Tyler Richards waited patiently for his first National Lacrosse League goaltending start and, when he got it, he made the most of the opportunity.
With the Stealth needing a win to remain in contention for a playoff berth, Richards blanked Minnesota for the first 21 minutes and the Stealth went on to an 18-8 victory over the Swarm, who had a 54-42 advantage in shots on goal. Richards was outstanding, and San Jose is in a much better situation in the standings today because of his memorable performance.
It was a crucial game and the coaching staff was confident enough in his abilities to put him in the nets. He’d earned the chance. It took a while, but he got it.
Richards had finished his final season of junior lacrosse with his home-town Coquitlam Adanacs in British Columbia when San Jose selected him 46th overall in the 2007 NLL entry draft.
He spent the 2008 NLL season living in San Jose, going on the road trips, and getting most of his work in practices. He was the No. 3 goalie behind Anthony Cosmo and Aaron Bold.
``I knew it was going to be a learning experience for me,’’ Richards recalls. ``Cosmo was a big help to me all that year. Towards the end of the year, you get a little antsy in wanting to play but I’d accepted my role and was comfortable with it, and I did what I could to help the team.’’
He never got into a real game.
Last summer, Richards stopped shots for the Western Lacrosse Association’s New Westminster Salmonbellies and was named the league’s most outstanding goaltender. The ‘Bellies, who added Matt Roik late in the season for a Grade A goaltending tandem, made it to the Canadian amateur final and lost to the Brampton Excelsiors, who had Colin Doyle in their lineup.
``Always a challenge,’’ Richards replies when asked what it was like to face Doyle.
``He’s such a good shooter and feeder of the ball as well. He got a couple on me, but I thought I did a pretty good job on him.’’
When the 2009 NLL season began, Doyle returned to San Jose in his role as captain, Roik was on board after being acquired to replace the traded Cosmo, and Richards once again was the No. 3 goalie.
``I just kept practicing hard, trying to earn my spot,’’ he says. ``I was a little disappointed not to be the backup at the start of the year but I didn’t have a great training camp so I understood the decision. I just had to work harder.’’
That seems to never have been a problem for Richards. He never expected to have the No. 1 Stealth goaltending job handed to him on a platter.
Richards didn’t dress for any of the team’s first three games this year. It was Roik and Bold. On Jan. 24, Richards dressed as backup to Bold in Calgary and, with his team down, was sent in to start the second quarter. Richards went the rest of the way in a game won 16-13 by the Roughnecks. Richards was tagged with the loss.
``I was very nervous,’’ Richards says of his first NLL action. ``I was also anxious to show the coaches what I could do. I let in the first two shots taken against me but the coaches left me in and I played pretty good after that.
He was backup the next game but didn’t see any action, sat out the following week, and saw 15 minutes duty backing up Roik in 16-10 loss in Boston on Feb. 28.
``It was encouraging to be getting into those games,’’ Richards said of the minutes he was getting. ``But going into games as a backup you go in when the other goalie or your team is struggling so it’s bittersweet from that perspective. You don’t like to see one of your good friends fail out there.’’
He didn’t dress March 1 in the 15-14 loss at New York or on March 14 in the 14-11 loss to Colorado. Anybody with a competitive bone in his body would be feeling a touch dejected about now. Richards wanted to be on the floor but was watching in street clothes. Yet, he played his role without complaint.
``The coaches had a good conversation with me,’’ he explains. ``The feeling going into New York was that Aaron had won us a game there last year and was pretty comfortable with their shooters. They felt he was the better person to be backing up Matt that weekend.’’
Richards reappeared as the backup to Roik on March 21 and Roik went all the way in 11-10 home win over Edmonton.
On March 28, Roik started and took the loss in a 14-12 setback against visiting Portland. Richards got into the game for six minutes towards the end of the first half.
On March 29, in Portland, Roik started and Richards again dressed as backup. When Roik missed the first two shots he faced, Richards was sent in.
``I was a little confused at first,’’ he says in looking back at a game which might go down as pivotal in his lacrosse career. ``It was so early in the game that I didn’t see myself going in at that point. But I knew it was a big game for our team. I went in and it was a 5-on-3 for Portland and they scored on their first shot.’’
Well, Richards played great the rest of the way, 55 minutes and 45 seconds, San Jose won 13-8, and Richards earned his first NLL win.
``I left it all on the floor and it felt good to win,’’ he says. ``The guys around me played really, really well and I just happened to be the guy who got the win.’’
He had played so well that he got the nod for the big game last Saturday at home against Minnesota.
So, what did head coach Chris Hall say to him before the game?
``He didn’t say too much,’’ says Richards. ``He just said, `Go out there and play your game.’ I know our defence has confidence in me and I’ve got the utmost confidence in them. They kept the shooters to the outside and that makes a goalie’s job so much easier.’’
The 18-8 blowout was the second pro victory for Richards, and the Stealth could feel a lot better about their playoff prospects.
Throughout the season, the relationship between the three Stealth goalies remained solid. When Roik stayed on the bench in Portland while Richards played, Roik went out of his way to say whatever he could to boost the young goalie’s confidence.
``We get along very well,’’ says Richards. ``I know he’d go to the wall for me and I’d go to the wall for him. He’s been nothing but helpful to me.
``Playing with him in the summer, too, we learn that neither one of us is trying to steal the other’s job. We want to see each other do well. We both just want the team to succeed.’’
There is yet another big game ahead: the Stealth go into Denver to play the Colorado Mammoth this Saturday. A win would put them in the playoffs. A loss might knock them out, depending on the outcome of the last scheduled game the following weekend in Toronto.
So, who gets the Denver start?
``It’s a do-or-die game for us,’’ says Richards. ``If it’s Roik, I’ll do whatever it takes to help him win. If it’s me, I’ll get myself ready to play.’’
Like Richards was doing in January, Bold is wholeheartedly supporting Roik and Richards.
``He’s been awesome,’’ says Richards. ``It’s tough to get a backseat role but he’s a part of the team as much as anybody else. He’s the first in the room to congratulate us after a win or console us after a loss. He’s got a lot of upside. He’ll be back.’’
On his back, Richards wears 00.
``It’s a number my dad chose for me and I stuck with it,’’ he says. ``I like the way it looks. The idea behind it is that the ultimate goal at the end of a game is that you want no goals against.’’
Since lacrosse is a high-scoring sport, the 00 is more representative of a possible outcome than a single 0.
His desire to don 00 threw Stealth staff for a loop at first.
``Last year our equipment manager e-mailed me about three times asking if I really wanted 00,’’ says Richards. ``He seemed really confused that I wanted two zeros on my back.’’
Veteran NLL goalie Curtis Palidwor also has worn 00.
Bob Richards registered his son for lacrosse when he was only four and he coached him through to age 17 when he moved up to the junior ranks. Through the years, current San Jose teammate Rhys Duch was an opponent.
``He’s a guy I had to watch out for all the time,’’ Richards recalls. ``I think I did a good job on shutting him down in a first-round playoff series in junior. We’ve always had a mutual respect for each other. We played against each other since tyke. I recently found out I was one goalie he hated playing against all his life.’’
Tyler was always a goalie.
``From Day 1,’’ he recalls. ``I didn’t have the hands to be a scorer. I have no idea why. Playing goal has always been a good challenge. It’s kind of built in, wanting to play goal, I guess. Any sport I played, I always wanted to be the goalie.’’
At six-foot-one and 190 pounds, Richards isn’t among the biggest of pro netminders.
``I try to play big,’’ he says. ``I cut off the angles. I try to keep it simple. I try not to do too much. I’m not as tall or wide as a lot of other guys but I place my legs fairly wide apart to cover up the bottom of the net and try to create almost like a box shape.’’
He sure boxed out the Swarm.
He’d love to get a chance to stop shots in Denver and again in Toronto. Growing up in the Vancouver region, Rock games were the only ones he was able to catch on TV so he’s always admired the work between the posts of Bob Watson, who helped Toronto win five NLL titles in seven years through 2005.
``It’d be surreal to play against a guy I’ve looked up to since I was 10,’’ says Richards.
That chance is somewhere down the line.
``It’s everyone’s ultimate goal to be the starting goalie for an NLL team and lead it to the championship,’’ he replies when asked to state his long-range aim in lacrosse. ``I’d like to play 10 or 15 years and win as many championships as I can.’’
He certainly has the patience to do it. He’s also showing that he has the talent.
``It’s always been my one true passion,’’ he says of lacrosse.
Are the Stealth going to make the playoffs, Tyler?
``Absolutely,’’ he responds.
Get in and it takes only three wins to win the championship.
``A whole new season starts. Everyone kind of throws their names in a hat and waits to see what happens. Look at Portland last year. They went 6-10 and went all the way to the final.’’
The Stealth want to get there, too, and Richards, whether in the crease or on the bench, is willing to do his part to make it happen.
~ Neil Stevens played box lacrosse growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he attended the same high school as did Stealth GM John Mouradian. Years later, as a sports writer for The Canadian Press wire service, Stevens began covering after NLL expansion into Canada in 1998 the home games of the Toronto Rock and the league in general. In 2008, Mouradian and Stevens were inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame _ John in the builders' category and Neil as a media honouree. At the age of 61, Stevens is now retired, but still covering Rock games and writing weekly NLL columns for the wire service for distribution to daily newspapers across Canada. ~