Starting with his first outing at the 1985 IIHF World Junior Championship, Mike Richter was a staple in net for the United States for 17 years.
The hockey world may think of Mike Richter as the greatest American goaltender ever, but Richter still remembers the day when he stepped off the plane in Finland as an unproven backup at the 1985 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“At that point in your life there is no higher venue. In some ways it’s almost your version of playing in the NHL,” says Richter, who retired Sept. 4. “I didn’t want to let anybody down.”
The ’85 team struggled, but the experience showed Richter that he could compete against the best. In 1986, he returned to the World Juniors a more confident goaltender. Stepping onto the ice in Hamilton, Ont., he could feel that something was different.
“The speed was incredible. The level of practice was just so high,” Richter recalls. “I thought, here’s an opportunity to do something really special.”
No one knew exactly how special, nor did they realize that the ’86 U.S. Junior National Team would produce 18 professional players, 11 of them in the NHL. What the team did sense was a deep bond formed by their mutual respect and drive to win. One bond, in fact, would last Richter his entire career. Defending the blueline in front of him stood Brian Leetch, his future teammate for 15 years with the New York Rangers.
“He was extraordinarily talented, even at that age,” Richter remembers.
After a tough loss to the USSR, the talented Americans rallied against Czechoslo-vakia. Facing a team that had demoralized them, 9-1, the year before, Richter watched in amazement as his young teammates dove in front of pucks and outworked the Czechs for a 5-2 victory. Close losses to the home team, Canada and medal-favorite Finland failed to discourage Team USA. They came back with two convincing victories, putting them into contention for the first World Junior medal in U.S. history.
“It was something that built quietly,” recalls the Abington, Pa., native. “The longer it went on, the more we believed.”
The final game brought them up against perennial powerhouse, Sweden. In what was billed as a tight match-up, Richter’s team shocked the Swedes, winning 5-1 and taking home the Bronze medal — a bronze that felt as good as gold.
Even after 301 NHL victories, three Olympics, a World Cup of Hockey title and a Stanley Cup, Richter is emphatic about his 1986 experience.
“No question. It was one of the highlights of my career,” he says.
And now that he has retired, Richter hopes to repay USA Hockey for all the good memories … although he’s not quite sure how.
“I know how to bake cookies. Do they [the 2004 U.S. Junior National Team] need cookies on the plane to Finland?”
Over the years Ricter has proven he can do so much more than that.