Richter's career sets a new standard
Mike Richter should be regarded as the best U.S.-born goalie -- ever.
It's not as if he's got a lot of competition. This isn't one of those debates where you can come up with eight names and credible arguments for every one of them.
The only other bona fide candidate is Tom Barrasso. In fact, the data probably makes a better case for him, with his two Stanley Cup rings, three berths on the postseason first- or second-team All-Star teams, and 369 career regular-season victories.
And how's this for a twist? As a teenaged rookie with the Sabres, he shared the Jennings Trophy in 1984 with Canadian Bob Sauve, whose son Phil was born in Buffalo during the 1979-80 season and thus hits the statistics as American-born as he joins the Colorado Avalanche as one of Patrick Roy's heirs apparent.
So Phil Sauve and Ryan Miller and Rick DiPietro don't have particularly high American-born standards to use -- if they're so inclined -- as part of their motivation in the early stages of their careers. Citing Mike Dunham, Richter's Ranger successor, and journeyman Robert Esche as role models, in other words, wouldn't exactly be setting the crossbar high.
But they could do a lot worse than to emulate Richter, whose work ethic, professionalism and perseverance through a career recently plagued by injuries, and ultimately cut short by concussions, was exemplary. "He's such a great, great guy," said Colorado coach Tony Granato, a Richter teammate at Wisconsin, with the 1988 Olympic team and also with the Rangers. "He's a very good friend and he's a genuine first-class, wonderful person."
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That says something. He was a great goaltender and also a great teammate in a sport in which the two often don't go together.
Plus, the way the NHL has evolved, there's nothing that says this has to be limited to only NHL competition, and Richter's three Olympic appearances and his spectacular play in the 1996 World Cup, especially in the deciding Game 3 in Montreal, deserve to come into play. As least as footnotes to the main argument. It wasn't his fault that most of the U.S. media ignored the '96 World Cup, but he stole Game 3 from the Canadians -- and thus a title.
Maybe our concentration on the Rangers' '94 championship, in which Richter shut down the Canucks in the deciding final minutes, and the unquestionable New York provincialism that somehow seeps through the U.S. media (New York team wins; 27 books hit the shelves and are on the bargain book table in three months) might have elevated that title to a magical status it doesn't quite deserve.
But Richter's body of work has been worth saluting. As the best career ever for a U.S.-born goalie.
If you want to go back a ways, you could pound the table on behalf of Frank "Mr. Zero" Brimsek, whose nickname presumably had nothing to do with his IQ. In nine seasons with Boston and one with Chicago from 1939-50, the Eveleth, Minn., native had 252 wins, 40 shutouts and a 2.70 goals-against average. He also was on two Stanley Cup winners in the seven- and six-team league of the time, and won the Vezina Trophy twice. He even missed two seasons for military service during World War II.
But the choice here is Richter.
He had a left wing mentality in the crease. That's far from unprecedented, of course, but it was a little different among the eccentric corps of men playing the position. Before games, it was wise to take care walking around the halls on the rink levels, because every once in a while, Richter would either charge past or charge toward you, taking his pregame run.
And then the injuries started to hit. When he suffered the torn anterior cruciate ligaments in each knee in consecutive seasons, he could have had reason to mope and lament his fate. But he showed a gritty determination to return. He was as determined to return as he was in facing breakaways, partial breakaways or even the unattended shooter after none of the Blueshirts -- whether wearing blue or white that night -- bothered to pay any attention in their own zone. But then came the fractured skull and concussion, plus the post-concussion syndrome that even gave him problems away from the ice.
It's too bad that he's not able to leave on his terms. The way he takes care of himself in terms of conditioning, he could have played until he was 39, or through the 2005-06 season. No sweat. Without the major injuries (and depending on the fate of the 2004-05 season), he could have approached 400 victories, leaving him ahead of both Barrasso and John Vanbiesbrouck, his one-time Rangers teammate who -- because of the nature of the competition -- was the rare man who didn't get along with Richter. And then you take into account the both rotten and underachieving nature of the Rangers in the later stages of his career, and he deserves to be cut some slack.
That's a bit of irony, as well. Richter is one of the goaltenders who inspires both affection and faith from his teammates, but the Rangers too often played in front of him as if they couldn't stand him.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."