A month ago, teenage Czech center Tomas Hertl hoped he would make it to the San Jose Sharks roster, barely dreaming he would soon become one of the NHL’s brightest stars.
In six NHL games so far, the 19-year-old has collected seven goals and two assists, due largely to a four-goal night against the New York Rangers on October 8 that virtually changed his life.
In the post-game interview, Hertl managed “This is dream, no reality. I’m happy, crazy,” in his broken English, speaking to a frantic home crowd comprising his mother and girlfriend.
A week later, the story seems to have dawned on him.
“I’m definitely aware now of what I have achieved,” Hertl told AFP in a telephone interview.
“In that game, everything went great, I scored four goals, I scored from all my attempts,” said Hertl, the fourth youngest player ever to score four goals in an NHL game.
Of the four goals, the last one sparked controversy as a breakaway Hertl dropped the puck back between his legs and beat Rangers goalie Martin Biron with a forehand shot that has gone viral on the internet.
And while the crowd ran wild, some commentators including former NHL stars Jamie McLennan and Adam Oates slammed the youngster for showing Biron up.
“I don’t see it that way. I would have shown him up if I went to their bench and made faces at them or laughed,” said Hertl, who will turn 20 on November 12.
The 17th pick in the 2012 draft, Hertl now sits third in the NHL points rankings among the likes of Sidney Crosby, Martin St Louis or Alex Ovechkin, benefiting from co-operation with forwards Joe Thornton and Brent Burns.
“Thornton is one of the best NHL players. He has lots of assists, he can pass the puck and it’s great to play with him,” Hertl said.
“We are all big and strong on the puck, so I think things will get even better,” said Hertl as the Sharks boasted six wins from as many games.
Dubbed the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Hertl” by the US press, the former Slavia Prague center who made it to the Czech Republic team for the 2013 World Championships scored his first two NHL goals in his second game for the Sharks.
This immediately led to comparisons with another Czech, the 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr, Hertl’s role model now playing for the New Jersey Devils, who also scored in his second NHL game in 1990.
“It’s definitely nice to be likened to the greatest hockey legend of our country, but I don’t think I could compare to him, there’s only one Jagr,” said Hertl who, like Jagr, gained some of his muscles on a family farm in his homeland.
Hertl’s quick rise to stardom brought some trouble too — after his six goals in the first three games, Vancouver Canucks defender Alex Edler hit him hard on the head in game four, earning a three-game ban.
Two days later, Hertl limped off the ice with a sore shoulder following a hit from the Ottawa Senators’ Clarke MacArthur.
“But I don’t need a bodyguard,” Hertl insists.
“We’re all big, and I’ll try to take care of myself. I’m also big enough to stand up and hit people myself.”
Jagr spent his first NHL years in the company of his mum, who worked as a full-time cook, cleaner and nurse for him, earning the nickname of “Momma Jagr.”
When Hertl’s girlfriend and mother burst into tears after his third goal against the Rangers, they were immediately taken for a talisman, with Sharks managers saying they should stay indefinitely.
But Hertl, staying with a local family, refused the idea of a “Momma Hertl” as his mother is busy in her Prague shop.
“I’m glad they could come and that I could show them some goals. We had a great time, all three of us,” he said a day after both women returned home.
The NHL rookie scoring record of 76 goals was set by Teemu Selanne in the 1992-93 season.
“I’m happy we keep winning. Every goal I score and every assist is definitely a bonus, a hat-trick is something I didn’t expect at all,” Hertl said.
“But I’m just having fun, without setting any goals. After all, I still have to try hard to stay on the team.”