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FLAMES EXTRA - THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK

David Rittich's journey to the NHL has happened at break-neck speed and the affable Czech is loving every moment of it

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

That night at O2 Arena in the Czech Republic capital three years ago, Derek MacKinnon was specifically scouting forward Daniel Pribyl, with Sparta Prague playing host to Mida Boleslav BK.

"The final might've been 6-2, 7-2, 6-4,'' recalls the Flames' director of pro personnel. "A high-scoring game where he let in six goals and Sparta might've had an empty-netter to make it seven.

"But there was still something about this guy in net …

"Time-frame wise, we had gone through a boatload of goalies the year before and that year ... so Brad (Treliving) had made a real point that we needed depth at the position organizationally.

"Not just in Calgary. And age-specific.

"So this guy just stood out. Quick laterally. He made a couple of really good saves on breakaways.

"From there, (goaltending coach) Jordan Sigalet took over. He loved his game after seeing tape. Immediately. To the point where you were going: 'Like, really, Jordan?'"

Since then, everybody, it seems, has taken a shine to David Rittich.

And what hasn't been to like?

In relief duty this season since being summoned from the minors, Rittich has gone 4-1-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .929 save percentage.

When the now 25-year-old Rittich arrived in Stockton to join the American Hockey League Heat and pursue his NHL dream a year ago, the young goalie who grew up idolizing Patrick Roy knew virtually no English.

None.

Zero.

Nada.

Nula (in Czech).

"I went back before the (2016) world championships to get him signed and met him in Prague,'' says MacKinnon. "His agent texts me and says he's running a little late, David's in the lobby of the hotel, so go over and say hi.

"I found him, we went for coffee, sat down and I start telling him how much we like him as a prospect. Not the full pitch but just talking, right? Me doing most of the talking. And he was okay, smiling, nodding. 'Yes.' 'Thank you.'

"His agent shows up, comes over and introduces us: 'Derek, this is David Rittich.' I say: 'No need. We've been talking for five minutes.'

"He looks at me. 'Impossible. He doesn't speak any English.'"

Sigalet recalls a moment a couple years back at Rittich's first development camp, informing the new guy that he was due on the ice at 5 o'clock the next day.

"He was going to show up at 5 a.m. the next morning instead of 5 p.m.,'' chuckles Sigalet now. "So I grabbed Daniel Pribyl (yes, the Flames signed him, too) and told him: 'Can you make sure David knows when he's on?'

"That would've been an early morning for the kid.''

Then there was an introductory phone call involving Sigalet, Rittich and his agent, along with various members of Flames management, that also remains memorable.

"The biggest disaster of a phone call I've ever been on,'' muses Sigalet. "I didn't know who was talking half the time.

"But for a kid to come over, couldn't speak a word of English when he got here, and put the effort in that he did to learn is impressive."

The language barrier, Rittich early on made a solemn vow to himself, was going to be no barrier at all.

So he set about brushing up, listening intently, asking questions, watching English-language movies with Czech subtitles on his laptop ("I listen first, stop it, then read (the subtitles),'' explains Rittich. "This helped me so much."

Fiancée Nicola, who joined the adventure, spoke no English, either.

"For me it's easier than for her because I'm every day in with the boys in the locker-room,'' says Rittich sympathetically. "I learn every day. I'm still learning.

"Every day you can learn some new words.

"For me, everything was different, the living in North America. This is a big school for my life. I'll remember this for the rest of my life."

It's a classroom he has adapted to with astonishing smoothness.

"He kinda came from nowhere, right?'' says countryman Michael Frolik. "He had one good year in the Czech Extraliga back home and some scouts saw him and signed him.

"A pretty cool story. He's been great for us.

"Nobody thought he'd make it this quick. Usually for goalies it takes a little more time.

"And then not understanding …

"I remember when I was young, I had a few Czech guys on the team (in Florida) my first year and that helped me so much. Rostislav Olesz kinda took me under his wing. I lived in his house the first season.

"We had a pretty big Czech group there - five, six guys - so that made me feel comfortable. Sometimes the adjustment can be tough.

"You want to help these guys. You were in their shoes once. So when he arrived, invite him for dinner or show him the city a little bit. If he doesn't understand anything, I want him to just come and ask me."

The language of goaltending over here also required a bit of a crash course for Rittich, given the smaller size of the ice, amount of traffic in front of the net and overall quality of the players.

But he adapted quickly there, too.

"The biggest thing for me is his hockey sense as a goalie,'' says Sigalet. "Can read a play. Read a shot. Patient on his feet. So good on his edges. Then there's his compete level.

"He's still learning some things over here, has to clean up some things. But that's part of the process of growing, right?

"He's a fun-loving guy but he can flip the switch on when he's on the ice. He'll tell you - he doesn't let the nerves get to him.

"That's something you can't teach, either. Jon Gillies is kinda the same way. They're gamers."

In a organizational goaltending queue that includes highly-sought after draft picks such as Gillies and Tyler Parsons, Rittich has more than wedged his way into the frame.

A 15-win, 2.27 GAA and .924 save percentage season in Stockton more than justified the projected faith the Flames had shown in beating a few other NHL organizations to Rittich's free-agent signature.

Rittich is happy to be here but not just happy to be here, a huge difference.

And given Mike Smith's propensity for work, he's more than content to take the chances when they arise and run with them.

And has, magnificently, so far.

"How can you beat a goalie who has more than 1,500 games in The Show?'' Rittich asks. "Especially (with) how he's playing." 

An emphatic shake of the head. 

"No chance to beat him in this time," he continued.

"So I'm taking this opportunity like he's my teacher here and I'm a student. I want to learn about his play. His stickhandling. He gave me a lot of experience about this.

"This is huge for me. Lots of really good players in this locker-room. Unbelievable experience for me. I can see what he's doing in practice. What's Johnny doing? What's Monny doing? The big guys.

"You know what? World championships were in Czech in 2015 and Smitty played for Canada. I was on my couch watching on the TV.

"So, now I'm like: 'Wow!' 

"Three years after."

That wonder, the pinch-me factor, is precisely what makes Rittich so easy to pull for.

"He gets himself in the mix right away with the guys,'' says Sigalet. "He doesn't shy away.

"And that's what they love about him. He'll make fun of guys and they'll give it right back to him. I think that's key, too, in the role he's in right now. He knows when to keep it light."

Right now, Rittich is savouring every start, every shot, every moment.

"NHL is the dream for every kid,'' he says. "Same thing for me. It's still a dream for me. I'm not 100% sure if I'll be here or not.

"You can learn every day in practice. You need work hard every day. Because everywhere there are more goalies that want to take your post.

"I just want to play hockey for fun. It's not just a job for me. First thing, it's fun for me."

No matter where this game may take him, he will never, ever forget putting pen to paper two years ago and joining an honest-to-goodness NHL organization.

"I was in my old apartment on my last Czech team,'' he's reminiscing. "I had NHL contract in front of me, I'm just: 'Oh, man. What is that …?'

"Really, it's a dream for me.

"I just want to live my dream. My dream is coming true."

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