by Clark Groome

Just as the Eagles look like they’re beginning to get their act together, the baseball playoffs are generating some fine performances and a bit of controversy; and as the Flyers’ regular season is getting off to a puzzling start, the headlines again include news that indicates that the sports pages are not all about fun and games.

Former Flyers captain Mike Richards is apparently suffering from what is curiously referred to as “off-ice issues,” which seems to mean he is having trouble with drugs.

After being traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2011, Richards’ fine performance on the ice began to diminish, although he did play a significant role in the Kings’ 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup victories.

Last season Richards was unproductive and was demoted to the Kings’ AFL farm team, the only demotion in his career. Clearly something was wrong, Nobody was saying what.

This past June, Richards was stopped at the United States-Canada border in Emerson, Manitoba. He was later charged with possessing a controlled substance, reportedly Oxycodone.

At this point, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi called off all trade talks he had initiated for Richards, placed him on waivers and terminated his contract.

Richards and the NHL Players Association filed a grievance that was settled this past weekend. Richards is now an unrestricted free agent and the Kings will have to pay a $1.32 million “cap recapture” penalty for the next five seasons. While the exact details of the Kings/NHLPA settlement have not been released, some of what Richards was owed will still be charged to the Kings’ salary cap through 2031.

The Kings’ Lombardi made a devastating and basically very sad statement to the Los Angeles Times that, among other things, said “I tried everything with Mike – meeting with him constantly, sending him to concussion specialists, traveling in the off-season to visit him at his summer home – and everything failed.”

One of the most promising and exciting young players in the NHL, the captain of the last Flyers team to go to the Stanley Cup finals was in deep trouble.

Former Flyers president Peter Luukko, now the Florida Panthers’ executive chairman, told reporters when the Flyers were in Florida last week that he was unaware of Richards’ problems.

So was Ron Hextall, with the Kings when Richards was traded and now the Flyers general manager. Hextall said, “I know this: I know Mike Richards is a good kid. I know Mike Richards was a very good hockey player and I know he cared. All the other stuff that happened I really don’t know enough to comment on it.”

Remembering back to when Richards was a Flyer, there were rumors that he and teammates Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell were pretty serious partiers. They were cautioned about their off-ice behavior but allegedly didn’t slow down.

Somewhere along the way, it can be presumed, Richards got injured, took painkillers and likely became addicted to them. Perhaps he suffered concussions.

Richards’ case is but another in a series of situations that have led several retired hockey players to drug addiction and suicide. Similarly, many professional football players have suffered head injuries that have led to early-onset dementia, premature death and suicide.

Lombardi said in his statement to the LA Times that he feels Richards “played” him. I’m not sure why he’s surprised. Injured athletes often downplay or cover-up their injuries, or at least the extent of them. Addicts almost invariably lie.

Here’s a partial answer: If all sports at all levels would emphasize the need for honesty from their players about their health and if there were assurances made that a player out-of-action because of injury would get his job back, then maybe those who are injured won’t resort to taking drugs that ultimately do them more harm than the injury they’re being used for.

Is that realistic? I fear not. Slowly the NFL and the NHL are trying to minimize the head injuries that plague their games. That will help. But as long as the competition for the few prime spots on the ice, the field, the court or the pitch remains so fevered and cutthroat, there will be more stories in the sports pages like those involving Mike Richards.

Maybe, just maybe, Richards’ situation was caught early enough and made public enough so that he will get the help he needs. One can only hope.

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