Hockey, too often, is a cold, conservative game. Entertainment, vibrant personality and showmanship are considered by some to be excess and, instead, many of the people around the sport lionize grinding play, defence and violence.
So Tuesday in San Jose, when Tomas Hertl announced his arrival in the NHL with a four-goal performance – capped by an incredible fourth goal in which he shot through his legs – it was cause for celebration in a sport that has seen scoring steadily decline for three decades. (Even a brief spike in 2005-06, after a season lost to lockout and rule changes, faded quickly.)
The likes of Hertl, a 19-year-old from the Czech Republic who is constantly smiling and barely speaks English, brings some new hope to those who relish spectacle and embrace hockey played fast, with an emphasis on skill and not brutality.
While basketball and football embrace amazing plays, it is only in hockey a goal such as Hertl’s could spark debate.
Many commentators and players cling to the notion of a vague code and Hertl’s goal was considered by some to be undue, given it was 7-2 in the game, and his modest celebration involved a fist pump. (His linemate, 16-year NHL vet Joe Thornton, joked on Thursday about a more immodest celebration had he scored four.)
Adam Oates, the Hall of Fame playmaker and Washington Capitals head coach, vaulted into the Cro-Magnon role, stomping his feet on the porch and shouting at the raucous kids to quiet down. It was suggested Hertl’s goal would have sparked a fight or at least a stick slash back in Oates’s day.
“Don’t disrespect the league,” Oates said.
But Thursday in Vancouver, as the San Jose Sharks prepared to play the Canucks, it felt some of the tide is pushing back against the so-called code in favour of what sport is all about: excitement, creativity and fun.
Fans are loving it. A clip of Hertl’s goal on the Sharks’ YouTube channel has garnered close to 600,000 views.
“We’ve done just about everything we can to increase scoring and a 19-year-old has success one night and we’re going to criticize him?” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said, bewildered there is any negative reaction at all.
He said the game is changing.
“Some of us from the old-school game are going to have to accept that,” McLelland said, and floated an idea the flair displayed by players from Europe is somewhat missing in their U.S. and Canadian counterparts, those who grew up watching an NHL governed by a mystic, thuggish code.
“Maybe we’ve succumbed to ‘the code’ in North America,” McLellan said. “We don’t see a lot of North American kids trying these moves.”
Hertl, as chatter swirls, does little more than work, smile and enjoy. As of Thursday afternoon, he led the league in goals and points. It is dizzying. Surrounded by a crush of reporters and cameras, he managed a few words in English.
“Every NHL game I have fun,” said the 6-foot-2, 210-pound player who turns 20 in a month, smiling and sweat dripping from his face after practice. “This is my dream.”
Born in 1993 – two years after San Jose joined the NHL – Hertl grew up in Prague and played youth hockey for the Slavia club. At 17, he cracked Slavia’s elite men’s team, which plays in the Czech Republic’s top league, and in 38 games he scored 12 goals and 25 points. It caught San Jose’s attention – he was the fifth-ranked 18-year-old coming out of Europe the next spring – and the Sharks drafted him in the first round, the 17th overall pick.
Hertl played another winter for Slavia before making the leap, not only winning a spot on San Jose’s roster but one on the team’s top line with Thornton and Brent Burns.
Goals across the NHL are more plentiful thus far this season. It’s not clear whether it’s a trend but the number of people hoping it is grows. Even a guy like Vancouver coach John Tortorella, known for his defensive-shell instincts, is on board.
“Creativity is an important part of the game,” Tortorella said. “We need that.”
Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo also sees nothing wrong. “It’s a game. You can do anything, as long as it’s legal. I don’t understand it.”
McLellan, at the end, had a concise conclusion:
“I know [Thursday night], when the game is over, both teams better have entertained the fans that pay to come and watch us and the ones that watch us on TV. It’s a simple as that.”
How to pull off a between-the-legs goal
With San Jose leading New York 7-2, midway through the third period, Hertl received a long pass and swooped in on a breakaway.
The trick is to drop the puck between the legs with a light backhand tap.
Then slide the stick between the legs to quickly flick the puck up at the net. Not easy.
The move is a rare one, due to extreme difficulty, and is used occasionally in shootouts. But it has been pulled off in games before by the best players, such as Vancouver's Daniel Sedin in 2010.
Text by David Ebner