Richards was team’s ‘steel man’
Former Buckeye played in all but 2 SteelHound games
Editor’s note: The Youngstown SteelHounds were part of the Mahoning Valley sports scene for three seasons (2005-08) as part of the Central Hockey League. This is one in a series of stories about the minor league hockey franchise written by Tribune Chronicle / Vindicator sports reporter Brian Yauger as part of his journalism senior project at Youngstown State University. The stories will run periodically in the Tribune / Vindicator sports pages over the next few weeks.
Of all the players to suit up for the SteelHounds, only three were a part of the team for all three of its seasons.
In those three seasons, forward Chris Richards played in 200 of the team’s 202 games, missing two regular season games during the 2006-07 season.
Youngstown’s iron man, or more aptly, “steel man,” finished as the club’s all-time leader in games played, assists and points, and was a two-time all-star and an all-league selection in 2007.
Getting to the level of a Central Hockey League star wasn’t easy, however. Many of Canada’s top hockey talents find themselves drafted into a major junior league. Despite success in Junior B, the third level of Canadian junior leagues, Richards never got a sniff from any of the three major junior leagues.
“I was never an option for junior,” Richards said. “I was too small. I was an afterthought to almost everybody. Ohio State took a chance on me. First of all, my junior team took a chance on me and then I did well. I guess you can’t not pay attention when you’re one of the top guys in the league for two years.
“The coach at Ohio State (John Markell) was from my hometown and we bumped into each other after my first year of junior. I made sure I had contact with them and it obviously worked out for me.”
It didn’t just work out for Richards. When the Buckeyes brought on Richards for the 1995-96 season, they were bringing on one of the team’s top scorers and a key piece in Ohio State’s Frozen Four team. Richards scored 52 points during the 1997-98 season to help guide the Buckeyes to their first Frozen Four in school history.
Making the Frozen Four in 1998 is one of Richards’ most lasting memories.
“It’s still the deepest memory I have about hockey,” he said. “The brothership and the family environment you get around a college … it was a special run. When you win in overtime, that’s pretty memorable.”
After graduating, Richards went overseas to get his first taste of professional hockey. His first stop was with ERC Harfurt, a team in the German third division. In that season, Richards tallied 77 points in 47 games and was enjoying having a real paycheck for the first time.
“It’s the first time I had money,” Richards said. “Money and German beer, it was great, fantastic. It was fun.”
In addition to the beer and having money, playing in Germany gave Richards a chance to adjust to the pro game after four years in college.
“It brought the offensive confidence that college takes from you because college is so defensive,” he said. “It’s a grind. Everything is so low-scoring. When I went there (Germany) it was a little more high-flying and I was able to bring back some of that scoring touch that I missed through my college years.
“I was able to get back on track and that led into the pro career after that which just gave you that confidence of knowing what to do around the net when you need to.”
After the season ended in Germany, Richards returned to the United States and signed with the Indianapolis Ice of the Central Hockey League. He went on to bounce around the league over the next five seasons, playing for the Macon Whoopee, three seasons with the New Mexico Scorpions and with the Austin Ice Bats.
While he was familiar with the state of Ohio during his time in Columbus, Richards didn’t know what to expect with the SteelHounds and the city of Youngstown. All he knew was that he wanted a fresh start after spending the last five winters in the south.
“I asked for a trade when I was in Austin, Texas, because I wanted to get back to winter,” Richards said. “I wanted to be in hockey weather and being a rust belt area bodes well for focusing on hockey.
“You live in the south and playing hockey is a little harder to show up to the rink in flip flops rather than with your beanie on. When you show up to the rink and it’s cold, it’s the feeling that I grew up with playing on outdoor rinks and stuff. That’s what I wanted to bring back and it brought it all back and made that focus a lot easier.”
Before Richards was able to show up to the cold, he found his footing on the team’s season-opening road trip. In the franchise’s first game — in Tulsa, Oklahoma — Richards played a part in all three SteelHound goals, with a goal and two assists in a 3-2 win over the Oilers.
He quickly found chemistry with winger Jeff Christian as the two became the deadliest offensive threat in the CHL. In the two years they played together, they combined for 199 points in the 2005-06 season and 222 in the 2006-07 season, after which both players were named to the all-CHL team.
Christian was named the league MVP but fought against it, saying Richards deserved as much credit as he did.
“I specifically remember saying to the league, ‘Don’t name me MVP, name Chris Richards and I co-MVP because I couldn’t have done it without him,’ “ Christian said. “We had such great chemistry and I just felt it. He deserved it just as much as I did, but they didn’t, and Chris didn’t get the recognition that he should have.”
Going into the 2007-08 season, Christian was traded and Richards had to fill the role held by the former captain. As the new captain, Richards also was named a player/coach, but his role didn’t change much in the locker room. He just took on a larger presence.
“It was picking up a captain role,” Richards said. “Killer (SteelHounds coach Kevin Kaminski) and I bounced more off each other that year than I would have in the past years, but that was the basics of it. You’re becoming a bigger leader, a bigger presence in the room when needed and that’s the only difference. It wasn’t a huge adjustment.”
The now Richards-led SteelHounds went on to have their best season of the team’s existence, posting a 39-20-5 (83 points) record. Unfortunately, the SteelHounds’ season ended in heartbreak as the team went on to lose 1-0 in the first round of the playoffs, and that wound up being the franchise’s final game.
Right before the team officially folded, Richards was preparing to go to England to play with the Nottingham Panthers, but backed out at the last minute and decided to stay stateside, opting to sign with the Corpus Christi IceRays.
After two seasons with the IceRays, Richards reunited with Kaminski and Christian for one last ride, this time with the once-rival Mississippi Riverkings.
“Corpus Christi went to junior (league) so I was like, if I’m going to do one last year, I want to go back with the two guys that had made hockey really fun again,” Richards said.
Unfortunately for Richards, the reunion didn’t last long.
“It worked out to be a terrible year,” Richards said. “Jeff got traded and Killer got fired so it ended up being that I’m the only guy left there and that wasn’t the purpose of why I went there.”
That led Richards to decide to call it a career. Upon retiring, he returned to Ohio and settled in Boardman.
“We wanted to get closer to family and we knew the area,” Richards said. “We met some good people here and the cost of living is fantastic. So I came here to find a job and here we are.”
Richards is a service manager at Cintas and is the coach for the Youngstown Phantoms youth team. Richards spent five years coaching the Canfield High School hockey team, leading them to a program-high 55 wins over his tenure, but stepped down before this past season to focus on the Phantoms.
“I’m too busy with my son’s team,” he said.
Richards will forever be known as an all-time player with the SteelHounds, where he had his three best statistical seasons as a part of the team.
While being “too small” for scouts in the ’90s, Richards had himself a pretty big career at the CHL level and will always be a hockey legend in the city of Youngstown.