“I like smiles. I don’t like boring and crying. I just fun,” said Hertl, a Czech who is still improving his English.
There were no shortage of smiles early in the season when Hertl established himself as a Calder Trophy candidate. He elevated his profile with a four-goal performance against the New York Rangers, and raised eyebrows with his between-the-legs goal in garbage time of that game.
His adorably awkward postgame interview in which he declared “This is dream!” also gave many their first look at Hertl, whom the Sharks selected 17th overall in 2012.
Regardless of whether one viewed his flashy goal against Martin Biron as showmanship or showing off, Hertl, 20, showed flashes of elite skill as he amassed 25 points in 35 games.
In that 35th game, a knee-on-knee collision with Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown damaged two of Hertl’s knee ligaments. The resulting surgery caused him to miss the next 45 games. Hertl’s rehab included water aerobics, where most of his classmates were collecting social security. Hertl became the life of the party, tweeting out a pic captioned “fun must by always.” Even in rehab, the gregarious Hertl was all smiles and he even said he keeps up with his new, old buddies.
“He’s had tough luck this year with getting injured. He’s handled it so well, he’s been so upbeat through the whole thing which is really, really amazing for such a young player,” Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. “His smile is contagious and he’s the type of guy you want to be around.”
Sharks rookie forward Matt Nieto spent plenty of time around Hertl, rooming with him on road trips. Nieto, 21, said Hertl found wonderment in things Americans his age might find routine. The two rookies took a trip to Dave & Buster’s, but it was not until they were leaving that Hertl realized the arcade offered prizes in exchange for bonus tickets. Soon after, when Nieto returned to their hotel room, he discovered Hertl had gone on a solo mission to capture two “Despicable Me” stuffed toys and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Hertl confirmed enthusiastically his love for “Despicable Me” and mentioned six times in five minutes how much he loved Adam Sandler.
“He’s that young, that innocent and he’s just playing hockey. He’s a great kid,” Sharks Coach Todd McLellan said.
McLellan was consistent in his praise of Hertl’s play, potential and persistence to return from injury. Hertl’s success has come as no surprise to the Sharks. Last season when he was asked about the core of his team, Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson went out of his way to mention Hertl and his impending arrival right alongside names like Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau.
Hertl validated that confidence in the postseason, as well. Despite playing just the final two regular-season games to prepare, Hertl had a multi-point performance in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings and five points in seven games overall. His offensive poise and strength on the puck were on full display, particularly in Game 4 when he set up shop on the goal line with under a minute left in the first period. First he stepped out in front of the net for a shot, then he recovered the puck and stood his ground near the net to make a patient dish that set up a goal to tie the game.
On the ice, Hertl maintains seriousness–”Only in scoring smile,” he said–yet away from it his enthusiasm is irrepressible. As he took a relatively stern tone talking about his injury and the opportunity for revenge against the Kings, a barrage of balled-up hockey tape flung past his head by teammates returned a bit of humor to the moment.
His bubbly personality and passion for the day-to-day grind of the NHL season, a novelty to Hertl, have been refreshing additions to the Sharks dressing room.
“It’s a lot of funny guys, Jumbo (Thornton) is all the time is smile,” Hertl said. “Guys love it. For my smile, it’s fun I’m always smiling. I am smile.”
Follow Andrew Knoll on Twitter via @AndrewKnollNHL