He is among the best American-born goalies ever. The award for the most outstanding goaltender in NCAA men’s hockey is named after him. Plus, he’s arguably the best netminder in the history of the New York Rangers. Mike Richter has gone down as a legend in Rangers, NHL, and international hockey history.
While Henrik Lundqvist has made a strong case for best Rangers’ goalie ever, Richter remains strongly in the conversation and has at least one trophy in his case that Lundqvist doesn’t: the Stanley Cup.
The Rise of Richter
Born in Abington, Pennsylvania, Richter played with the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers and Northwood School Prep, earning a spot on Team USA for the IIHF World Junior Championship. The United States didn’t medal in the tournament, and Richter didn’t have the best performance with an 8.36 goals against average (GAA) in three games. Still, his efforts from the season earned him a selection in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft, going 28th overall to the New York Rangers.
As with most goaltenders, he didn’t jump right into the NHL though. Instead, he headed to the NCAA, playing for the University of Wisconsin. He spent two years there, winning WCHA Rookie of the year in his first season and being named to the WCHA Second All-Star Team in his second. In 1986, he played in the World Juniors again and helped the team to a bronze medal.
After the NCAA, Richter spent just over two seasons in the International Hockey League, playing with the Colorado/Denver Rangers and then the Flint Spirits. He got the call up to the NHL in the 1989 NHL Playoffs, playing one game for the Rangers, and the legendary NHL career began.
Richter and the Rangers
Richter lost that one playoff game, but he earned his spot with the Rangers. He backed up John Vanbiesbrouck in his rookie season, playing 23 games and another six in the playoffs. In the next few seasons, he split games with the Rangers’ veteran, before the Vanbiesbrouck was sent to the Vancouver Cancucks (and then selected by the Florida Panthers in the Expansion Draft). Richter was handed the reins.
Related: Top 3 All-Time Rangers Goalies
Richter responded well to being given the starting job, as he came out with a career-best season – one that has gone down as legend for Rangers fans. In the regular season, he played 68 games, putting winning a career-high and Rangers’ record (and NHL high that season) 42 wins, losing just 12 games and tying six.
He added five shutouts in the season while sporting a 2.57 GAA and .910 save percentage (SV%). He participated in his second NHL All-Star Game and was named MVP of the game.
It can’t be discounted how Richter carried the pressure of a city and the burden of a franchise. Yes, Mark Messier was the captain and backed up his guarantees, Brian Leetch was outstanding and earned the Conn Smythe Trophy and Adam Graves posted 52-goals, but Richter was focused and locked in like no other that season – and that continued into the playoffs.
Ricky was one of those guys. He was all athleticism. He was so talented. All talent. Just the brilliancy of Mike Richter… Ricky’s athleticism was just so extreme. My gosh. And his compete level. Is that the element that is just so spectacular?
Glenn Healy, Richter’s goaltender partner in 1993-94 (from: “‘Just play him honest’: 25 years later, Mike Richter and others reflect on ‘The Save’” – The Athletic – June 7, 2019)
Richter backstopped the team throughout the playoffs, leading all goalies with 16 wins and four shutouts en route to ending a 54-year Stanley Cup drought and bringing the Stanley Cup back to New York.
As he did in the All-Star Game, Richter made a signature, standout stop on a Pavel Bure penalty shot, during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks. Then in Game 7, in New York, Richter made 28 saves, preserving a 3-2 cup-clinching victory.
The save by Michael on the penalty shot was incredible. It was huge for us. I can still remember the players jumping up and down on the bench when he did make the stop … against one of the greatest goal-scorers ever.
Mike Keenan, Rangers coach in 1993-84
After this great season, Richter remained with the Rangers for the duration of his career. He helped the Rangers to the playoffs three other occasions and played large portions of the season, including a career-high 71 games in 1997-98. He was one of the top goaltenders throughout the 1990s and was the top American netminder.
Richter & Retirement
Near the end of his career, injuries started catching up with Richter. This included knee injuries (MCL and ACL injuries) and concussions. Plus, the Rangers were coming down from their success, resulting in mediocre teams. In 2003, he played just 13 games and suffered a skull fracture and another concussion, deciding to call it a career.
Related: Best NHL Goalies of the 1990s
Richter retired re-writing the Rangers record book, finishing with the most games played (666) and the most wins (301) in Rangers history. He was the first Rangers goaltender to hit the 300-win mark. While Lundqvist has passed both of those marks, there’s no questioning Richter’s impact for the Rangers. In 2004, Richter’s No. 35 was raised to the rafters at Madison Square Garden and he became the third player in franchise history to earn the honour.
In terms of American-born goalies, he’s one of the best all-time. He is in the top five for both games played and wins, and was a part of some of the best American teams that USA Hockey has assembled.
When one thinks of a United States hockey goalie, who doesn’t picture the red, white and blue mask and the Statue of Liberty which adorned Richter’s mask?
After the two World Juniors, Richter was a fixture for Team USA. He backstopped the United States in three Olympics, three World Championships, the 1991 Canada Cup, and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
Related: USA Hockey’s Second Biggest Victory
At the Olympics, the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City resulted in Richter’s lone Olympic medal, winning a silver medal against Canada. He went 2-1-1 through the Games, putting up a very impressive .932 SV% and was named to the Olympic All-Star Team. He also helped the USA finish second in the Canada Cup, but his best performance came at the World Cup of Hockey.
Richter led Team USA in the event to a gold medal, winning Tournament MVP after going 4-2-0 with a 2.43 GAA and a .923 SV%. Richter is one of 10 Americans to play in at least three Olympic Games.
Mike Richter: A Rangers’ Legend
For his career, Richter was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008. That same year, he was awarded the Lester Patrick Award for his contributions to hockey in the United States. In 2014, he was inducted into the Philadelphia Hockey Hall of Fame and had the Mike Richter Award named after him, recognizing the top NCAA goaltender each season.
With his success in the NHL and on the international stage, is an induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame next?
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