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BROTHERLY LOVE

Rittich, inspired by autistic brother's perseverance, gives him surprise of a lifetime meeting Harvey the Hound

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

David is in the spotlight, the centre of attention during a national broadcast of a critical Saturday contest between the Flames and Edmonton Oilers.

Nearly 8,000km away in the Rittich family household, the TV's on and the troupe gathers 'round, but younger-brother Tomas is hoping not for close-ups for his talented bigger bro, but a more huggable member of his favourite team.

"Typical," David, the bubbly beacon of energy, laughs. "When they're watching my games when they're back home, he's always looking for Harvey the Hound.

"He pretty much loves him. 

"I wanted to give him a moment he'll remember, so we planned a surprise for him. 

"He actually got to meet the real Harvey after practice the other day. I knew he'd be happy, but I didn't know (exactly) how he'd react. 

"He was in tears. 

"I was close."

Tomas, running in place after the furry canine rounded the corner, flew into the arms of his woolly hero before turning back and giving his brother a mighty embrace as a thank-you.

No, Tomas, 'thank you," David reminds. 

Video: David Rittich suprises his younger brother

Tomas, 23, has autism, along with other developmental issues that have had a significant impact on both of the brothers past, present and future. 

For the most part, he lives an independent life, but has limited social skills, and his ability to communicate, interact and maintain relationships are challenges David and his parents, Jana and David Sr., have learned to adapt to.

It's also why the Rittichs value their family time more than anything in the world, making the long trek west to watch David (and Harvey) over the past few weeks a memorable one for all. 

The constant in Tomas' life, however, is a love of family, the Flames and, of course, Harvey the Hound.

"To have Tomas here and get to see the smile on his face every day - it's the best," David said. "I love him very much.

"It's good for me to keep working, keep trying my best. Everything I do, I do for him. I want to make him proud. He doesn't get that opportunity, so I'm doing it for both of us."

The brothers, naturally, don't know anything different. 

The younger Rittich was born with those challenges and because of the love and unwavering support David has selflessly offered over the years, the two are closer now than ever before.

If there was ever an issue at school, the park, or anything in between, David took it upon himself to be his protector. 

His mentor, guardian, and above all, his best and most loyal friend for life. 

"Especially when we were younger, he didn't like it when things change," David said. "I always did everything I could to make him feel comfortable. 

"Seeing him upset or (in pain) was the worst feeling.

"I hated it."

Worse, he could see the pain in the eyes of his parents, who had sacrificed so much for their children - more, David decrees, than he could ever re-pay.  

The weepy-eyed, 6 a.m. hockey practices ("They drove me to the rink and stayed the entire time," David says) aren't exclusive to Calgary, it seems. 

David's hobbies and Tomas' regular care meant Jana and David Sr. were occupied most of the day, with little time for themselves. 

"Family is the most important thing of all," David said. "I don't know when I realized (that Tomas had challenges), but he's had it from the moment he was born, and my parents worked so hard for him. For both of us.

"I don't know anything else.

"But that's how it was, and you have to live with it. It was hard on everyone, but it brought us closer together.

"He's my inspiration."

This is Tomas' second visit to Calgary after making a stop in Stockton two years ago to watch his older brother break out with the AHL Heat. 

But when he's back home - eight hours ahead in Jihlava, Czech Republic - the two make time to connect at least once a day over the phone. 

"He always chirps me, and he's pretty good at it," David laughs. "I don't even know where he learned that stuff.

"It's the best part of my day. 

"The way he's grown up, the way he fights and (handles) the challenge, I'm very proud. He goes to the school and he can go to the store by himself now, and he's really become an independent guy.

"Someone I look up to more than anyone else in my life."

It's really no surprise, then, that No. 33 has beaten the odds himself and become a top-flight 'tender in the world's best league. 

It takes a resolve as tough as diamond to go from undrafted unknown to NHL surprise in the blink of an eye, staring down some of the best athletes ever to play the game. 

And to do so with a soothing demeanour that commands the kind of respect one with a 17-4-4 record should. 

The simple fact is that above all, Rittich wants a legacy beyond the pucks and blue paint. 

He wants to be a good, kind-hearted man. 

The imprint his younger brother has left on him, already, this early in his life. 

"He's more of a mentor to me and than I am to him," David said. "But, it's true, we both help each other. 

"When I was growing up, I never thought about the NHL. My dad played (hockey) and was also referee, and he would always bring me to the rink to watch. I never paid much attention to what he was doing. I was more interested in the goalies. 

"Still didn't think of it as a career. It was fun, and that's that. 

"Then, when I got a little older, I became a referee, too - about eight years ago. At that time, it was great money. I was playing junior, didn't have a lot of time for a (part-time) job. If you want to bring a girl out on a date or go somewhere with the boys, you need the money, and that was easy money for me.

"But then, I got a little better, started to see the (potential), got the offer to come here, and now I'm playing in the NHL. 

"To play in this league? Very lucky. Not many guys get the chance. And now my brother sees me here - a big deal - so I'm doing everything I can to get better and make him proud."

And to teach others. 

Tomas would be proud of that, too. 

"Looking at the future, I think one day I would like to be a goalie coach," David said. "To me, it's the perfect thing. 

"To stay involved in the game I love, and to be able to be a (leader) for other young guys at an important part of their careers…

"That's who I want to be. 

"For him."

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