Brad Richards is an international elite athlete. He’s handsome, single and rich.
He’s also “Richy.” That’s what family and best friends still call the 26-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning center who continues to defy superstar stereotypes and still loves life in the steadfast lane.
“He is viciously competitive,” says his agent Pat Morris, “as well as intelligent, witty and charming. I’ve never met anyone who gives more of himself outside his sport. He’s a tremendous person.”
His is hardly the monastic life, but Richards doesn’t live in a bachelor-pad penthouse with hot- and cold-running parvenu. He resides in a waterfront home in a quiet Davis Islands neighborhood. Grilling steaks poolside typically beats most nights out on the town. He’d rather be teeing it up on the golf course, where he’s a 3-handicap, than tanning around at the beach.
Other marquee athletes may have entourages or even “posses.” Richards, who is reserved and guarded in public, prefers the insulating comfort zone of a few close friends.
“You can hide here,” says Richards, the son of a lobsterman who grew up in Murray Harbour, a fishing village of less than 400 residents on Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada’s smallest province. He likes the “small big city” feel of Tampa – as well as surrounding water and the winter weather.
Golfing is a decided perk. Observers his game could be good enough to play professionally if he could ever put in the time. But a grinding NHL schedule leaves only summers for real practice. And that has to fit in around off-season conditioning priorities.
Still, Richards gets out on the links when he can. Sometimes it’s a celebrity charity tournament; mostly it’s a foursome of friends. While golf may be the antithesis of a collision sport such as hockey, it dovetails with Richards’ off-ice, laid-back demeanor. He’s outdoors, out of the spotlight and in his informal element with a cocoon of best pals. It also plays to his acute sense of competitiveness.
“I have some good friends here who keep me grounded and treat me like a buddy – not like a hockey player who makes a lot of money,” Richards pointedly notes. “I like being myself and talking about something other than hockey.”
Among those in on the conversation is Pedro Bajo, 40, a Tampa attorney, who’s known Richards for about three years.
“Richy’s got everything under the sun; he’s incredibly blessed,” says Bajo. “But there’s not one ounce of ego. A great guy who really does care about others.”
Richards would doubtless be a hot celeb and an uber babe magnet at International Plaza’s Blue Martini or Prana in Ybor City. Instead, he’s more likely to be found off-ice at a casual neighborhood spot like The Rack in South Tampa watching football with buddies and sporting an anonymity ensemble of shorts, sandals, t-shirt and baseball cap.
When Richards does get into Ybor, it’s probably for sushi at Samurai Blue. Movies are usually the attraction at Channelside. He loves comedies and period pieces with action. Two all-time favorites: “Brave Heart” and “Gladiator.”
He’ll go out of his way to catch U-2 in concert, but will take pains to stay away from their politics. “As a Canadian in America, it makes no sense,” he explains.
“Richy’s just a real regular guy,” says Nova Scotia native and Tampa resident Matt Hill, 30, one of Richards’ inner-circle buds. “I’ve known him for 15 years. There’s never a sense of star or celebrity with him.”
But there is a decided sense of humor, points out Tanya Hill, 30, Matt’s wife. “He loves puns, and he loves poking fun at his friends,” she says.
She also reveals another dynamic to some of those SoHo nights out.
“Let’s just say that girls find him very handsome,” says Hill. “He presents himself so well. They get nervous around him. The better you know him, the better looking he gets. But he never takes advantage of the situation. He’s very respectful to women.”
He’s also likely to remain among the Bay Area’s — and Canada’s — most eligible bachelors for a while. Richards says a steady girl friend, let alone a bride, is incompatible with his career at this stage.
“There will be a time, but right now the lifestyle works against it,” emphasizes Richards. “Athletes’ wives have it tough.”
However, when the right time and the right woman intersect, he’ll be ready with his criteria, states Richards, who admits to being “methodical” about such things. His short list: honesty, loyalty, a sense of humor and a willingness to “come to PEI in the summer.”
And it couldn’t hurt, he concedes with an impish grin, if that special someone didn’t initially know he was a celebrated, wealthy hockey player.
And speaking of wealth, when Richards signed his 5-year, $39-million deal, the speculation was rife among the media about the pressure it would yield.
“Sure, it’s definitely an issue, but it comes with the territory,” acknowledges Richards. “You have to be mature enough to handle it. There’s more responsibility now.”
That means the Lightning want even more production from the 6’1″, 198-pound Richards – even though he led the team with 91 points last season. The ante is also raised on leadership.
“I’ll always be myself,” says Richards, now an alternate captain. “I’m not a ‘yeller.’ I think you lead by example. How you handle yourself on and off the ice.”
And Richards takes the latter as seriously as he does goals and assists. He started the Brad Richards’ Charitable Foundation here and raises awareness and money for autism and the Children’s Wish Foundation in PEI. He’s a fixture at Bay Area charity events, especially when they involve the Pediatric Cancer Foundation and the Children’s Cancer Center. He also serves on the CCC board.
“Who I am goes back to my parents,” says Richards. “The first rule was ‘be a good person.’ That meant treating people with respect and sharing.”
Veteran Tampa Tribune sports columnist Joe Henderson’s take on Richards speaks volumes. “Put it is this way,” assesses Henderson, “He’s just about the classiest act I’ve ever run across in 32 years at the Trib. There is no athlete more committed, more genuine or more caring than Brad Richards.”
Richards is much more accepting of praise for his hockey skills than of acclaim for his off-ice endeavors. “The charity work doesn’t make me some great person,” he says. “I’m just helping out, bringing awareness to a cause and encouraging others to help in their own way.”
Nothing, including hockey, defines Brad Richards more than his work with families who have a child with cancer. His motivation harkens back to the loss of his cousin and best friend, Jamie Reynolds, to a brain tumor. Jamie was 5, Brad 7.
And nothing underscores his commitment more than Suite 521 at the St. Pete Times Forum. Adorned with kid-friendly posters, photos and murals, as well as arts & crafts materials, a TV and video-game equipment, it’s the heart and soul of his “Richy’s Rascals” charity program.
For an entire season (and at least the next four), Richards leases the catered, luxury suite — at a hefty, 6-figure cost — that can accommodate groups of 18. Typically, that’s about five cancer families from the CCC and the PCF.
After the games, Richards then personally meets with all the families.
“If things didn’t go well, I can redeem myself the next game,” points out Richards. “They may not have a next day.”
Mary Ann Massolio, executive director of the CCC, stresses that Richards doesn’t put in cameos. “He spends time with each child, knows their names and something unique about them,” she says. “He really gets it in a big way.
“When we lose children, he’s the first to send a card, and he attends funerals when his schedule permits. He’s a unique young man,” adds Massolio.
“It tells you volumes about the inner man, when you see how someone treats a child,” says Holly Wade, whose 11-year-old son, Daniel, lost his battle with brain cancer earlier this year.
Daniel had no hair; wore a mask; and was in a wheel chair. There was no such thing as a n
ormal night out with the family — until Brad Richards entered their lives.
“He gave us the opportunity to be together as a family,” Wade recalls. “It was safe, and cancer wasn’t the focus. Brad Richards is one in a million. We’re proud and honored that he knew Daniel. From a mom’s perspective, he’s one of mine.”
Then there’s 8-year-old Erin Kisielewski, a leukemia patient currently in remission. Like a lot of little – and some not so little – girls, she has a major crush on Richards. After a game, she went up to Richards’ date and said, “Oh, you can be his girl friend, but I’m his fiancée.”
When Brad walks in, says Erin’s mother, Donna Kisielewski, “You can see how special the kids feel. Here’s this mild-mannered, Superman sort with this incredibly calming personality. And everything bad that has happened is completely forgotten.”