Audra Richards was hired as an assistant for the Hastings Raiders girls' hockey team two years ago, and it's tough to imagine someone more qualified or passionate to help teach the Raiders all about hockey. Richards has played at nearly every level of hockey imaginable-from youth, high school and juniors to Division 1 collegiate hockey-and now she has embarked on a new journey of professional women's hockey in the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), inspired in part by her time coaching the Raiders.

Richards was somewhat late coming to hockey-she first started playing when she was 10 years old-but it quickly became her passion.

"I was more into soccer than I was hockey at the time, but my entire neighborhood played hockey so I was forced to play street hockey all the time," she said. "I got sick of always playing hockey and not soccer so I convinced my best friend that if I signed up for hockey that she had to sign up for soccer. I signed up for hockey and have loved the sport since."

She is a Maplewood native and eventually played for the Tartan Titans (now a Metro East Conference rival of the Raiders) through her sophomore year. However, after that year she said she wanted to take her hockey career to the next level and started playing Tier 1 hockey for the Junior Women's Hockey League (JWHL) Minnesota Thoroughbreds, where they played more than 75 games a year. However, she still played multiple sports and was a part of Tartan's soccer and track and field teams.

Eventually, Richards committed to play Division 1 collegiate hockey at the University of Maine.

"The recruiting processes was a very stressful time. I had a few schools that were involved in my decision making process," she said. "I chose Maine because it felt most like home even though it was the furthest from home."

While at Maine, Richards played in 132 games and scored 45 goals with 25 assists-twice leading Maine in scoring her sophomore and junior years-before graduating in 2016. She returned to Minnesota to teach Physical Education and that is when she was put in touch with Hastings girls' hockey coach Josh Colvin and joined the Raiders.

"I have always wanted to coach. Sports are what have defined me my whole life and I have always wanted to give back to the sport that has given me everything, good or bad," Richards said about what drew her to coaching. "My most influencing coach was when I was in high school playing for the Thoroughbreds, her name was Marci Bydlon. My goal is to make a mark on each player I coach like she made on me."

Despite not being a Hastings native, she also said that she's been welcomed with open arms.

"I am not a Hastings native but it sure feels like I am when I go back to visit after being in the NWHL," Richards said. "My college teammate Brittney Philbrook (Huneke), 'the' Hastings native, got me hooked up with the Hastings hockey organization and with that I met Josh Colvin who ended up hiring me on as his assistant coach alongside Steve Benson."

Richards coached for Hastings for two years before she signed with the Metropolitan Riveters this past summer, who are based out of New Jersey.

"I never really thought about playing professional hockey until this past summer. I thought my playing days were over, but each year watching the Hastings girls play for something bigger than themselves made me miss the game and team atmosphere more than anything," she said. "It is pretty cool to say I am a professional women's hockey player in the U.S. because when I was younger the highest you could dream was D1 or Olympics and that limited the years you could play after college. Now you can play as long as you can keep up!"

Even after all this time playing and being around hockey, when lesser players may have burned out, Richards still has her passion and love for the game.

"I love the intensity and speed of the sport. I love working as hard as I can and being successful as a team," she said. "I also love the family culture hockey brings. Every team I have been on I feel like I am part of a family, it is the most amazing feeling to have so many people around you love the same thing you do and that goes for coaching as well."

Her experiences playing hockey at so many different levels have proven invaluable for Richards so far in her coaching career, though it also has presented some challenges as well. She said that after playing at the highest levels, she would sometimes catch herself assuming that her players knew where they needed to go when in fact they hadn't been taught yet and that would be the next thing they would have to work on. She also said that her coaching has also helped her when she's on the ice as a player.

"When I first started coaching with Colvin I mentioned to him on multiple occasions that I wish I could have coached before I played because being a coach you see the game in a different perspective and I feel like I am much more aware of what I am doing on the ice after coaching high school for two years," Richards said. "I pay more attention to details that I didn't before I coached."

Richards has put her coaching on hiatus this season as she plays her first season with the Riveters. She has played in 12 games so far and has eight goals. The Riveters, 3-9 as of Jan. 17, have four games left in their regular season. The NWHL plays their games on the weekends and is made up of five teams including the Minnesota Whitecaps.