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Joy: A Tale of Tomas Hertl

What, exactly, makes Tomas Hertl so fun to watch?

NHL: Ottawa Senators at San Jose Sharks Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tomas Hertl raced towards Martin Biron’s goal, with the puck on his stick and the Sharks at a 7-2 lead in the game.

Biron had seen this movie a hundred times. A hotshot rookie, flying high off a multi-goal night, would bear down on goal, attempt a fancy deke, unleash the inevitable wrist shot, and dare the veteran to stop him. Biron, for his part, would give the rookie a small glimpse of an opening as fleeting as it was illusionary — tempting enough to draw him in with the shot, yet empty enough to result in nothing more than the youngster getting chewed out by the coach for wasting a prime goal-scoring chance.

Hertl slid towards the goal with the puck on his stick. Biron readied his glove, lowering it to the bottom right opening he’d given Hertl a glint of, daring him to shoot it.

Welcome to the big leagues, Rook.

But something wasn’t right. The shot hadn’t come. Hertl didn’t bite.

Biron looked up. Hertl had gone from left to right and had completely crossed his field of vision, his stick suddenly between his legs.

What the hell…

One flick of the wrist later, the puck was flying over Biron’s shoulder into the top left corner of the goal.

Not even the vicious attempt at a hack from Marc Staal could stop the joy from overflowing across SAP Center, with 17,500 fans joining a tearful mother and girlfriend in marveling at the prodigy’s courage and skill.

New York lost the game, and so comprehensive was the 9-2 drubbing that Vigneault’s job security was briefly threatened. Adam Oates (?!) lost his temper, going off on one of those thinly disguised “respect for the game” rants. Martin Biron lost his career, getting placed on waivers within a week.

Most nights, these things aren’t supposed to happen. Teenagers don’t score 4 goals on the top line of an NHL juggernaut, and they almost never have the nerve to pull off a trick shot for the fourth one and succeed. What Martin Biron didn’t know is that most nights, those teenagers are not like Tomas Hertl.

In the post-game interview, Hertl could only say one coherent phrase: “This is Dream.”

Over and over.

Nobody would have it any other way. Because, really, what else could you say?

Everything seemed perfect. 15 goals in 35 games, a spot on the top line all but assured for the next several years, and the brand new face of the San Jose Sharks. That was the life of Tomas Hertl before The Knee.

There are two conflicting versions of what happened in that fateful December game against the Los Angeles Kings. To this day, Dustin Brown swears he didn’t see him coming. Tomas Hertl was simply crossing the ice and had an unfortunate collision with an opposition player. Everyone else who’d seen Brown’s career progression would beg to differ, because they saw a habitual miscreant who deliberately altered his movement and position to impede his rookie opposition in an illegal manner.

Like so many other things, the interpretation of the action might lie entirely on the side you took before anything ever occurred. But it didn’t matter in that instant, and it wouldn’t matter in the long run. Because Hertl lay on the ice, and every Sharks fan had a vision of the season lying in a grave.

At first, it’s difficult to understand why that would ever be the case. It’s tough to see what makes Tomas Hertl so special. It’s hard to figure out exactly what allows so many people to identify with him, to cheer his successes as if they were doing it themselves and to adore his broken English as if their own son was speaking his first words.

Maybe it’s the fact that he was the first true blue-chip prospect San Jose saw crack the lineup since Logan Couture. Maybe it was his raw power and dominant game style. Maybe it was his uncanny knack for the net.

None of those are exactly right. Really, it was the joy. That pure, unbridled joy that was beaten out of so many North American skaters at an early age. That elation that so many scouts would dismiss as hubris, causing a player’s stock to tumble for a simple celebration. That happiness that so many flock to sports for. That is what Tomas Hertl brings. And that’s why everyone loves him.

It’s the same reason every fan loves watching a rookie. They represent the mood before the reality of the 82-game NHL grind kicks in, before the conditioning gets taken to an extreme and the personality gets sapped out of interviews, before the benchings for celebrations start, and before the ‘I’ in team ceases to exist. It’s because rookies capture something primal about the sport, something pure in essence.

It’s because so many rookies just play with joy, the same thing that made so many people fall in love with the game in the first place. Tomas Hertl carries that within him, and so everyone learned to identify with him. So it was only natural that when he fell, so did the spirit of every single Sharks fan watching the game that day.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Despite rushing back for the playoffs, San Jose got thumped by the Kings in the final four games of the first round, losing a 3-0 lead. Things weren’t the same when Hertl returned. His speed wasn’t the same, his style was a bit more tentative, and his stride seemed restricted. Most worryingly, the impediments continued into the next season, where he put up 31 points and looked lost, with a lot more problems and a lot less fun.

Then Peter DeBoer came with his aggressive forecheck, and it was as if Hertl’s game was revitalized. Bumped to the top line after dominating possession play as a center, Hertl’s point production surged, with the Czech forward topping the 20 goal mark for the first time in his career. It was no accident that this coincided with the Sharks catching fire, rising from 11th in the conference to sixth in the West, running through teams like a hot knife through butter to make their first ever Stanley Cup Final.

Hertl was a centerpiece of that team. His flexibility gave the Sharks new weapons down the middle and on the wing. If DeBoer wanted to go toe-to-toe with any top line in the world, he’d send out the Thornton-Pavelski-Hertl unit, which dominated possession at a rate not seen by any other trio that season. If he wanted to match a team center-for-center, he’d have Thornton, Hertl, and Couture lead a 1A/1B/1C sort of matchup scheme, giving the Sharks the depth to match anyone in the West. Things seemed destined for a fairytale ending until Hertl injured his knee again in the Stanley Cup Final. Suddenly, the Sharks were stuck without their “best player” (in the words of DeBoer), and it was no surprise that they got resoundingly thumped by Pittsburgh in the rest of the series, losing 4-2.

No matter. Everyone had seen what could happen with Hertl. He was back, and more importantly, so was that joy he played with. When he was on, you once again felt like anything could happen.

But Hertl lost more time to injury the season after that, and the same fears started again. He was so good when on the ice, but what good are the first four words in that sentence when they’re accompanied by the next four? It made you wonder whether you’d hitched your hopes to a broken carriage, whether anything was worth waiting for. Because when something lifts you miles in the air, the drop is as painful as the rise is exhilarating.

And yet somehow, he had a way of making you forget all that. Half a season and 12 goals later, the smile was back and so was the Hertl everyone knew and loved.

There’s something about a player so capable of conveying his emotions through his game that makes a fanbase fall in love with him. At the end of the day, you can’t walk away from that joy. When Pavelski, Thornton, or Burns score, the Tank erupts in excitement. When Tomas Hertl scores, it also radiates warmth.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Something looked different about Tomas Hertl as he blew down the ice. Maybe it was the fact that he already had five goals on the season, including a hat-trick that night. Maybe it was the fact that he blew past Michael Del Zotto like the Ferrari overtaking a Toyota on the freeway. Maybe it was the fact that he vaguely resembled a puppy more than he did an NHLer, with his big eyes and gigantic smile.

Martin Biron didn’t know what was coming. How could he?

What Hertl carried with him wasn’t just the puck. It was that pure, unbridled joy that just washes over you like a ray of sunshine.

There’s no earthly force capable of stopping that.