MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks knew Jake Richard’s time would come.

Now a few months into his first season, the coaches are starting to see the young forward develop into the player he can be, maybe even a little sooner than expected.

Richard, 17, is a Florida native who was drafted by the Jacks last spring with the future in mind.

The team recognized his raw potential, and figured that within a year or two he would become a dangerous goal scorer.

As Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton said recently, “He’s going to be a high-end goal scorer in our league, if not next year then the year after. He’s going to be leading the league at some point.”

He’s not there yet, but the evidence is starting to build to support Hamilton’s prediction.

Muskegon Lumberjacks forward Jake Richard

It all started on Dec. 11 in Chicago, when Richard finally broke through with his first goal of the season.

“It was a great feeling,” said Richard, who was also drafted by the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockely League, but chose to play in Muskegon. “It got the monkey off my back. I had been waiting for a while.”

Richard called his parents (Gilles and Kathleen Richard of Lakeland, Florida) after the game, to tell them about the first goal, but he learned when he grabbed his phone that they already knew.

“They were actually watching it live, and they texted me as soon as it happened,” he said. “They were so happy.”

Hamilton figured that first goal might be a turning point for Richard.

“After he scored that goal, you could see the relief in his face, then watching him in practice after that, I figured it would be a huge step forward for him,” the coach said.

After going without a goal in October and November, Richard, who has tremendous offensive talent, has scored four goals in recent weeks. Photo/Tonya Pardon

Hamilton was correct. Richard scored again on Dec. 15, helping the Lumberjacks pull off a big 3-2 upset of the Team USA 18-Under squad.

Two days later he scored his third goal of the season in a 6-3 loss in Green Bay.

Then came the highlight moment, when Richard scored the game-winning goal with a minute and a half left in Muskegon’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Green Bay on Dec. 18, their last game before the Christmas break.

The Lumberjacks trailed 2-0 after two periods, fought back to tie the score, then won on Richards’ late goal.

“There was only a minute and a half left, we were pretty tired, and everyone was looking forward to Christmas break,” Richard said. “I was in front of the net, Noah Ellis shot it from the point, it hit the goalie and went out to the side, and I just buried it.”

Richard said the team talked in the locker room before the third period, and everyone was determined to rally and get the win.

Richard was also drafted by a team in the elite Ontario Hockey League, but chose to come to play for the Lumberjacks instead. Photo/Tonya Pardon

“We knew we could do it,” he said. “It was just time for us to go out and prove it.”

Richard said is confidence is soaring right now, and he’s looking forward to playing more minutes over the rest of the reason and helping the Jacks win more games.

Hamilton is all for that, but he cautioned that Richard is still a work in progress, and his best days are still ahead of him.

He said Richard’s biggest challenge is improving his skating ability, and it’s coming along.

“It’s a fast league,” Hamilton said. “He’s got unbelievable skills and scoring ability. Now it’s just a matter of him creating separation (from defenders) so he can make those plays, and building his strength so he won’t end up on his butt.

“It’s just a matter of time for him. He will be a huge point producer in the future. This year he has worked his way to being on a pretty good line with Phil Tresca and Jack Williams, and the challenge for him is to stay there. There is internal competition on the team on a daily basis.  He’s having some success, but there is definitely room for improvement.”