The Canadiens’ Luke Richardson has been preparing for his moment behind the bench his whole career

Canada

It seems the Montreal Canadiens can’t reach the peak without the help of a former Maple Leaf.

In 1993, the last time they won the Stanley Cup, it was ex-Leaf Vince Damphousse who captained the Canadiens.

This year, as they travel through the semifinals against the Vegas Golden Knights, it’s another Leafs player from that era, defenceman Luke Richardson, who is leading Montreal. Richardson has taken over as head coach with Dominique Ducharme in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

“I think he always wanted to be a head coach,” Leafs legend Wendel Clark said. “He’s the strong silent type, a great team guy. He wanted everyone to succeed, and really read the game from the defence out. He very much understands everybody’s role. On a team, you need different kinds of players, and he understood that.”

Richardson picked up his first win as an NHL coach on Friday, a 3-2 overtime victory that gave Montreal a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven final. He finished a 21-year playing career with Ottawa, started as an assistant there in 2009-10, spent four years as head coach of the Senators’ AHL team, then went to the Islanders as an assistant for one year before joining the Canadiens, under Claude Julien, in 2018.

But he has been thrust into the spotlight now that COVID has upended Montreal’s coaching situation.

“I guess I would have thought my first chance running an NHL bench would be an exhibition game, but it happened to be in third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, in overtime, so it’s pretty exciting,” said Richardson, 52. “We’re just hoping to keep this thing going and we’ll get the whole group back together.”

Ducharme spoke to the media Sunday, prior to Game 4, hoping he would be back sooner than the 14 days currently required by Quebec public health. He has his second dose of vaccine, with the full effect of it expected to click in mid-week. He said he felt fine, and that his girlfriend has not tested positive for the virus, nor any of the players or staff with the Canadiens.

“It’s bizarre, especially with the two vaccines,” Ducharme said. “I haven’t had any symptoms other than the normal stuff this time of year. There’s not a whole lot we can control with this.

“I think I’ll be back. I hope to be able to do it as soon as possible. No matter when I come back, I’m confident we’ll still be playing.”

Luke Richardson’s first NHL win as a head coach came as Montreal took a 2-1 series lead in their semifinal with Vegas on Friday.

Ducharme is still able to have video meetings with player and staff, and he is confident in Richardson.

“He’s a great teammate,” Ducharme said. “He was always there for his teammates. And he’s the same way in life, or within the staff. He’s got really good hockey knowledge, but also he’s that kind of guy you want to be going through adversity or facing obstacles (with), you want a guy like that on your side.

“He’s a true person. He’s the best teammate you can have.”

Richardson was the Leafs’ top pick, and seventh overall, in the 1987 draft and made the team as an 18-year-old. After four seasons, he and Damphousse were traded, along with Scott Thornton and Peter Ing, in a blockbuster deal with Edmonton that sent Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Craig Berube to Toronto.

“That was too bad, he’s one of the real character guys,” Clark said. “Luke was a great defenceman, came into the league at 18 years of age, very solid individual. Not many young defencemen make it at 18. He stepped right in, a strong guy at 18. The more he played, the more a leadership role he took on teams, even after he left Toronto.

“With the Oilers, he was a real catalyst as a confident, defensive guy. Every team wants those types of defenceman.”

Richardson spent six years in Edmonton, five in Philadelphia, three in Columbus, and finished with stops in Toronto — for another 21 games — Tampa Bay and Ottawa. It all added up to 1,417 NHL games, 35 goals, 166 assists, and not a single game in the minors.

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“He started young and he played long. It shows that you know how to play in your own end as an older defensive guy, and it shows you the commitment and dedication that he played that long,” said Clark, adding he believes Richardson would make a great head coach.

“He understands all the pieces that it takes. You’re building a hockey team, you need everything from fourth-line grinders to third-line checkers to first-line guys to defensive defencemen (to) your great goalie. As soon as you understand you need all the pieces, you usually end up doing well.”

Can Clark, who was disappointed to see the Leafs get knocked out of the playoffs early, cheer for the Canadiens with his friend, Richardson, behind the bench?

“I can always root for Luke,” he said, while acknowledging “it’s tough when you add the red to the blue and white.”

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