A hero amongst the pretenders

Chris Lopresti

What a dark time it is for professional sports. In the past 2 months we’ve seen a lockout in the National Hockey League causing the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season, NBA basketball endure the worst player/fan brawl in the history of the league, and questions of steroid use in Major League baseball have suffocated the front pages of newspapers across the country. Who would have ever thought that the NFL would be the sport with the best reputation? However, excessive celebrating, off-field confrontations and drug use have placed a black cloud over football as well.

Sports have become a mockery. Once a symbol for all that was great about this country, pro sports have become surrounded by bad publicity. So many players have big egos and big wallets, but small brains and little self control when it comes to drugs and violence (on and off the field). It’s really sad that these types of athletes have to ruin it for the die-hard fans (such as myself) as well as the players who still understand the responsibilities that come with being a professional athlete.

Growing up I used to admire athletes for their heroism and for the conduct that they displayed between the lines. In my 18 years, I’ve noticed a steady slip in the reputation of sports. Players are arrogant, disrespectful and selfish to the point where they’ve forgotten what it means to be a professional athlete. For most of today’s players, it’s all about the money. Forget the fact that it’s totally unjustified for a man to get paid $20 million a year to hit home runs while a hard-working father of 5 struggles to pull down $40,000 a year. No, perhaps the most upsetting thing is that these players are not even appreciative of the massive amounts of money they are being paid to play a “game.” In many cases, players actually have the nerve to suggest that they are not being paid enough for their services and talk about how they “have a family to feed.” Perhaps if they spent less money on themselves (jewelry, fancy clothes, and luxury cars) and more on their families there wouldn’t be so much to complain about. Needless to say, there are millions of families in this country who live off much less money than these so-called “underpaid” players.

I grew up idolizing one man; Mike Richter of the New York Rangers. Richter no longer plays in the NHL (forced to retire due to post-concussion complications). Talk about an old-school player! He, to this day is a role-model for me and anyone else who watched him play. He was a man who played at 110%, loved the game, was thankful for his gifts, kept his mouth shut unless something positive was coming from it and most importantly gave back to the community and the less fortunate.

Upon making New York City his year-round home early in his career, Richter embraced the metropolitan area and worked extensively with a variety of charitable organizations. In 1995, he was recognized with two prestigious civic awards: the Thurman Munson Award for his considerable charity work and the Sloan Kettering Award of Courage for his work with various New York hospitals. After receiving a Harley Davidson motorcycle as MVP of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, Richter auctioned the bike off with proceeds benefiting pediatric patients at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. In 1997, he was recognized for his service to New York youngsters with the “Crumb Bum” award.

He’s been gone from the game for about a year now and I miss him more than I can ever explain. The Rangers have lost the spark and the passion that once made them great. #35 no longer stands between the pipes at Madison Square Garden as he did for so many nights and I have had a tougher time adjusting to that than anybody outside of Richter, his family, and those who knew how important his career was to him. Watching clips of his career highlights and reading about what a special man he was touches my heart in a very special way. I can only hope that I one day grow up to be half the man that he is.

“Playing this game has met and exceeded my greatest dreams. To play a game for a living you have to consider yourself very, very fortunate. To play that one game for only one team, you have to be lucky. And to have that team be an original six team with all its rich history and to represent this great city of New York, of all places, is about as good as it gets. I’m amazed by this gift…I will miss it. I will miss it, but I remind myself that what I am giving up in hockey, I am gaining in life. I said to a friend if I could just find a job that gives me as much challenge and fulfillment as hockey has, I’m sure it would ease the transition. He interrupted me and said, ‘you won’t because there isn’t one.'”