Richard, Witkowski Join Crunch

By Jeremy Houghtaling

It's all still sinking in for Tanner Richard.

After finishing up his first practice with the Syracuse Crunch Wednesday afternoon, the 2012 third-rounder -- one of two draftees signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday -- was just beginning to take in his new surroundings.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook since Monday,” Richard said. “It just doesn't stop beeping. Every time I look there's 15 or 20 messages from Facebook and Twitter and everything. Honestly, I'm trying to soak it all in and have a good time."

Richard wasn’t the only fresh face getting acquainted to a new team at the Onondaga County War Memorial. Defenseman Luke Witkowski (pictured), a sixth-round pick in 2008 who finished up his senior season at Western Michigan University, also donned a Crunch sweater for the first time.

"It's pretty crazy it's already gone," said Witkowski, one of the Broncos' captains, of his time in college. "I learned a lot of life lessons, got a college degree out of it, and became a better hockey player. I wouldn't trade any of it for the world."

Witkowski played in all 38 of Western Michigan’s games this season, recording two goals and eight assists. Although he believed he needed to concentrate on his offense early his college career, the 6-2, 200-pounder didn’t earn second team All-CCHA honors for his point production.

"I'm basically a defensive defenseman," said the Michigan native. "I use my skating ability to get out of situations and I hope to not to get beat one-on-one, win my battles in the corner, and make tape-to-tape passes."

Both Witkowski and Richard made a positive first impression with new Crunch coach Rob Zettler.

“He's got the size, strength, and skating ability to do well at this level," Zettler said of Witkowski.

"I won't hesitate to put those guys in the lineup," Zettler added, but added he needed more time to decide if they would play this weekend against Hershey. "They're good players.”

Born in Switzerland, Richard still brings a North American-style game despite his 6-0, 183-pound frame.

"I like to think I'm a skilled forward that can make plays down low and grind and get in on the cycle,” Richard said. “I can also be gritty as well, work hard, and finish my checks."

This season Richard represented Switzerland in the World Junior Championships and registered 65 points and 97 penalty minutes in 57 games for the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm.

"Tanner is a good play-making centerman, and I understand he's pretty good on faceoffs, which would help us as well," Zettler said.

Like Witkowski, Richard sees the opportunity with the Crunch as a learning experience.

"They always have guys going up to Tampa who can contribute right away," Richard said. "Knowing that makes you really confident coming in here that you can learn something from every one of the guys here."

Richard had his eye on the Tampa Bay organization well before he was drafted.

The first NHL game he remembers attending was a Lightning game during their Stanley Cup run in the 2003-04 season, and his interest continued to rise when a player he grew up idolizing, Steve Yzerman, became the club’s general manager.

"I really liked number 19, and he was always my favorite player," Richard said. "I had tons of hockey cards and posters and stuff, so to meet him on draft day and shake his hand was something I'll never forget, that's for sure."