How Richardson's circuitous journey prepared him to step in for Canadiens

Watch as Canadiens' Luke Richardson speaks to the media following Game 6 about how proud he is of the team and how they aren't done yet in their quest for the Stanley Cup.

Hockey rivers flow freely through Ontario and Quebec.

Historically, they often traversed Peterborough, Ont., where such Montreal Canadiens luminaries as Scotty Bowman and Bob Gainey cut their teeth in the game. Even Eric Staal learned his two-way playing centre for the OHL's Peterborough Petes. Through a fourth-line role, Staal’s leadership and experience alongside Peterborough native Corey Perry have helped provide the surging Habs with the calm and resolve in the room that Carey Price provides in the crease.

Around the time Staal was born in Thunder Bay in the fall of 1984, a teenager from Ottawa named Luke Richardson was trying to figure out his place in the game. Today, of course, that place is behind the bench of the Canadiens, as “interim to the interim” head coach as Richardson puts it.

With Dominique Ducharme still in quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test, Richardson will continue as acting head coach as the surging Canadiens begin their first trip to a Stanley Cup Final since 1993.

Somehow it feels pre-ordained. One of the Richardson family’s favourite photos is of a young Luke, about five years old, wearing a Canadiens sweater. The sweater was the pride of Luke’s late mother, Sally, who died in 2019.

“It’s almost like she knew,” says Stephanie Richardson, Luke’s wife, about that photo and Habs sweater. “She always liked that picture, as if she knew Luke would have a chance one day to be involved with this organization. What an honour it is to be a part of it.”

Young Luke Richardson could not have foreseen such a wild, circuitous journey back to the Habs as a 52-year-old coach. Yet, that calm, commanding presence we see behind the bench was what coaches noted of Richardson the player — a big, robust defenceman at 6-4. He had played his midget hockey at Ottawa West, and the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the CJHL invited Richardson, then 15, to play for them in 1984-85. (Pembroke, of course, was the launching pad for current Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe).

In what would turn out to be one of the best decisions of his life, Richardson left the Lumber Kings after six games.

“It didn’t work out,” Richardson told me years ago, when he was finishing out his 21-year NHL career with the Ottawa Senators. “They weren’t happy that I didn’t want to stay, but I was just sitting on the bench. Pembroke always played their top ten players. They had to have a winner, playing in the Ottawa Valley. So, my dad talked them into giving me my release, as long as I agreed to come home and play Jr. B only. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

As it happened, Glen Richardson, Luke’s father, was general manager of the Jr. B Ottawa West Golden Knights in those days and Richardson blossomed with the Knights.

A young scout for Peterborough by the name of Jacques Martin took note of this strapping defenceman who put up 31 points in 35 games and convinced the Petes to select him in the second round of the 1985 OHL draft.

Martin would go on to coach the Ottawa Senators to the Eastern Conference Final in 2003 and took the Habs there in 2010.

Richardson, meanwhile, grew his overall game in Peterborough to become the seventh overall draft choice of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1987. A career spanning 21 seasons and 1,417 games saw him play with six organizations, including two stints with the Leafs. Throughout, he was a tough, defensive stalwart.

From his final season in 2008-09 with Ottawa, Richardson stepped right into an assistant’s job with the Senators. For the next several years, including three as an NHL assistant and four as AHL head coach with the Binghamton Senators, it was assumed Richardson was being groomed to become the next head coach in Ottawa, but it never quite worked out.

As Richardson — and the rest of us — were reminded when Ducharme had to step away due to COVID-19, timing is everything in the coaching world.

After three years as a Senators assistant when his playing career ended, Richardson took the head coaching job in Binghamton to round out his coaching resume. Then-Senators general manager Bryan Murray was like an uncle to Luke. Murray had played senior hockey with Luke’s father, and even coached Glen Richardson with the Shawville Pontiacs, Murray’s hometown team.

The assumption was that Richardson would spend two or three years in Binghamton and jump to Ottawa when the time was right. It was shaping up that way — though he had a young group, Richardson led the 2012-13 B-Sens to a 44-24-1-7 record, earning Richardson a spot behind the bench at the AHL all-star game. A year later, Richardson directed Binghamton to first place in the division with a 44-24-3-5 record.

With an AHL contract through 2014-15 with Binghamton, Richardson was considered for the head coaching job in Ottawa in December of 2014 when Paul MacLean was fired. The job went instead to Dave Cameron, MacLean’s assistant and a former B-Sens head coach.

“Luke was certainly a consideration,” Murray said at the time. “Luke is very happy right now in Binghamton. He’s got a daughter (Morgan) at Cornell and wants to focus on that at this moment — I think that’s fair of Luke to state that back to us. So, Dave was the other guy in line.”

When he wasn’t considered for a head coaching job in Ottawa in 2016, with Guy Boucher getting the gig, Richardson accepted an invitation to coach Canada at the Spengler Cup and the Canadians won gold.

He spent 2017-18 as an assistant with the New York Islanders before joining the Canadiens in 2018, to coach the defence corps.

The poise and defence-first posture of the Canadiens in these playoffs matches the style of Richardson as a player and as a coach, although it must be said that Ducharme remains in constant contact with the team via Zoom and is a strong presence behind the scenes.

Behind the bench, Richardson has made all the right moves. More than anything, the big man’s strikingly calm demeanour has allowed players to carry on despite the loss of their head coach at the most important time of the season.

“Luke Richardson acts and speaks as if he has been an NHL head coach since the days of the Rocket,” wrote Roy MacGregor in the Saturday Globe and Mail.

“He’s always been just a very calm, strong human being,” wife Stephanie says from inside the Canadiens’ bubble in Montreal. “Even though he hasn’t been an NHL head coach, Luke has been in the AHL and played all those games, so it’s nothing new, really.”

Ducharme took over from Claude Julien after the Habs started their year 9-5-4. The Canadiens stumbled down the stretch and were the 18th ranked team in the post-season, 23 points behind the second-place Vegas Knights.

Montreal’s stunning run has upset favoured teams and "expert" playoff pool picks round by round — first Toronto, after trailing 3-1 in the series, then Winnipeg and then Vegas — the latter series putting to bed the notion that the North Division was weakest of the newly formed divisions.

With Ducharme expected to be in quarantine until Game 3 of the series, Richardson will remain the acting head coach as Montreal tackles the defending champion Lighting in a Stanley Cup Final beginning Monday in Tampa Bay.

Tragic turns of events

A couple of dramatic life events would shape Richardson’s professional career. The first took place in November of 2010 when Luke and wife Stephanie lost their younger daughter, Daron, to suicide. She was just 14.

Within four months, the Richardsons had helped launch the Do It For Daron (DIFD) initiative, both to honour Daron’s name but also to help other young people struggling with mental health issues. The Royal Ottawa Hospital Foundation and Ottawa Senators Foundation spearheaded the campaign.

To date, the DIFD program has raised more than $5 million for mental health programs in Canada and beyond while helping to save countless lives.

“What a testimony to our hockey community,” Stephanie Richardson says. “Right from the beginning there was a need and they are just a strong, compassionate, thoughtful group of people. I think hockey breeds that.”

Following his first win as an acting NHL head coach, in Game 3 against Vegas in overtime, Richardson tapped the DIFD pin on his lapel and blew a kiss up to the heavens. It was a salute to Daron, to let her know she was part of this special moment, part of the family’s long journey.

In 2018, Stephanie and Luke were awarded the Meritorious Service Cross by Canada’s Governor General for their work.

“My wife and myself, everywhere we go we look forward to spreading the message, especially for youth and youth mental health,” Richardson said, when he was hired by the Habs as an assistant coach in 2018.

The loss of Daron, Richardson said, “was something that’s never going to go away in my life and we just thought — if it’s not going away, we might as well do something about it.”

At each of their hockey stops, Luke and Stephanie have been supported by players, coaches and fans.

Even Olympic heroes have taken notice.

At a race in Gatineau in May of 2012, Olympic cycling and speed skating star Clara Hughes stood on the podium and blew a kiss to Stephanie and Luke, just before spraying her Specialized-Lululemon teammates with champagne.

Hughes had just won the Grand Prix Cycliste de Gatineau time trial and wore a purple wristband throughout in Daron’s honour.

“I kept looking at this purple bracelet,” Hughes said. “I’m looking down and saying: C’mon, Clara, Go! As hard as you can!’”

Hughes has publicly shared her own battles with mental health issues.

The other life event that impacted Richardson’s time in Ottawa was the decline of his mentor, Bryan Murray. Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014, Murray stepped down as GM of the Senators in 2016. That was the same year Ottawa was looking for a head coach. It would be Pierre Dorion’s first hire as the new GM. Richardson, who had already declared he would not return to Binghamton to coach, was not considered for the Senators NHL job at that time. Murray passed away in the summer of 2017.

The previous winter, Richardson took up an offer to coach Canada’s Spengler Cup team in December of 2016 and the Canadians took home the gold.

“Myself, I’ve been through pretty much every scenario other than probably getting to the finals in the Stanley Cup in this league,” Richardson said, this past week. “I think coaching in the minors helps. I had four years there of running a bench and I think that for me has really given me a lot of help. And then Sean Burke had me over for the Spengler Cup as the head coach as well.”

As these things go and the hockey rivers flow, Burke is today working with Richardson as the Habs goalie coach.

Now that the Canadiens ARE in the Cup final, Richardson can scratch that one off his list.

“I’m just happy for the guys, and so happy to see them with that trophy (the Clarence Campbell Bowl) at centre ice,” Richardson says. “And I’m looking forward to seeing them with the next one.”

Regardless of what happens now, Richardson’s cool work under pressure behind the Montreal bench has surely put him on the NHL radar for future head coaching opportunities.

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