask me which was the best stop, I really enjoyed them all, but I think hockey and living and everything combined, I really enjoyed Philly,” recalled Richardson, “just because I fit the mold, and they fit me. It was a good match.”
Throughout his career, his typical game day protocol included relaxing in the quiet of his house and taking those infamous pre-game naps, which he still wishes were a part of his daily routine in his second season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators.
“I miss the pre-game naps selfishly. I try to sneak one in every once in a while, but it’s not as long,” he continued. “But I was pretty serious as a player, and I’m a quiet person when I’m serious, but I let it all out in the game. I wanted to be the best that I could be.”
“And after the game, I was generally fine. I never carried it too much,” explained Richardson. “You carry it if you have a good game or bad game a little bit, but I think after the games I was pretty okay with friends or whatever. I think you have to be. You have to be human and normal, but before the game, maybe I was a little bit inhuman.”
Richardson now spends his days preparing the top prospects of the Ottawa Senators for the next level, but his routine hasn’t changed too much from his playing days in the early stages of his coaching career.
“I still have a little bit of player in me and attack the day the same way. I get up in the morning and like to have a workout in early so I feel energized for the day,” he explained. “I try to do that so that I’m on for the players.”
After a healthy breakfast, he then heads home, tries to sneak in a nap, and comes back dressed in a nice suit to present himself well to his team.
“So they’re proud that that’s their coach, and he doesn’t look like he’s dressed 20 years out of date or something like that,” he emphasized. “If I can show them anything in preparing for game days, I try and show them that acting, dressing, and behaving well off the ice translate well on your personality, and that’s going to translate on the ice, too.”
There are still some days, however, when he thinks he can still get out there and play.
“I put the equipment on for fun one day – maybe one period,” he joked. “Now we’re down to one period. The guys go through a lot, and because I did it, I appreciate what they put in and their effort.”
And while he still believes coaching is the next best thing, there are plenty of moments throughout a season that make the grind from behind the bench worth it.
“I really enjoy when a player goes up to the NHL and you give him that good news, and you congratulate them and tell them good luck,” Richardson said. “Then you watch and see them up there. That is the best. It’s fun to tell them to go up, but when they succeed up here, that’s even better.”
Helping his players reach the next level includes assisting them in battling the everyday struggles of being a young, inexperienced professional athlete, such as adopting demanding routines and keeping a high level of confidence.
“At our level right now in Binghamton, I think the biggest struggle is doing it every day and being your best every day. It takes a couple of years to learn it, so it’s tough to get right off the hop,” he said. “And even if you get it one day, and you think you’ve got it, you’re still young and immature and growing into yourself as a person, let alone an athlete. I think a pro athlete is consistent, and consistency is the hardest part.”
His tenured career has also granted him the ability to know exactly what to say to his players in tough situations.
“It’s hard to have and keep the confidence level all the time, too,” Richardson continued. “Hockey is a fast game made off mistakes, and usually the team that makes the least wins, but nobody is perfect. If you can get mentally stronger quicker, you’re gonna be on the higher end of it.”
“If you carry the regrets from today into tomorrow instead of the lessons that we learn and put them into tomorrow, you’re hurting yourself going forward,” he said. “No matter if it was a good shift or a bad shift, good game or a bad game, the next shift or the next game is the most important one, whether you won or lost the last one.”
Now, wouldn’t it be shocking to find out that such a wise hockey mind actually has a regret?
“Still regret to this day that I didn’t play high school football, just for the experience. I think it would’ve been a great spiritual thing, playing for my high school,” recalled Richardson. “I wanted to play for Ottawa because my dad played both high school hockey and football, but it was different back then, and my dad pointed out that it was my draft year for the OHL, which is juniors. If I got hurt, I was taking a risk, so I weighed the pros and cons and reluctantly didn’t play, but it turned out okay.”
With a lifetime of experience in professional hockey, Richardson continues to leave his mark on the game and his hometown community of Ottawa.
“I’m here to give all my experiences to the guys,” Richardson concluded. “I never thought I’d play there or be involved with the organization, but it ended up being so. I just try to raise them to win and be a good example all the time.”