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Head coach Todd Richards

Harkness, Kyndell, Star Tribune

Nice-guy Richards' 'bag skate' turned year around

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • February 2, 2011 - 6:02 AM

Two interesting things have happened during this suddenly promising Wild season:

• The Wild has begun looking like a well-coached team.

• The Wild has begun looking like a well-coached team, and Todd Richards is still standing behind the bench.

The Wild beat Los Angeles in a shootout on Tuesday night at the X, improving its record to 13-6-1 in its past 20 games, and moving temporarily into the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference.

Last year -- Richards' first on the job -- he failed to produce a playoff team for an owner, Craig Leipold, who expects playoff teams.

Richards sometimes appeared too inexperienced or nice or unassuming for a job once manned by the legendary Jacques Lemaire. Then Richards' second team played poorly in the exhibition season, and on Oct. 16, the Wild lost 3-2 at home to Columbus, displaying little heart or grit. The Wild stood at 1-2-1 through four games.

The obvious question became: How long would Richards' last?

The coach countered with a question of his own: Just how long can you skate?

On Oct. 17, Richards lit into his team during a practice, forcing them to do battle drills, then ordering a "bag skate,'' meaning endless sprints and laps. Several players said it was one of the toughest practices of their lives, and Richards issued enough ugly language during that practice to qualify the Wild for the next HBO "24/7'' special.

The Wild won the next two games.

"That practice was critical,'' said Darby Hendrickson, the former Wild player now working as one of Richards' assistant coaches. "We had started poorly through the exhibition season. That was a time when Todd made a call, and the team responded.

"The key is, the team responded. If the team doesn't respond, then it's a whole different story.''

Richards had reached a point where he didn't care so much about the risks -- what happens if he challenges his team four games into the season and the players don't rally? -- as he did about the way the team's play reflected on his leadership.

To paraphrase an old saying about courage, a passive coach dies a thousand deaths, a stern coach only one.

"From an organization and a team standpoint, the message had to get to the guys that that's unacceptable,'' Richards said Tuesday morning.

"The one thing we can control every night is how we play and how hard we play.

"We're not going to be good every night. There are going to be nights when we're off, and as a coach and a former player, we all know that.

"The one thing you have to give is effort. We had a great effort in practice that day, and I think the message got through to the guys.''

Would he have been willing to take such a risk a year earlier?

"You know, looking back, it was one thing that maybe I could have addressed sooner that first year,'' Richards said. "I did do it later in the year. Without question, you look back as a coach and see areas where I could have been better, and things I should have done differently. That was one thing I took away from that season.''

This season, Richards has made three decisions that could have backfired.

He called for a bag skate after just four games. He began playing Martin Havlat more after his agent complained about the player's limited role. He pushed captain Mikko Koivu, in a closed-door meeting, to live up to his title.

If Richards is to be judged by his team's reaction to those moves, he shouldn't have to worry about job security for a while.

After the bag skate, the Wild won two in a row, including one over Vancouver.

After Havlat's reemergence, he transformed himself from disgruntled role player to All-Star.

After the meeting with Koivu, which followed a lifeless 3-1 loss at home to Ottawa, Koivu scored eight goals and 18 points in his next 19 games.

"I see Todd connecting with players, with people,'' Hendrickson said. "They understand where he's coming from and vice versa.

"I'm in a role where I'm listening more than speaking, and I see all this happening. There's a lot of confidence in him and what he's doing. I think in Year 2, you see it more consistently.''

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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