Czech out Cal­gary’s quick learner

Rit­tich learn­ing nu­ances of NHL and English lan­guage, writes Kris­ten Anderson.

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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.”

David Rit­tich

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