“Who you are, defines what you do…” – Across the Universe
In September 2003, Mike Richter held a press conference to make the emotional announcement that all professional athletes in their prime dread; he would be retiring from the New York Rangers and the National Hockey League. It was a difficult decision and ultimately one he had no control over.
Richter wanted to continue to play, but he was told the risk for him was too high. After two head injuries left lingering symptoms, the Stanley Cup-winning veteran was informed he could no longer physically compete and was advised to walk away.
His problems began on March 27, 2002, while playing at home in Madison Square Garden against the Atlanta Thrashers. As the Rangers’ starting goaltender, he was taken out during the first period when a slap shot from Chris Tamer hit his mask just above the right ear.
It was later determined that he had suffered from a fractured temporal bone and would have to miss the rest of the regular season.
“At first you say you can’t practice tomorrow, and then you might not play on Thursday and wait to the weekend to see how you feel,” Richter describes. “When you get progressively worse the stakes for coming back become higher. I was devastated when the neurosurgeon said, ‘We don’t think it’s a good idea for you to return this year [and] we don’t know enough to know when you’ll recover, but we know you will.’ I was surprised when she asked me to sit the rest of the season, but you honor that because it’s your brain, not your elbow.”
The late Tim Taylor, who spent nearly three decades coaching at Yale in addition to stints as coach of Team USA and the U.S. Olympic team, tried to convince Richter to play for the Bulldogs in 1985 when Richter was an 18-year-old coming out of the Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y.. Richter ultimately decided on the University of Wisconsin, but nearly twenty years later he was drawn back to New Haven’s Ivy League campus after his retirement from the NHL because of its Forestry and Environmental school.
When he wasn’t in the rink, working with Taylor or current head coach Keith Allain as a volunteer assistant coach with Yale’s hockey team, or with his family, Richter was studying under the Forestry school’s former dean, Gus Speth. He became fixated on the idea of using the capital market to create innovative ways to fix existing environmental problems. This is an interest that would eventually be the driving force that led him to start his own company, Healthy Planet Partners, a for-profit business that finances updates to existing building infrastructures.
According to the company website, HPP is a company that “retrofits commercial buildings with clean energy that is efficient, reliable, and renewable. We function both as a green bank and as a chief energy officer for your building to lower operational costs and reduce environmental impact.”
“I really like the idea of having the capital markets solve some of the environmental problems,” Richter claimed from inside the company’s intimate first-floor office in Greenwich, Conn. “They’ve created some of them and they can solve them if the market is allowed to function properly. If you can get energy for cheaper. you should get it. If you can get clean energy for cheaper, you should get it, and we have the technology to do just that.”
A decision as miniscule as changing light bulbs or switching a boiler system can make a significant impact environmentally and monetarily. That is the kind of service Richter and his team have striven to provide since the company’s inception in 2011. Whether it is a commercial building or sports facility, Richter has found it’s all about using the technology available to upgrade antiquated buildings.
Given his background, Richter admittedly finds working with sports most intriguing and thinks it’s crucial for athletes to realize the environment around them impacts their performance equally as much as their own bodies.
“Sports buildings I particularly like,” Richter says. “There’s an irony with these athletes [that] are such high performers. You look at the Rangers organization over the years, they worry about your nutrition, they worry about sleep, you worry about your hydration, your training methods. Everything is about being more efficient and then they’re playing in a building that uses yesterday’s technology. Nobody does that and doesn’t end up getting hurt in the long run; you really have to update every aspect of it. So the sports facilities really have a nice kind of metaphor there.”
If it were an elbow, he would have fought back, just as he had after his two reconstructive knee surgeries. But the elbow is a far cry from the brain. A second head injury caused by an on-ice collision with Todd Marchant on Nov. 5, 2002, ultimately ended his career.
Richter understood the importance of his life outside of the rink, but it didn’t make the decision to give up the game he’d been playing the majority of his life any easier. “It’s not a matter of taking the pain. It’s a matter of making yourself healthy again, and as much as I was devastated by that news by the time May came around that year and I hadn’t fully recovered, it was almost less of a shock for her to say I think you should end your career.”
Just like that, the career Richter had been dreaming of since the days of the Broad Street Bullies was over and the identity he had since being drafted by the Rangers in 1985 was gone. He was forced to ask himself, what’s next?
“I don’t think it was easy at any which time, retiring,” Richter says. “Not only for what you’ve just given up, but also saying now, who am I? What am I? What am I doing? Where do I fit in?
“It was exciting because there was a lot that you necessarily have to put aside in order to play well and focus on your day to day job, and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. It was so much fun, you miss it every day, but there’s other interests that you have [too].”
Luckily for Richter, he had been cultivating those interests since his days as a multi-sport athlete in his hometown of Flourtown, Penn., and it wasn’t long after retirement that he realized being a goalie was only a small part of what made him who he was. He soon found being No. 35 didn’t necessarily define him, and not wearing the jersey didn’t mean the end of him.
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Returning for his degree was never a question of if, just a question of when.
Richter was drafted by the Rangers in 1985 and lasted a brief two years playing collegiately before making the ultimate choice to further his professional career as opposed to earning his degree.
“Goaltenders are individual players on a team that really doesn’t have individual stars, so to speak, but Mike continued to progress,” says Jeff Sauer, Richter’s coach at Wisconsin. “He played in the Olympics and we knew once after that, the exposure of being on the world scene and so forth, I knew he wasn’t long for the world here at Wisconsin.
“But one of the things that he promised his mom and dad when he came to Wisconsin, and again after his dad passed away, was that he would finish his degree.”
Richter’s father, a constant driving force in his son’s education, passed away shortly after he left for Wisconsin, but his son never forgot his promise.
In the summers between hockey seasons Richter returned to Madison to take summer classes, and also enrolled in offseason courses at Cornell, where his then girlfriend, now wife, Veronica was a graduate student.
“It was a nice way to kind of move from one world to another and still continue to chip away at my degree,” says Richter, who holds a degree in Ethics, Politics and Economics, with a concentration in environmental policy.
Attending Yale following his retirement helped him transition from his life as a hockey player and jumpstarted what would become his venture into the environmental business.
“I think the bigger adjustment is personal,” Richer says. “You do have a bit of a loss of identity, a death of who you once were and a beginning of your next phase of life. That can be scary and exciting at the same time, and it was. It’s hard to prepare for, and school really helped in that transition.
“You know what you miss and you know how much you love that, but when you have another thing right in front of you that you really enjoy and focus on and want to get the most out of, it really takes the sting away of what you lost and gets you excited for the future.”
Mike Richter had more left to give.
He was never an outspoken leader. Words like quiet, thoughtful and reserved could be and have been used to describe Richter’s demeanor. He was a go-to for the media in Manhattan. Even if reporters had to lean in a little closer to hear what he had to say, they wanted to listen.
Since high school he’s chosen to lead by example, not by volume of voice, and that’s something that’s resonated with those around him.
“He was the hardest working guy on the ice,” recounts JJ Reydel, a former teammate of Richter’s days of playing for Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania, “and even though he was really quiet [at Germantown] his effort and his talent and everything else spoke volumes for the rest of us. We always felt that as long as he was in goal we had a really good chance to win and he was always there.”
In Richter’s freshman year the team made a play for the city’s championship, the Flyers Cup. As the story goes, the team had two solid goaltenders, Mike Richter and a senior, but it was the freshman who had shown an innate skill for the position.
Joe Richter was the upperclassman, backed by his younger brother.
So what was a coach to do? One would assume he’d play the future NHL starter, but Mike wouldn’t let him.
“Mike stepped right up and said to the coach, ‘This is my brother’s team, this is my brother’s game. It’s his game, he should have it,’ and so he gave it to his brother and his brother actually went out and got a shutout,” Reydel remembers. “We won the game and won the cup, which is awesome, but it’s just one more way that Mike is a guy that just gets it.”
Richter has gone from leading teams on the ice to leading teams in the boardroom of his own enterprises, but he’s never changed his leadership style. He’s not afraid to ask questions and learn from the people he’s chosen to surround himself with. That’s how he got his first break playing for the Rangers’ main club after stints in various minor affiliates, and that’s how he’s ensuring his businesses remain successful.
“I think it’s harder when you’re younger, but you don’t have to stand up and give a speech always,” says Richter. “There’s different methods and personalities and the most powerful one is leading by example. If you want the people around you to work hard, then you work harder. If you want to have discipline in your organization then you be an example of that.”
Goalies are known for being weird.
So what happens when a goaltender isn’t? What happens when a winning goalie captures the heart of one of the toughest sports cities in the world and then walks away from the game, only to go on with his life and like any other Average Joe looking for a career change could do?
Does that normalcy actually make Mike Richter the weird one?
“He was well rounded and he just comes off that way,” says Allain, Yale’s current head coach and a longtime friend of Richter’s. “When you think of that eccentric goalie who’s off by himself and does weird stuff on game days, Mike wasn’t that guy, or if he was that guy he was able to channel it in ways you didn’t notice it.”
Allain knows the reputation that comes with being a goalie; he’s one himself. It is because of that connection that their paths first crossed when Richter was a teenager, first at summer hockey schools and later in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
At a young age Richter exuded talent and a competitiveness that was hard to match and made him stand out. He was the first out on the ice and the last to leave it, and when he was out there he had to be the best.
In practice he wanted to find success in every drill. If a shot beat him he wanted to know why. He was quiet and soft-spoken, but he was hard on himself. He would get frustrated, but he wouldn’t take his frustrations out on his teammates. Instead he used it as fuel and pushed his own limits.
He wanted more shots taken on him to prove that he could make the stop. There was no accepting that a good shot may slip under the pads or soar past the blocker. A good shot wasn’t an excuse for a goal.
“He wanted to be the best at everything he did,” recalls Allain. “When we were doing station work like goalie fundamentals he competed so hard and he was pretty hard on himself. It’s one of the things that made him great. I worried at the time that it would work against him because he was so hard on himself whenever he made a mistake or allowed a goal, but it was that drive that really led to his success.”
The competitiveness didn’t just happen in the rink, Richter excelled at academics too. While attending high school at Germantown Academy achievements in the classroom were just as, if not more, important than his accomplishments on the ice.
“He was always the one who was dragging everybody out on the ice and staying late, doing whatever he possibly could to get as many shots on him as possible,” Reydel remembers.
Reydel was two years older than Richter and one year younger than Richter’s older brother Joe, who served as the senior captain of the Germantown team. Reydel’s family grew close to the Richters and his father taught the future pro in AP History.
“I think anyone who’s actually met him and knows him, [knows] he’s a pretty intellectual guy that cares about other things than just sports,” Reydel says. “I think a lot of that was born at Germantown Academy where he was asked pretty significantly to do his work first.”
Richter took advance placement courses in addition to playing hockey and other sports, including football, but after two years he made the decision to leave home for Northwood Academy in Lake Placid, N.Y.
To Tom Fleming, Richter’s coach at Northwood, he will always be Michael, a true senior who came to his school with talent comparable to Tommy Barrasso’s and a drive to get to the highest level in everything he did.
“[We had] the ability to have a high level practice with high level hockey players and then have the academics right there, where a lot of kids have to travel at a distance these days, which is difficult,” Fleming says. “But Michael was a very smart kid. He could have gone to Harvard leaving [Northwood]; he could have gone to Yale.”
Richter, who these days eschews his familiar goalie pads in favor of being a defenseman and team rover in his men’s league, might have retired from the NHL almost 12 years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s left the sports world entirely. Hockey is in his blood and he recognizes how reliant the sport is on the environmental elements. The major American sports leagues are recognizing it, too.
Programs like NHL Green and NASCAR Green are allowing the organizations to take responsibility for their entities while also urging the fans to do the same. The NHL launched a “Gallons for Goals” initiative and released a 2014 sustainability report, which laid out the best practices amongst its 30 clubs.
“It’s pretty interesting because these are competitive organizations amongst each other, but they actually do share a lot of the best practices,” Richter says. “I think what you’ll see from the sports teams and leagues over the next decade will be pretty jaw dropping. The NRDC, Green Sports Alliance, there’s some really good groups out there with cutting edge ideas.”
Richter is spending time working with these institutions to ensure they have the best choices to make the wisest options.
Prior to co-founding HPP with Germantown classmate Ron Gonen, Richter was also a part of the team that founded Environmental Capital Partners, a $100 million equity firm that funds investments in resourceful efficiency. In addition, he launched Athletes for a Healthy Planet with the goal of helping athletes continue to understand their connections to the environment. He is joined in that venture by fellow hockey players Mark Messier and Angela Ruggiero and other high-profile athletes, including John McEnroe and Billie Jean King.
Between those endeavors, Richter finds time to sit on the Board of Directors for Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club Foundation, groups fighting for clean water and air, fundamental needs that act as the foundation for his passion.
“It’s a great thing to be able hike or camp or just be able to play in a tree, and when that starts getting compromised or fouled it really starts affecting the quality of your life in a negative way,” notes Richter, who makes it a yearly tradition to travel to the Adirondacks and play some old-school pond hockey. “I know a stream near my house in Philadelphia that had dioxin in it from a photo processing plant, but it meant the fish couldn’t be and in fact most of the fish couldn’t live. It just changed the way that we were able to interact with the land around us.”
It’s an innovating time in the environmental world and Richter isn’t shying away from the possibilities he and Healthy Planet Partners can create. As a businessman Richter is going all in and approaching the unknown head-on, just as he once did during his legendary penalty-shot save against Pavel Bure in Game 4 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.