From The Archives: He’s Still Our MVP
This From The Archives feature story about Tomas Hertl’s All-Star Game experience appeared in the February-April 2020 edition of Sharks Magazine.
As soon as Tomas Hertl stepped off the plane, Francesca Ranieri knew she had her man.
The National Hockey League was looking for just the right All-Star to execute an idea that maybe not every player would be willing to do, or who could actually pull it off. An executive assistant for league, Ranieri’s assignment was to find just the right person to wear a Justin Bieber mask during a skills event as part of All-Star Weekend in St. Louis.
“Right away I said, yes, it will be great,” Hertl said.
With the reputation of “fun must be always” and constantly flashing his ear-to-ear grin, Hertl would be the perfect fit for what the league was hoping to accomplish.
So when it came time for Hertl to attempt his second shot in the goalie save streak competition at Enterprise Center, he pulled the flat-faced paper mask from under his jersey, put it on, and skated in on Jordan Binnington much to the chagrin of the Blues’ goalie and to the delight of the sellout crowd in attendance.
Never mind Hertl could barely see the puck in front of his skates while trying to peer through the holes in the otherwise lifelike mask.
“The fans loved it,” said Hertl, whose shot was stopped. “That’s kind of what All-Stars is. It was fun, and made everyone feel relaxed. It was pretty fun to do it, and all the guys loved it, too.”
As for background, Binnington challenged the real Bieber on social media that he’d dye his hair platinum blonde if the pop singer could slip just one of 10 shootout attempts past him. A recreational hockey player on the side, Bieber accepted the challenge – expected to take place in the offseason – and suggested the loser donates $10,000 to the winner’s favorite charity.
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Speaking of big bucks, Hertl returned to San Jose with a chunk of the $1 million prize split among the winning Pacific Division members following their third title in five All-Star Games. Hertl had a lot to do with it, too, scoring a combined five goals in two games including the game-winner as the Pacific beat the Atlantic 5-4 for the tourney title.
“Even though everyone isn’t playing as hard as they can, it was still fun because it was the first time for me,” Hertl said. “I’d never been there, and we won, so it was kind of a little special moment for me.”
Named to replace Sharks captain Logan Couture, who was injured for the event, Hertl asked teammate and six-time All-Star Brent Burns what to expect. Hertl was given the advice to just roll with what he was asked to do and make sure to soak everything in. Bottom line, the event is always a fun experience.
“We’ve been on a good team and we’ve had so many others players who are good, too, he hasn’t had a chance to be the guy,” Couture said. “He definitely deserved it, and he represented us very, very well.”
“I’m fortunate not to just have the hockey relationship, but I was fortunate to go to his wedding in the summer and see how he was,” said close friend Brenden Dillon. “I sat next to him on the plane the last four years. I get to see not just the serious hockey player but how much fun he has. Sometimes it gets lost with the stress or the professional demands, to see him go to the All-Star Game and see how much fun he was having.”
Hertl left no doubt about that.
“It started right when we landed in St. Louis,” Hertl said. “ There were so many people to greet us. It was just amazing. The hotel was almost all for us. It was all families and players hanging out. It was awesome to see guys from other teams, and making new friends a little bit, too.
“It just got better, and better,” the 26-year-old added. “You get to the NHL and dream one day you could be an All-Star – how it would be awesome to get there – and I was just lucky to get there.”
It didn’t take long for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Hertl to make an impact. He scored not one, not two, but four goals in a 10-5 win over the Central Division in the tourney semifinals. His breakaway forehand flip over the shoulder of Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy broke a 4-4 tie against the Atlantic with just 2:36 left in the title game to provide the final.
“I scored one, and then two, so I was already happy because it’s my first All-Star goals,” Hertl said. “And it ends up four in the first game, which was amazing in the moment. I was just happy the last one helped us win.”
The All-Star experience was a brief respite from what has been a challenging season for the Sharks. Hertl suffered torn knee ligaments in his second game back, and following surgery is expected to be ready for training camp again in the fall. Hertl experienced a similar procedure midway through his rookie season of 2013-14, and overcame the setback to become the player he is today.
“Not only is he incredibly talented, but he works really hard at it,” close friend Brenden Dillon said. “He works every day in the gym, and you see the attention to detail. I think another credit to him is having a couple major injuries. That can really derail someone mentally and physically. He just seems to come back better and better every year.”
Hertl’s steady climb reached stardom status last season when he scored a career-high 35 goals and 74 points. It wasn’t just the offensive production that stood out. Hertl’s game rounded into form as he became a versatile forward with the ability to play both wing and center, he ranked as the team’s top faceoff winner and he was a stalwart on special teams.
All in all, Hertl could now do it all.
“He’s done an amazing job realizing what his assets are, and he plays that way every night,” Sharks interim coach Bob Boughner said. “He protects pucks as well as anybody. He holds on, takes pride in the faceoff circle, takes pride in penalty killing situations. He’s a guy is that playoff-performer kind of player.”
As the Czech-born Hertl has become more comfortable speaking English, his leadership skills have emerged. He started the year wearing the alternate captain designation on his jersey for the first time. But he’s long been considered an important voice in the locker room.
“He’s learned to be the go-to guy,” Boughner said. “He’s learned from Jumbo (Joe Thornton) and Patty (Marleau); he’s had some great examples in front of him. For me the biggest difference is how he leads vocally. And his play just follows that.”
“He’s been very, very good. It’s not just this year, it’s been in years past, too,” Couture added. “He’s a top player, a top center in the league. Other teams are finding that out. The All-Star Game brings more awareness to how good he really is.”
Hertl had to laugh, too, at sharing good times in St. Louis for three days with peers he only knew as enemies before. That was an experience he enjoyed with Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar.
“I’d never met him, we’ve just been fighting on the ice my whole career.” Hertl said. “It was good to talk about hockey, but also about our lives. It’s just cool to learn what the greatest players in the NHL do. They’re all super nice guys.”
And that’s the impression Hertl left with others as well.
“With this team, with all the All-Stars and legends we have, a guy like Tomas can get lost in the shuffle – he’s maybe a little under-appreciated,” Dillon said. “When you talk about those under-appreciated or high, high-end offensively, strong defensively, last-minute of the game player whether you’re up or down a goal, he’s got to be right up there with them. I’m not surprised the success he’s having, well deserved and rightfully so.”
Ross McKeon has covered the San Jose Sharks and the National Hockey League for 29 years at the San Francisco Chronicle, S.F. Examiner and Yahoo! Sports & authored “100 Things Sharks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” and, with Dan Rusanowsky, co-authored “If These Walls Could Talk/Sharks.” Follow on Twitter: @rossmckeon