In his second season with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugolds, junior Jon Richards found a home and became one of the team’s top scorers in a season that was leading to a shot at a Division III national championship before being sidelined by COVID-19.
“It was really disappointing,” said Richards. “We felt like we had a really good shot winning the national championship. We had all the pieces of the puzzle top to bottom, had a really good solid group, guys all got along. A lot of guys were upset, especially the seniors. Those guys put in a lot of work the last few years.”
Richards was a top-line center and finished third on the team in scoring, along with Andrew McGlynn, a sophomore from St. Louis, and senior Jake Bresser from Eau Claire.
All three players had plus/minus ratings of 30 or better through 28 games. Bresser (16G, 17A, +33), Richards (12, 16, +31), McGlynn (11, 16, +30).
“I learned a lot from last year with the changes from Division I to Division III,” Richards said. “I played more, had more opportunities. My linemates were unbelievable too. They made it really easy and really fun to play.”
Richards played juniors for the Austin Bruins (Austin, Minnesota) of the North American Hockey League in 2016 before making the jump to Division I at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in the Eastern College Athletics Conference in New York in 2017. Richards played sparingly at RPI as a third or fourth line winger. The move to Wisconsin to join the Blugolds brought far more playing time and enjoyment.
“Right away I felt it was the right place for me,” he said. “It definitely feels like a home, guys are great and the coaches are awesome. I really like it here.”
In his first year at UWEC, Richards scored nine goals, three of which were game-winners, and added seven assists in 27 games.
“Last year, I was just getting used to playing a lot at the college level,” he said. “This year, having that experience I worked on a few skill things this summer and hockey I.Q. and it worked out.”
UWEC finished the season 22-4-2 and captured the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference defeating UW-Stevens Point 4-2 on the road in the title game.
For the first time since 2013...— Blugold Hockey (@UWECHockey) March 9, 2020
WE ARE HEADED TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT!!! pic.twitter.com/GAWjxthv1i
“Winning the WIAC championship was really special for me, personally,” said Richards. “I hadn’t beaten Stevens Point until that game so it was really special to finally beat them in that barn.”
In the last six games with Stevens Point, Richards and the Blugolds were 0-5-1, including a home-and-home sweep by the Pointers in December and a 3-3 tie in January. The Pointers were the defending national champions after claiming a sixth title in 2019.
The victory in the WIAC championship game snapped the Pointers 15-game unbeaten streak and the Blugolds exacted revenge for a 3-2 loss to Stevens Point in the 2019 battle for the Commissioner’s Cup.
Richards and the Blugolds had a healthy team chemistry that aided in the championship run.
“Our team bond that we had, everybody got along,” he said. “There were never any personal issues with guys. Going to the rink was fun and we enjoyed being with each other. That bond will be something I’ll never forget. Even though we didn’t get to go as far as we wanted to, I think we all know we would have done something really special given the chance.”
The WIAC title earned UWEC an automatic spot in the Division III National quarterfinals awaiting the winner of Lake Forest and MIAC champions the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) before the season was canceled.
Richards will return in the fall for his senior season, but memories of what could have been still dominate his current thought process.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to think of it,” he said. “We’re supposed to be getting ready for a game here in two days.”
After a strong junior season, Richards is in line for a leadership role in 2020-21, potentially earning a letter on his sweater.
“We’ll see,” he said. “As a team we all vote and coaches have a big part in the voting process too. If given the opportunity, I’d be honored and I’d love to have a leadership role on the team. If not, that doesn’t change the way I play the game. I’m going to give it my all on the ice every time with the guys I love to play with and be with every day.”
Richards found scoring success returning to western style of play the past two seasons after a year out east.
“The style of hockey we pay is really hard to play against,” he said. “We forecheck hard and play physical. It’s tough to play against us for a whole game. We wear guys down. Out east, a lot of teams rely on a skill game. They try to do crafty plays and I think, out there, it works because all of them do it, but in the west, every team in the WIAC plays hard. It is different, but at the same time hockey is the same.”
Richards also kept an eye on local hockey with his former Detroit Lakes team starting fresh with a new coaching staff under Ben Noah.
“It was really exciting that they made it to the semifinals in the playoffs,” said Richards. “I got the opportunity to do that all three years and it’s really exciting to be a final four team in Section 8. Obviously, they ran into a really good Warroad team. I wouldn’t hang my head about anything losing to that team. It’s an accomplishment getting to the final four.”
Richards had Noah as a Bantam coach, along with Jack Kippen as a sophomore and Mike Miller coached Jon’s brother Jens. Everybody involved with Detroit Lakes hockey and golf knows Tanner Lane and Jon has gotten to know him over the years, as well.
“They’re really good coaches,” Richards said. “I’m not surprised that Ben Noah got those guys to rally up for the playoffs. He’ll do a good job in the future.”
Richards’ season ended with an All-WIAC honorable mention recognition and the Blugolds were ranked No. 4 in the final D-III national poll.