Monday, January 28, 2013

A Bittersweet Success Story

By: John Sparenberg

When Bruce Richardson came to the Hershey Bears in 1997 out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as an undrafted 5’9” 175-pound teenager, it was without a great deal of fanfare. He arrived in Chocolatetown without any fancy press conferences, big signing bonuses, or guarantees. He did not possess any gaudy offensive numbers, having never scored more than 19 goals in any of his junior seasons.

But what he did bring in tow was a fearlessness to take on any opponent, even those who outmatched him considerably in the size category, whether it be in a fistic encounter or in a battle along the boards. That admirable trait, while leaving him with a few less teeth in his mouth, also left an indelible mark in the hearts of Bears’ faithful followers as well as members of the selection committee who selected Richardson to participate in the recent Outdoor Classic Alumni Game at Hersheypark Stadium.

“When I finished junior when I was 19 years old, I got invited by Bob Hartley to come here to training camp with no contract, just an AHL deal. It was tough, and I did well, and I got signed to a two-year deal. That first year was basically just for conditioning (10 games with the Bears). I played a little that first year, and they even sent me for a two-game stint with the Chesapeake Ice Breakers (coached by longtime NHL tough guy Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who was assisted by former Bear, Nelson Burton). In my second year, I won the Bears’ Unsung Hero Award. Hershey meant a lot to my career; they gave me an opportunity to play professional hockey in a lot of places,” said Richardson.

After the expiration of his Hershey deal, Richardson inked another two-year pact, but this time it was a two-way (NHL-AHL) deal with the Detroit Red Wings, citing “playing for the Bears allowed that to happen.” With the Wings’ organization, Richardson skated with the Manitoba Moose of the IHL, the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the AHL, and the Louisiana IceGators of the ECHL where he was coached by former Bear Dave Farrish.

In the 2002-2003- season, Richardson was biding his time in the bayou with the IceGators when he received a call from Bears’ President/GM Doug Yingst who wanted to bring him back to Chocolatetown once again. While happy to receive the call, Richardson had added more responsibility to his plate since he left Hershey, and after making sure Yingst understood the circumstances, made a return to central Pennsylvania.

“I told Doug I just had my son and I couldn’t come up for just three or four games. He told me to come and trust him, that he would make sure that wouldn’t be the case. I came back and did really well, and they signed me for the rest of that year and the year after.”

Richardson’s hockey odyssey which had already seen him call Hershey, Louisiana, Ohio, Maryland, Iowa, Manitoba, Florida, and Wisconsin home when he left Hershey for the final time after the 2003-2004 season, saw him add additional stops in Connecticut, Kansas (playing for current Bears’ head coach Mark French) and Indiana, in addition to jumping across the pond to Germany and the U.K. before he retired after the 2010-11 season at the age of 34.

“I went to Germany and after that my son started school, and we went to the UK to an elite ice hockey league there. My last year there in the UK, I started to coach and GM a team there in that league,” explained Richardson. “Then I came back and started to coach in Montreal at Grenadiers de Chateauguay, a prep school, which is in Midget AAA, just under major junior. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years with kids ages 15 to 17 years old.”

With nearly 10 years having elapsed since his playing career ended with the Bears, Richardson obviously noticed that abundance of growth in the greater Hershey area when he returned recently for the Outdoor Classic, but he also seemed to subscribe to the popular saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

“When I left here, my son was two. I remember living at an apartment in Palmyra, and we went around this weekend and went to visit. There are a lot of things that have changed, but not that much. There are new buildings, but that’s everywhere. To me, everyone looks the same. I walked in the arena yesterday and saw some fans, and they all look the same. I don’t know if it’s the Hershey air or what. The doctor and everyone looks the same. For me, nothing has really changed.”

While pondering the answer to what his best memories were while wearing the Chocolate and White, Richardson leaned on his stick before the pre-game skate at the Classic. He paused briefly and scanned the skies, his gaze tracking in the direction of Giant Center and eventually falling right on the Hersheypark Arena.

“My first professional goal against the Adirondack Red Wings at Hersheypark Arena is one of my best memories,” Richardson remembered. “It was a two-on-one with Paul Brousseau; he gave me a pass and I buried it. That was a big moment. The day I won the Unsung Hero award was a great moment too. When I got the award, the fans were all saying “Bruuuuuce.” Also, I have great memories of just playing at Giant Center and the Hersheypark Arena. I won a championship in the UK, but there’s nothing comparable to putting on the skates in the AHL for the Hershey Bears for a player like me. For me, it was kind of like being in the NHL. I never had a chance to play there, but to me, it felt like I did when I played for the Bears.”

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Richardson’s thoughts about returning to Hershey, the Chocolate Capital of the World, for the recent affair was like some chocolate can be: bittersweet.

“For me to be here for this, it’s a big thing. But I have mixed emotions about it because it’s the place I made a lot of friends. People liked the game I played, and I liked to chat, and I gave my heart to the team. To come back here and see old faces, it’s good to be back, but I wish it was still that time and wish I could still play here and help this team.”

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