Czech out Calgary’s quick learner
Rittich learning nuances of NHL and English language, writes Kristen Anderson.
For Calgary Flames backup netminder David Rittich, it seems playing the game is the easiest aspect of the NHL.
Learning a different language, trying to speak and understand on-ice chatters and chirps, the dressing room talk, dealing with the media, and general day-today minutia of being a professional hockey player in North America?
Not so easy.
Asking simple questions like “Which door is the players’ entrance?” or “What time is practice?” or “When does the bus leave?” has been the biggest adjustment for the native of Jihlava, Czech Republic.
Rewind to the summer of 2016, when Rittich signed with the Flames as a 23-year-old wild card out of the Czech Extraliga.
“At that point, he couldn’t speak a lick of English,” said Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet.
Yet, so intent was he to live out his childhood dream of playing in the NHL, Rittich insisted on doing his first interview with the Flames in English. With zero help.
The scene is almost comical. A four-way speaker phone call (which barely works if the four parties know how to speak English) was set up among Sigalet, assistant general manager Brad Pascal, Rittich and Rittich’s agent.
“He tried. You had to give him credit — he wanted to do the interview in English. But it would have taken a few hours, so the (agent) helped with that,” Sigalet said with a chuckle.
“You can just tell that he had character, the character of a guy you’d want in your organization. He learned the language so quickly. He didn’t care if he embarrassed himself doing it. He wanted to learn the language and embed himself in the team.”
Rittich is the starting goaltender for Tuesday’s clash at TD Garden against the Boston Bruins, a decision in the works before Mike Smith suffered a lower body/groin injury in Sunday’s 3-2 win over the New York Islanders.
Smith’s injury — which hasn’t been officially announced — doesn’t appear to be as serious as originally thought when he was helped off the ice Sunday with 1.1 seconds left in the third period. But it means the 25-year-old Flames backup could see plenty of action while Smith heals.
Recalling that first interview, even Rittich has to chuckle.
“I didn’t speak English,” he said following Monday’s short practice at Warrior Ice Arena, the Bruins’ practice facility. “So, it was me, my agent Robert, Jordan and I don’t know who else was there. I try to speak English but I didn’t have any clue what was going on.
“So I just asked my agent and he just translated. It was, like, all translated through my agent. It was pretty funny, if I am thinking about it. But it’s way better right now.”
Rittich explains how important it is to be a good teammate.
“You want to talk to the guys,” said the six-foot-three, 202-pounder.
“You want to have fun. You want to make fun. You don’t want to stand in the corner, watching the guys. They can talk about something and you can understand and in one second, they ask you, ‘What do you think about that?’ And you’re like, ‘Uhh. Ahh.’ That’s it. you know? Right now, they can ask me about something and I can answer. I got answers. I think I’m getting better every day.”
Playing more also means more face time on Sportsnet, TSN, FlamesTV and other television outlets as well as the questions and requests of online and print journalists. And it’s something he’s getting better at. Much better.
“I remember when I came this year and I had first interview with Les (Flames TV reporter Ryan Leslie), I was absolutely awful,” Rittich said. “I didn’t know what he asked me. I just answered something and I hope it was pretty good answer. But when I saw it, I don’t think so. But I’m getting better. Every interview I get more comfortable.”
After facing 32 shots in a 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 8, part of Calgary’s sixgame road trip, Rittich is 5-1-2 with a 2.20 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
So, where the heck did this guy come from?
Calgary’s director of pro personnel, Derek MacKinnon, spied Rittich during a road game against Sparta Praha in Prague. MacKinnon was there to watch Daniel Prybl, who eventually became Flames property, but something stood out about the lanky netminder.
He emailed Sigalet, who also became intrigued.
“I religiously kept watching this kid,” Sigalet said. “He was so impressive, so I kept asking for more video. Sometimes you’re worried they’re going to send the good games all the time and you’re not going to see him playing a bad game. But his compete, his skill set, it was all impressive.”
One thing led to another and Rittich wound up with the Stockton Heat of the American Hockey League. He turned heads there and even passed the onceheir apparent Jon Gillies on the depth chart and was called up to the Flames when the Eddie Lack experiment failed early this season.
Rittich has been with the Flames as Smith’s backup since Nov. 24 and, with Gillies joining the team in Boston on Monday on an emergency basis, he’ll be the centre of attention Tuesday.
His English, no doubt, will be tested once again. But Rittich, admittedly, doesn’t mind.
“I want to learn,” he said, pointing to his chest. “It’s the biggest thing, I think. If you don’t want to learn, you can’t learn. If you want, it’s coming, like, so quick. If you’re watching movies in Czech with the English subtitles and you can stop. Every day, you are with the guys in the locker-room. And you can’t say nothing. Really nothing. I don’t know.
“The biggest thing is I want to learn, I want to play, I want to stay here. That’s maybe why I learn pretty quick.”