PRAGUE — Thomas Hurtle he flew to the middle of the ice, a tiny human wrapped in his arms. The child was decked out in a teal San Jose Sharks jersey with “Daddy” written on the back. They chatted with their teammates on the ice as the Sharks wrapped up their first practice at the O2 Arena here, but mostly they were swimming — in the cheering, in the skating, in the fact that father and son shared a moment that will surely go down as a treasured, key memory.
“To get my family and my son the experience here with me, nothing is more special than family,” Hertl said. “They get to experience the moment with me. For my wife and my parents to see me with my son on the ice, a special moment.”
It was even more so considering the San Jose center had not seen his son, Tobias, in three weeks. His family had stayed behind in Prague while Tomas began working this season, and this trip back home marked a reunion with his city, with his family, with an arena where he once played.
Those feelings will only increase on Friday and Saturday when Hertl takes the ice with the Sharks against the Nashville Predators for the 2022 NHL Global Series, opening the NHL season with back-to-back games at the O2 Arena (2 p.m. ET, NHLN, BSSO, NBCSCA).
“It’s crazy for our family,” said Tomas’ brother Jaroslav. “It’s perfect. A lot of people for tomorrow’s game we’ll see. Grandma, big family — it’s 35 people. It’s great.”
Yaroslav also kept a 2-year-old cousin of Tobias, Tadeas. The toddlers were dressed as twins, in black hats and black pants with the Sharks teal jerseys, with Tobias reading “Hertl.”
Both brothers played hockey growing up, one a power forward, the other a bruising defenseman — “big and tough defense,” in Yaroslav’s words. While Jaroslav — fellow Predators forward Matt Duchene long ago with the Ontario Hockey League’s Brampton — who topped Slavia Praha in the Czech league by two games — saw his brother soar.
When asked if they clenched their heads as children, Yaroslav grinned.
“Lots of fights, every time [I won]” said Jaroslav, 32. “I’m older. I’m older.”
Tomas also played for Slavia Praha from 2011-13 before making the jump to the Sharks. Which means the O2 Arena, where he will now play as a valued member of an NHL team, was once his home rink. He last played at the rink in 2015 at the IIHF World Championship.
“Now it will be with the Sharks after 10 years, when I last played for Slavia in Prague in the arena and I think it will be incredible,” said Hertl, 28. “It will feel like I’m bringing back my memory of when I started. I can tell the guys I used to sit here when I was 18, I started playing hockey. I had no beard on my face, still looking like a baby.”
He imagined his family doing the same, sitting there with their memories, remembering how they used to watch Hertl play for Slavia, remembering how it was all a dream back then.
Now it’s his reality.
“He was a young boy, he played for Slavia. Now, for San Jose he is here,” Jaroslav said. “It ‘s crazy.”
And this time, instead of a relative or two in the stands, a friend or a parent, Hertl’s whole world sees him, in his hometown, on the ice that once belonged to him.
“It will be nice, the whole family can see me together at the same time,” Hertl said. “It’s always just my parents or my uncle in town or just like separates or my brother and now it’s going to be like everyone and some friends.”
This includes Hertl’s best friend Jakub Krejcik. The pair played together at Slavia Praha for two seasons before Hertl left for the NHL and Krejcik embarked on a career that saw him bounce around the Czech League, Kontinental Hockey League, Sweden and Finland. Now, coincidentally, he is back in Prague, playing for Sparta Prague, the team that now plays at the O2 Arena. He will be there on Saturday.
“It’s very special for him, but also for us to watch him go through what he’s going through,” Sharks coach David Quinn said of Hertl. “The sport means so much to this country and their star players are heroes. You couldn’t ask for a better role model, not only as a hockey player but also as a person. In the short time I’ve known him, he’s truly a special person. He was awesome to see him bring his son out there.
“You can see the excitement building, leading up to this journey and now that we’re here, it’s fun to watch.”
While in Prague, Hertl had the opportunity to show his teammates around his city, giving them tips on where to tour, where to eat and where to shop. He took them to dinner on Wednesday, the team’s day off, where they gave a demonstration on how to pour a proper Czech beer.
And then he had to show off his arena, his people, his fans — at least in practice.
“It was awesome,” Hertl said. “I’ve never trained with so many people like that and it was just a great feeling. You come home after 10 years … and you’re playing for the Sharks. There were so many kids cheering and cheering for us. It was absolutely great.”
He wasn’t the only one who appreciated it. His teammates were basking in that glow, too, the glow of a beautiful moment for a well-regarded teammate, a glow they believe will only grow bigger and brighter as it transitions from practice to a real game.
“We seem to be a tight-knit group and no one is more respected or liked than Thomas,” Quinn said. “Obviously it’s a new season. It’s the season opener for the National Hockey League. It’s our first one. So there’s a level of excitement unlike any other game you play all season.
“I think playing in Thomas’ hometown and being able to watch how excited he is will definitely give our guys a little extra motivation.”