By Brandon Kisker | AHL On The Beat
Every day across the American Hockey League equipment managers are busy tending to every minute detail of the dressing room.
From sharpening skates all the way to picking up that gum wrapper left behind, these guys do their best to make sure the everyday routine is as close to the same to not disrupt the players’ preparation for the games.
Around the Stockton Heat locker room on a game day it’s easy to see exactly how equipment managers Peter Bureaux and Luke Eichas do their best to keep the routine the same. A couple hours before his start, in walks netminder David Rittich with a smile on his face (always) asking for his pregame drink.
Out comes Luke with a Pepsi.
It’s a tradition Rittich has had for years dating back to his days playing junior hockey for his hometown team in Jihlava, Czech Republic. However, now he’s asking for that Pepsi in a new language and in a foreign country.
“When I came to America for the first time, I just could say ‘hello,’ ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye,’” Rittich said, “and now I feel better because I can speak with the guys in the room, with coaches, with media and I feel better and better because you must always learn all the time.”
This time last season, Rittich was back in his home country playing his first full season in the top Czech league with BK Mlada Boleslav. During the season Rittich’s agent told him that the Calgary Flames were displaying interest, culminating in a meeting with Flames scout Derek MacKinnon later in the year.
Rittich signed with the Flames on a one-year, two-way contract on June 10. It would be his first time coming to America, a land far different than the one he was leaving.
“It’s so different than back home,” Rittich said. “Everything is so different, but I like that.”
Of course the biggest difference was a language barrier, a barrier that becomes less and less of one each day.
“Every time someone tells you a new word, you have to question what that is so you learn.”
Language. It’s a funny thing we take for granted. Until we’re put in a situation, or in Rittich’s case, a job, that requires it.
“It’s been so hard for me because when you stop the puck behind the net, what can you do,” Rittich said. “At first I was nervous and didn’t feel good, and that led to my first two games which were awful. I remember one of my first games I went to play the puck and [Kayle] Doetzel was yelling ‘Leave it, leave it, leave it,’ and I went, ‘What?’ and messed up the play. ‘Oh, sorry buddy…’
“I feel good right now though. I can understand what the guys are saying and you can see that from the results of my games. When you feel good, you can play the best you can, but when you feel bad or nervous, your results show that. Now I feel good, the guys can speak with me now and we are good teammates together.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the coach he spends the most time with, first year Heat goaltending coach Colin Zulianello.
“David’s done an excellent job with his communication and getting acclimated to North American culture,” Zulianello said. “I think part of that is to do with his outgoing personality and he’s willing to take a risk speaking the language even if he says something wrong and he’s also a people-oriented person. It’s amazing to see how far he’s come from the beginning of the summer to now, it’s impressive and a testament of his personality.”
Communication is only half of the transition though. Growing up in Jihlava, an old mining town of just over 50,000 people, to the large, diverse population of Stockton, California, is an adjustment of its own.
Fortunately for Rittich, he has some help. At home it’s his girlfriend Nikola, who as Rittich said, speaks less English than he does. The two are learning the language and culture together.
“Nikola and I are learning a little bit together on the computer,” Rittich said. “We go around Stockton and we’ve done tourist things in San Francisco like see the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, seal watching in the Bay, and have gone to the beach that overlooks the [Alcatraz]. We like it here!”
Plus, the third member of his family, his beagle Alvin, enjoys the dog park behind the couple’s house.
Rittich’s comfort level with his surroundings has become extremely apparent as of late. Despite allowing four goals in his first start, and three in his second start, both ending in losses, Rittich has captured the headlines not just in Stockton, but across the AHL.
His following three starts were near-perfect, allowing just one goal on 75 shots. He’s continued his good numbers by posting a league-leading 1.38 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage, coupled with his tied-for-second-best three shutouts on the season.
Adjusting off the ice. Check. Adjusting on the ice. Check.
His performances have not only helped lift the Heat to the top spot in the Pacific Division, but also help reduce the Heat to an AHL second-best 2.38 goals against per game.
But you won’t hear from Rittich’s mouth that it’s solely because of him. Language barrier or not, the language of hockey is an internationally known one.
“My job is to help the guys when you can,” Rittich said. “When we win it’s not because of saves I made, it’s because we win as a team. They are my guys, my team, and they are playing so good right now. I need to say thank you to them.”
Just months in, you can tell that when Rittich says they are his guys, he genuinely means it. They aren’t just his teammates. They are his English tutors. They are his ping-pong opponents. They are his guide to North American cuisine and entertainment.
Most of all, they are his friends, and he is theirs.
For Zulianello, it’s easy to see why.
“David’s got an amazing personality,” Zulianello said. “It’s magnetic in that people are drawn to him and you just want to be around him. He’s very jovial, fun loving, always smiling, he’s always having a good time and he has a genuine love to be at the rink and a love for the game. He’s infectious and his teammates love it, us coaches appreciate his enthusiasm and he brings energy to our practice, to the locker room to the plane the bus, wherever we are. He’s just a real positive kid to be around and you can see that in the way that he plays.”
So inevitably this week with the Heat playing three games, one at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario and two in San Diego, you know exactly what will happen when Rittich picks up his next start.
Once again you’ll hear a crack and fizz as he takes a seat in the trainer’s room and chats away, inevitably soaking up new terms, words, phrases and ways to communicate with his new home.
But it’s everyone else around him who reaps the biggest benefit. For the fun loving, jovial, always smiling goaltender, performing at a league-leading level, will have brightened their days.