The scene is Pittsburgh, the year is 2012.
Specifically, we’re at Pizza Milano, a stone’s throw from what was then known as Consol Energy Center, the new home of the Penguins and the site of the NHL draft. It’s around midnight. Various reporters, fans and random Yinzers pile in for a slice, excited after a heady night that saw the hometown squad trade center Jordan Staal for the eighth overall pick (Derrick Pouliot – which, at the time, was exciting), Brandon Sutter and Brian Dumoulin.
In the middle of it all is Tomas Hertl, enjoying the pizza and Pittsburgh for the first time. He’s still rocking San Jose’s unmistakable teal jersey and smiling ear to ear as he and his agents from Newport Sports bask in the excitement of his going 17th overall to the Sharks. “That was actually my first visit to the United States,” Hertl said. “It was big for me because when I was younger, I really liked Pittsburgh because of Lemieux and Jagr.”
Ten years later, Hertl is not only one of the Sharks’ most important players, but he’s also one of the most talked-about talents in the league, a pending unrestricted free agent who could change the fortunes of a new squad – or help steer San Jose back toward the top of the Western Conference.
While the Sharks have been in a soft rebuild for years now, they have been surprisingly plucky this season, and Hertl is one of the chief reasons. “At one point in time, he was carrying us,” said coach Bob Boughner. “We had some guys injured for an Eastern road trip, and he just caught fire. He was a little slow out of the gate, but he’s like that. When he starts getting bounces and the puck is going in, he goes on serious runs. We needed that, and he carried us for a month-and-a-half, along with Timo Meier.”
What is most impressive about Hertl is how his game has evolved over the years. He broke in as a scoring winger but has transformed into a devastating two-way center who is now counted on to kill penalties, win faceoffs and play in crucial situations on top of putting the puck in the net. “The one thing that has grown in his game is his details,” Boughner said. “Playing against top lines and not only providing offense but being able to shut down the other team’s top line or protect a lead. It’s also his level of leadership and maturity. Tommy was a young kid that always loved the game and came in with a smile, just a nice guy. Now he has developed into a man, a really vocal guy in the room who says what needs to be said and helps the young guys in the room. He has evolved into a leader.”
Give the Sharks credit for setting the table in that regard. When Hertl came over to North America for the 2013-14 campaign, the Sharks had him live with a billet family to help him adjust to the culture and an entirely new language. “If I had been alone in an apartment, I probably would have just watched movies in Czech,” Hertl said. “Instead, I was in a family that cooked for me and watched TV shows with me in English. It helped me keep trying and helped me focus on hockey because I didn’t have to think about anything else. It was a great first year for me.”
Watching The Big Bang Theory – a show he has now watched all the way through three times – helped Hertl learn English, but his hockey education came at the rink, and with elite teachers, to boot.
“I was lucky,” he said. “My first year, I played with ‘Jumbo’ (Joe Thornton) and Brent Burns, which made hockey easier. Martin Havlat really helped because he was Czech, and I didn’t speak English. He could translate and was always there for me. When I hurt my knee, my girlfriend stayed over at his house, which was really cool.”
Hertl also found someone to show him the ropes off the ice in Tommy Wingels. The two became fast friends, and Wingels drove Hertl around and hung out with him on the road. By Hertl’s second year, they were as close as “peas and carrots,” as Wingels used to say, and Hertl has never forgotten their friendship. This past fall, they briefly got to reunite in Chicago during the NHL’s media tour when Hertl was in town (Wingels, an Illinois native, spent his last two pro seasons in Switzerland, finishing in 2020).
In terms of an incubator, you couldn’t find many better places than San Jose to be an impact forward in Hertl’s early years. Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski were all mainstays, passing down knowledge to the likes of Hertl and emerging two-way center Logan Couture – himself now another Sharks staple. “You try to learn from them, and what I remember most is from Pavelski in my third year,” Hertl said. “I couldn’t get going in the first half, and they put me on a line with him and Jumbo. It was actually the year we went to the final, and he came to me before a game and said, ‘Just play, just relax, don’t worry about anything.’ Right away, that first game, I had two points. At the time, I had like three goals, and in the next 30 games, I had 19 or something. I still remember that moment, and it was super cool for me.”
Couture, a few years Hertl’s senior and now captain of the Sharks, learned similar lessons during his early years in San Jose. He sees the big Czech maturing as a leader, too. “Now he’s comfortable to really speak his mind, and his play backs it up,” Couture said. “He plays extremely hard, and when your best, most-talented skill players are playing hard at both ends of the ice, other players have to buy in as well. He’s been a great player here for a long time, and we’re hoping he sticks around after this year for sure.”
That sentiment runs throughout the organization. San Jose has several young players who have bubbled up from the prospect pipeline. And with Thornton, Marleau and Pavelski all gone, the mentorship responsibilities have fallen heavily to Hertl and Couture. Boughner cited centers Jasper Weatherby and Noah Gregor as two in particular who have benefitted from watching and learning from the two wily veterans.
The big question now is if Hertl will remain in San Jose for the near future. Playoff hopes had dimmed – but were not entirely extinguished – as the stretch drive neared, and it was only prudent for outsiders to wonder if the Sharks would trade Hertl for a massive return at the deadline. After all, big two-way centers who are still in their 20s aren’t the kinds of players who pop up on the market that often, and the Sharks do risk losing Hertl for no return if they stand pat and he walks in the summer.
On the other hand, a nucleus of Hertl, Couture, Meier and Burns isn’t half bad, and Erik Karlsson was having a serious rebound year before surgery on his arm landed him on the shelf for a couple of months. If you’re an optimist, you look at youngsters such as Mario Ferraro and prospects like William Eklund, Tristen Robins and Thomas Bordeleau and believe the Sharks can be dangerous again sooner than later.
The timeline may be critical. San Jose has already missed the playoffs twice in a row, and they likely will again this spring. And as sunny as Hertl tends to be, he is fiercely competitive. “Anybody who knows me, especially from back home, knows that nobody hates losing more than me,” he said. “Even if it’s a board game, everybody is scared of me because I want to win so bad. It’s a big part of me. If I played tennis against Roger Federer and lost, I would be so pissed. That’s just me.”
Needless to say, the past few campaigns have been trying. “I was lucky to come to the Sharks when we had great teams, finals and conference finals,” Hertl said. “The past few years haven’t been easy. For sure, I’m looking to win, but after nine years, you still want to be the guy and lead the team, be one of the guys everyone follows.”
That’s something the Sharks hope Hertl will take to heart when he thinks about his long-term future. Here’s a kid who arrived in town with no grasp of English and a ton of potential, who took the lessons from his teammates and became one of the most important voices and players on the team. “He
really does have a big heart, and you can tell he loves the game,” Boughner said. “He’s one of those guys that comes early and stays late. He has really taken ownership of his career and the team. We all know his contract situation being an unrestricted free agent, and everyone wants him to stay. I know deep down in his heart he wants to stay, and hopefully they can work things out.”
If they do, the Sharks know they have the leaders to help the next generation reach their potential, and that would put San Jose back on the path to contending for the Cup – right where they were when Hertl was finding his way under Pavs and Jumbo.