At 24, Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers is one of the youngest captains in the NHL. He's also likely one of the only captains that's been featured in photos on sports gossip Web sites for crashing a frat party this season.
"My friends back home said something to me [about those]," he said with a laugh.
"It's part of being 24 or 23 years old. It's gonna happen, and it's obviously something that [you're] not wanting to be out there. But as long as they're not pictures that are degrading us," he said.
"I mean, we don't mind going out to dinner and taking pictures with people that want them. It's Philadelphia, they're big sports fans."
They're also demanding sports fans, and Richards has proven to be up to the challenge that comes with wearing the 'C' for the orange and black. He has 23 goals and 61 points, good for second on the Flyers; his strong two-way game at center has put him in contention for the Selke Trophy; and his maturation as a leader has been one of the reasons the Flyers are contending in the Eastern Conference this season.
Richards was asked at the end of last season about the captaincy but declined to discuss it out of respect to Jason Smith, the veteran defenseman who captained the Flyers last year. Once Smith moved on to the Ottawa Senators, Richards ascended to the captaincy after Coach John Stevens and GM Paul Holmgren agreed he was ready:
"It is something John and I had talked about over the course of the summer time," said Holmgren. "John has spent a great deal of time with Mike just to make sure that he is ready for this. I spent some time with Mike since he has been back in town, and we are positive it's the right time to do this with Mike. We look forward to him being the leader of the Flyers for many years to come."
"I just think Mike Richards is a player that has all the characteristics we want on our team," added Stevens. "We want a guy out there, that when we see him playing, he is representative of the identity of our hockey team. I think Mike is all of that."
Indeed, Richards's play is symbolic of the tenacious and tough persona of this Flyers team. He never quits on a play, and swarms the net with the best of them. He's dropped the gloves four times this season, while hounding opponents like Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in head-to-head matchups.
"You try to make it as uncomfortable as much as possible for them," he said.
That attitude, and his effective play on the defensive end, have made him a Selke contender in the eyes of many.
"I've never heard that before. First time," he said with a shrug. "I don't know ... it's something you take pride in, being a good two-way player. People kind of said that to me in junior hockey, and as a forward you have to play in both ends of the rink."
"The month of November, they were unbelievable. One of the best lines in hockey," said Stevens. "Then they cooled off a little bit. They were pressing too much. Now, they've simplified: Moving the puck a little quicker, making good decisions with it."
The nearly month-long stretch that saw the Flyers' top line falter isn't a mystery to Richards, in hindsight.
"We get in trouble when we try to do too much with the puck. Try to make plays at the blue-lines. Maybe our confidence is too high sometimes where we think that we can do things and we shouldn't be doing them," he said. "Lately, we've been keeping it simple."
Whatever the approach, it's worked for Richards, who's been one of the best players in hockey in the last month. He has 17 points in his last 12 games, including a five-point effort against the Buffalo Sabres and his third career three-on-five shorthanded goal against the New York Rangers.
On the ice, Richards is a born leader; it's off the ice that the first-year captain continues to mature in the role.
"It's been interesting," he said. "It's something where you obviously keep learning. I'm sure people who have been doing it for 20 years are still learning. It's nice to have [Kimmo Timonen] and [Danny Briere], who have been captains on different teams ... Gags, who has been around for a while. We're still learning, but it's still pretty smooth so far."
Has he had to go down the Evgeni Malkin bribery path to motivate his team yet?
"This team doesn't really need to do that. We work together. Everyone's going to get up for games anyway," he said.
Captains all have different approaches in motivating their teams. In Richards's case, his most memorably vocal moments this year have come through the media, when he was critical of NHL officials for targeting the Flyers based on reputation:
"It's been like that even since I got here so we've got to expect to be shorthanded more often than not," said captain Mike Richards, who has been with the team since 2005. "Maybe it's the style of our play or the reputation we have because I can remember when we had more power plays than penalty kills. We're always taking more penalties than we get."
"I'm not saying we don't deserve our penalties, I'm saying there are definitely calls on the other side that might be called differently," Richards said. "But we're the Flyers, so you have to just accept that it is what it is."
Winger Scott Hartnell said that Richards doesn't bring the decibels as a leader in the locker room. "Not a real vocal guy, but a good guy off the ice," he said.
But Richards said this Flyers team doesn't need him to fill that role. "No, I'm still not a vocal guy, but with the people that we have it's easier because people step up in different situations," he said.
"You're not always the one who needs to say something when something needs to be said."
As Richards has shown in his first season as captain, deeds sometimes work just as well as words.