It has been two weeks since Dean Lombardi terminated the contract of veteran center Mike Richards, and we still know very little about what happened. There has been an almost eerie silence enveloping the situation that doesn't seem to befit any of the parties involved. Those parties range from the talkative Dean Lombardi to the Kings as an organization to the Players' Association to Mike Richards and everyone that represents him. No one is talking.
All we know so far is this: Mike Richards had an incident at the Canada/USA border in which the prescription painkiller oxycodone was involved. He was arrested, but no charges are being pursued against him at this time.
In the absence of more news, we have little to do except speculate. This has led to conversations about how poorly the Kings have handled this situation, to what an incredible monster Dean Lombardi is, to how many drugs the rest of the Kings are doing, to surmising about how bad the culture must be in the Kings locker room, to frankly bizarre conversations comparing this situation to Slava Voynov's (request from me: please stop this, you are somehow managing to make two different topics less important than they actually are).
In all of the news that has come out, we have important questions that we have to ask of everyone involved that no one seems to want to actually ask. I also think that there are important lenses through which we have to view this particular player dismissal.
Why did Dean Lombardi retain Mike Richards after 2014?
The answer seems simple enough. Dean Lombardi loved Mike Richards. There were stories of Dean Lombardi walking the halls of Toyota Sports Center, telling Mike that he was going to be a legend, painted on these walls like Bobby Clarke had been painted on the walls in Philadelphia. He was going to be among the first hockey champions in Los Angeles.
Dean Lombardi absolutely, 100%, no doubt about it, adored Mike. He cared about Mike Richards. He cared about him to a fault. He had the easiest business decision of his life to make, and he could not do it because Mike Richards the man was too much to let go of Mike Richards the player. Yet, a year later, he was able to do exactly this. A penalty-free (or at the very least, a reduced-penalty) contract dump. If it was just about business for Dean, why didn't he do this a year ago? Given all of his histrionics about Jarret Stoll, it's hard to imagine such a callous reaction to Mike Richards just weeks later.
Did Mike Richards have a history of drug use in his time with the Kings?
We do not have an answer to this question. With that said, I do not think it is any secret that hockey players party. More importantly, I do not think that it is any secret that many players in the NHL are currently popping prescription pain pills.
In the aftermath of the NHL's "dark summer" of 2011. we heard time and time again that prescription pill abuse is a rampant problem in the league. Former Los Angeles King Ian Laperriere speculated that "four or five guys" per team were taking pain pills, whether they needed them or not, and that those were just the ones that he had seen. Moreover, Justin Bourne suggested that the problem was even worse in the minor leagues.
Culturally, we know that there is a problem with the sport. We can look at the guys that prescription pain pill abuse seems to hit the hardest and make extrapolations: the guys that wind up in the news are fringe NHLers, often enforcers, whose jobs depend on them being able to go out and play every night, often against anyone's better judgement.
This isn't just my conclusion. Players are speaking up about how they need more help. Dan Carcillo and Rich Clune have very recently submitted pieces to The Players' Tribune which outline the problem clearly. This is an issue that goes back to the time guys enter junior hockey, long before they ever lace up their skates to play in the NHL.
Once again, we'll revisit 2011, when Ian Laperriere said the following about fringe players sitting out:
If you do, you’re not going to have a contract the next year. There are 100 guys lining up to take your job. Dave Tippett once told me that I wasn’t the kind of guy who could afford not to play 80 games. It was true, and it was advice that’s served me well. But I put myself through a lot of things that I otherwise wouldn’t have to be out there.
Mike Richards had suddenly become a fringe NHLer. Mike had to play every single night because, frankly, it wouldn't have taken much to lose his spot in the lineup. In fact, he ultimately lost his job to Nick Shore, who posted a whopping 7 points in 34 games.
In the same article as the above Ian Laperriere quote, another former King by the name of Denis Gauthier said the following about being sent down to the minor leagues:
I’ll tell you a story. When Philadelphia sent me down to the minors, I went from 10 years of five-star hotels and first-class airplanes to riding the bus for 12 hours. It was a huge shock, it was tough. So, sometimes, I’d take a pill to try and relax and get some sleep, forget about everything for a while.
Richards is also a player with a long history of concussions. He suffered, at minimum, two as a Los Angeles King. He has suffered at least four in his career. On top of that, Richards has been known for his desire to play through injury when possible. Back in the 2008-09 season, Richards earned a Selke nomination while playing with injuries that would require surgery to both of his shoulders.
I don't think we need to go any further here, because this is a lot of guesswork. Given the culture of the NHL, the various situations Mike Richards found himself in throughout his career, and what little we know about his termination from the Kings, I will say that it would not surprise me if there was a history of drug use that the Kings were aware of.
More on the Mike Richards Situation
More on the Mike Richards Situation
IF Mike Richards had a history with drugs, were the Kings helping him?
The biggest problem facing Dean Lombardi and the Kings with regards to Mike Richards is that the optics of this situation are incredibly, unbelievably poor. The Kings are, in effect, booting a man out of the front door in the process of outing him as an apparent drug user. I don't think that there is any question that this looks awful, and I suspect that once we learn the truth (should we ever learn any semblance of a complete truth about this), it will not make anyone happy.
Given that no one involved - again, not Mike Richards, not Dean Lombardi, not even the typically-loudmouthed Players' Association - has commented, we really don't know what has gone on behind closed doors.
What we do know is a little bit about Derek Boogaard's history prior to his tragic death.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that when Boogaard missed most of training camp and the first two weeks of the 2009-10 season under the guise of a concussion, he actually was entered into Stage 1 of the program.
In the interest of protecting their own privacy, at least one player enrolled in the league's very well-regarded substance abuse rehab program under a shroud of secrecy. Is it possible that the Kings and/or Mike Richards traveled the same route? If Richards had a problem, then I truly hope so.
At this point, I think it's important to say that I am not trying to prove that Mike Richards had a problem with drugs. I don't know anything about Mike Richards' personal life. What I am trying to say is that if Mike Richards did have a problem, there's a very good chance that we wouldn't hear a thing about it until something like this happened, even if the Kings knew about it. This would make the Kings look very bad if they had to do what they did wind up doing: no matter how much they tried to help Mike Richards, it would be in no one's best interest to talk about it.
I do not believe that a player's use of drugs or attempt to get help is my business. I don't matter in this regard. I don't think it helps the person involved if we all know that he is on drugs or getting help for drug abuse. I also am not sure about how much a team should be on the hook for a player that suffers addiction if the team does everything they reasonably can to help him. It's a difficult line to toe for me personally, and I'm not even the one making decisions.
What is a reasonable amount of help for a team to provide to a player?
The league only recently - as a side effect of a lawsuit filed by Derek Boogaard's family - put its substance abuse program online. The program was created in 1996. While I am reasonably certain that it is a quality program, we don't know how it has evolved to deal with new threats to the health of the league's players.
How stringently is each team following the protocols laid out? How easy is it for players to admit they have problems? How willing are teams to take responsibility for players and forcibly nudge them into the program?
While some teams seem to be doing an excellent job of fostering hospitable communities within their organizations, it is unfortunately apparent that some teams are failing in this regard.
The Nashville Predators have a good track record in this regard. At the very least, Nashville has been the setting for the recoveries of Rich Clune, Brian McGrattan, and Jordin Tootoo. Yet, even in their case, if we go back to a time when Jordin Tootoo was still fighting addiction, we can find quotes like this from Predators GM David Poile:
If you don’t accept what we’re offering you, we’ve got to let you go. You’re damaging our team. You have to enter the NHLPA substance abuse program and go into rehab or we’re going to cut you, and everyone will know why.
This is the case in any business in the world. If a person's problems affect the way they perform or the way the organization looks, the organization cuts ties with that person.
Given what we know about Nashville's reputation with helping players recover from addiction, it seems likely that they did everything possible to help Tootoo prior to such a stern admonishment. Whether or not the Kings do enough for their players is open to debate, and rightly so. We have a lot to learn about what all NHL teams are doing for their players.
This is an area where I think that there should be more transparency from the league and its teams in a general sense. I don't want to know the specifics of each case as it happens, but I want to know what methods each team is using to address these problems. I don't only want to know the program that fixes the problem, either; I want to know that each team is fostering an environment that enables players to confront their own issues. Substance abuse, injury, and substandard mental health are all things we seem to be asking players to just fight through, and that isn't acceptable.
What is the NHL doing to combat this?
During the NHL's dark summer of 2011, we heard over and over and over again that prescription painkillers were a major pox upon the league. We have also heard is that the league's drug program is actually really good.
What I'm really curious about is whether or not that extends to prescription painkillers. My fear is that the drug program is more useful to people with "standard" drug/addiction issues (alcohol, cocaine, etc), and that teams work a little harder to avoid dealing with prescription drugs because they really need those players on the ice.
I don't have anything to base that on except my own gut feeling, but that feeling lines up pretty well with what we know about the NHL's culture of toughness. Players want to play for their own reputations, teams want players to play for their own success, and doctors want players to play so that they can keep their jobs. The latter may just the most overlooked issue in this messed up system. Doctors are under immense pressure to get players back on the ice. If they can't, teams will find someone who can.
Since 2011, we have heard very little about prescription drug use in the NHL. Most stories simply touch on things that happened during that awful summer. We don't know what strides, if any, the league has taken to help players who have trouble with painkillers. Again, I don't want details of specific cases, but I do want to know what standards the NHL has for detecting problems when they exist.
If Mike Richards has a problem, then I believe he's a product of his environment. Though players shoulder responsibility for their own recoveries, I'm not convinced they're entirely culpable for their need to recover in the first place. The league owes everyone a safer environment to recover from ailments. It doesn't matter if those ailments are addiction, concussions, or even other injuries. It owes all of its players a better space to live in.