Exclusive: Rangers prospect Justin Richards dishes on his career and why he chose New York
Last month the Rangers announced the signing of a player few of us knew. It was Minnesota-Duluth forward Justin Richards. The 22-year old center who was undrafted will start his professional career next season. I spoke with the newest Ranger to ask about hockey and why he chose the Blueshirts.
As the son of current Tampa Bay Lightning asst coach Todd Richards, Justin has traveled around a lot as a kid. Born in Orlando, FL, the Richards family moved to Geneva when Justin was just 2 years old, where his dad finished his playing career in the Swiss National League. After a year, the family moved back to the United States and landed in Milwaukee, WI for the next 4 years before migrating east to Wilkes-Barre, followed by San Jose, CA and Stillwater, MN. They finally settled in Columbus, OH where the family has lived until his father Todd joined the Lightning organization in 2016. At the same time, Justin played his only season in the USHL for the Lincoln Stars in Nebraska. The last 3 years he was playing college hockey with the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Growing up in a hockey family
Justin doesn’t remember much from his dad’s playing days, but growing up in a hockey family certainly prepared him for the life and dream he is chasing right now. His first memories are from his dad coaching and being who he is, his dad has been beneficial to Justin getting to where he is today. “From being able to go into professional locker rooms at such a young age to receiving constructive criticism on every single game my dad could watch were just some of the things he has done for me.”. Justin has met some great players over the years through his dad coaching the San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Picking the Rangers
When the Rangers approached him, Richards was in Naples, FL, visiting family at their condo. It was the start of the quarantine, and it was a rough process for him. Going through something like that with your family, makes it a lot easier as you have people around you. “They left it up to me to decide where I wanted to go, but they were there to guide me through a few of the things that I had to consider when making my decision. When I told them where I wanted to go, they were so happy and excited for me and as a kid, that’s all I could’ve asked for”, the 22-year old said about the weeks leading up to him signing his entry level contract. He was offered a 2-year entry level contract, which is the standard term for a 22-year old. Richards had other options and it was an easy decision for him once the Rangers came knocking.
His favourite player growing up was Sidney Crosby. When Crosby took the league by storm, Richards was living in Wilkes-Barre, which has strong ties to the Penguins minor league affiliate. It was at that age that Richards really started to follow and care about hockey. Young Justin was enjoying watching Crosby, as most kids that age at that time did, of course. “Of course, Crosby is one of a kind and modeling my game after his is a very difficult thing to do”. Richards models his game after someone else he had the pleasure of meeting at a young age. “I would compare myself to two players in the league right now. The first one is Joe Pavelski. Joe is a very reliable player with a high hockey IQ. He is a 200 foot player which I feel like my best quality is.” The other is Anthony Cirelli.
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During his time in college, Justin Richards won 2 national championships with Minnesota-Duluth. Winning a championship is the greatest achievement in sports, regardless of what level you play at. During his freshman year, Richards did not expect to even get close to winning it all. “It was supposed to be a rebuild year as I was one of 10 freshman that year. I did not score a single goal that year, despite playing in all 44 games.” But Richards continues by saying he would take a national championship over any single goal, any single day. He would rather have a championship than a 20-goal season, which speaks volumes to how he views hockey and that all started with how he was brought up by his dad. His team got into the play offs over their archrivals Minnesota Golden Gophers. The team that helped them get to the final tournament by beating the Golden Gophers, Notre Dame, turned out to be the team they went on to beat in the finals.
The second year was different as the team had the so-called target on their back. As the reigning champions, they were no longer the underdog. Richards noticed a big difference in how opponents approached them, but it didn’t seem to matter. “It was weird, we just became a very different team the second half of the year and we just knew how to win and how to close out games“. They got another opportunity and they took advantage of it by winning it all back-to-back, becoming the first team to do so since Denver under George Gwozdecky in 2004 and 2005.
One question I always like to ask is about a player’s jersey number. But Richards is very outspoken. He could not care less what number he wears when he gets an opportunity to play for the Rangers. Growing up, he always wore number 16, until he got to the USHL with the Lincoln Stars and the number was taken by veteran Mike Gillespie. So he changed to the one closest to 16, which turned out to be number 19.
Richards is very active outside of hockey, and likes outdoor sports such as golf, tennis, swimming. His nickname shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s “Ritchie”. When will we see Richie in Rangers blue? Time will tell. But growing up in a hockey family, Justin certainly has the support he needs to get there and fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL. And maybe score a goal against a team with his dad behind the bench.
PS: I would like to thank Justin Richards for taking to time to sit down with me and giving me the opportunity to share this interview with our fans.