When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to 21, I was astonished how much he had learned in seven years. – attributed to Mark Twain
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Forget about the fact Mark Twain actually lost his father when he was only 11 and that there is no direct evidence even connecting the famous storyteller to the quote. It’s a great sound bite, and it applies to David Rittich as much as anyone. Youth wasn’t exactly wasted on the young when it comes to the Calgary Flames goalie, but Rittich can attest that a lot of us often don’t appreciate the wisdom of our elders until our heads are extricated from our rear ends.
You see, David Rittich Sr. was a decent hockey player back in the day, making it as far as junior in the Czech Republic. But more importantly, he was also a referee in the top Czech League for a decade, working games at night after completing his day job as a school caretaker.
He had been around elite hockey players for much of his life. So he knew a little something about working diligently and with purpose, being mentally strong, applying oneself and making the most of the gifts with which you’ve been bestowed. But David Rittich Jr. was having none of it. And that’s part of the reason why he’s 27 and only now establishing himself as a legitimate No. 1 NHL goaltender.
It’s why he toiled in obscurity for much of his career and why he was not only never drafted but not even on the radar of people who sniff out hockey potential all over the world the way bloodhounds sniff out, well, blood. “He was a forward, but he wasn’t that good,” Rittich said of his father. “When I was younger, I didn’t listen to him much. I have to say he was always right in every single thing he told me. If I was smarter, I think when I was young, I could be much better.”
The man who came out of nowhere is actually from Jihlava, a mining town of 50,000 in central Czech Republic that sits on the historical border between Bohemia and Moravia. It’s not the place the NHL forgot. Quite to the contrary. It’s just the place where the NHL forgot, or didn’t notice, David Rittich.
Even though Jihlava now plays in the second-tier league in the country, it has a rich hockey history, with 12 Extraliga titles. Former NHLers Bobby Holik, David Vyborny and Jiri Slegr are all from Jihlava. Dominik Hasek even played there in 1989-90, the season before he came to North America. And Rittich might never have been found had the Flames not dispatched pro scout Derek MacKinnon to the O2 Arena in Prague in 2015 to check out the progress of prospect Daniel Pribyl, who was playing for Sparta Prague against Rittich’s BK Mlada Boleslav squad. Rittich got shelled in the game, but MacKinnon couldn’t help but be impressed with the battle and compete level of the goalie who let in goal after goal as the result of breakdown after breakdown.
There are some things you need to know. To that point, nobody knew who David Rittich was. Nobody. Until he joined BK Mlada Boleslav in 2014-15 as a backup to Martin Ruzicka, Rittich had been playing for Jihlava’s team in the second-tier league. He had never appeared for a Czech national team at any level and was basically doing nothing to make an impression on scouts.
Rittich was eligible for the draft in 2010, 2011 and 2012. NHL teams selected a total of 64 goalies in those drafts, among them Fredrik Andersen (twice, once by Carolina and once by Anaheim), Petr Mrazek, John Gibson, Jordan Binnington, Matt Murray, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck. Mrazek was in the same 1992 birth year as Rittich, which made their birth year, country of birth and position about the only things they had in common. “He was way better than me in that time,” Rittich said of Mrazek. “You know what? A lot of goalies were better than me in that time.”
Sometimes 20 or 25 teams are wrong, but almost never are 30 teams in error when it comes to assessing a player. And they weren’t with David Rittich. As TSN draft expert Craig Button plainly put it, “He never showed anything that would make you want to draft him.”
Projecting the potential of players is one endeavor that is basically set up to fail. If it weren’t, teams would come out of every draft with seven future NHLers instead of the usual two, or sometimes one or none, that they usually get. With goalies, it’s even more difficult. When Rittich began to develop and MacKinnon was there to see him, it represented a confluence of circumstances that led to where he is today.
When his name first came up, I’m like, ‘David Rittich? Who the heck is David Rittich?’
– Tod Button, Flames director of amateur scouting
Veteran GM Lou Lamoriello often likes to tell a story about how the New Jersey Devils discovered John Madden, a valuable checking center signed as a free agent out of college who went on to win three Cups and a Selke Trophy. The Devils had selected Brendan Morrison in the second round of the 1993 draft and occasionally Lamoriello and his director of scouting, David Conte, would go to Michigan games to check on the progress of Morrison, who went on to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey in his senior year. “The more I watched Brendan Morrison,” Lamoriello has said, “the more I liked John Madden.”
Hey, it happens. Whenever the Nashville Predators tried to scout Pekka Rinne, they went away disappointed because the only time they got to see him was in the pre-game warmup. But they listened to their Finnish scout and drafted Rinne in 2004’s eighth round, a round that doesn’t even exist anymore.
Flames GM Brad Treliving realized the organization needed an upgrade in its goaltending and mandated to his scouts that they scour the world looking for prospects. MacKinnon, who had come to the Flames with Treliving from the Phoenix Coyotes, was pro scouting for the team in North America but would also spend six-week stints in Europe as an amateur scout. So when he saw Rittich that night, he took note, then started “playing detective,” canvassing Rittich’s teammates and others about this unknown goalie.
Flames defenseman Ladislav Smid, who is Czech, made a couple calls. When MacKinnon came back with his scouting report and passed it on to Flames’ director of amateur scouting Tod Button (brother of Craig), there was a sell job that needed to be done. Not because Button and the rest of his staff didn’t like Rittich. Because they didn’t know him. “I remember when his name first came up and I’m watching it and I went back and I’m like, ‘David Rittich? Who the heck is David Rittich?’ ” Tod Button said. “They were talking about this goalie and trying to get video of him because we didn’t have a lot of game access and we had nothing on him. That tells me two things. Either we didn’t watch him, and if we did watch him, then he was either a backup or didn’t stand out.”
MacKinnon was finally confident enough to pass on what little video he had of Rittich to Flames goalie coach Jordan Sigalet, who has been instrumental in Rittich’s development. Once Sigalet approved, MacKinnon knew he was onto something. The Flames kept doing their homework and signed him to a one-year deal in the summer of 2016.
Rittich came to North America without any working knowledge of English, on this quest to become a regular in a league that had until that point seemed so distant and unattainable. Rittich arrived in fall 2016 to play for the AHL Stockton Heat as the backup to Jon Gillies. In the three years since, Rittich has zoomed by Gillies, and everyone else, on the Flames depth chart in goal. “I think this is a nice little win for the eye test for scouts,” MacKinnon said, “the guys who go to games all the time.”
With Cam Talbot as the other half of the Flames goaltending tandem, for the first time in his career an NHL crease belongs indisputably to Rittich. And the early returns were good. Very good. Through early November, no goalie in the NHL had played more minutes, faced more shots or made more saves. Through it all, Rittich has been making believers out of skeptics who look at his unorthodox style and wonder how he stops the puck with regularity.
He’s no Hasek, but Rittich is a goalie with what scouts call “busy feet,” which flies in the face of conventional goaltending wisdom that suggests the most successful goalies are also the most robotic ones. One of those believers is TSN analyst and former NHL stopper Jamie McLennan. “He’s grown on me on a couple of fronts,” McLennan said. “When you watch him in the net, you know you’re going to get everything, every ounce that he’s got that night. I respect the hell out of that. Carey Price is a quiet goaltender, and Carter Hart seems to be the heir apparent to the quiet goaltender. Rittich is a noisy goaltender, but that’s what works for him. I have a tough time judging just because he looks different. I think all of us could have learned a lesson from Hasek. I played against Dom, and there were guys early on who were saying, ‘This guy’s not going to last in the league the way he plays,’ and it turns out Dominik was just so good and he was so far ahead of all of us. I’m not suggesting that with David, but this is a guy who’s found what works for him, and he’s not making any apologies for it.”
But then again…Hasek didn’t become a No. 1 goalie in the NHL until he turned 28, which is older than Rittich is now. So who knows where this goes? It’s clear the Flames have developed a comfort level playing in front of Rittich and, off the ice, he’s a hard guy to dislike. In equal parts because of his journey to the NHL and his background, Rittich has a unique perspective.
He’s grown on me…Rittich is a noisy goaltender, but that’s what works for him.
– Jamie McLennan, TSN goaltending analyst
A few years after David was born, his parents had another son named Tomas, who has autism and other developmental difficulties. David loves his younger brother and was there to watch out for him, particularly during times of change that Tomas found difficult. At 23, Tomas attends a special-needs school in Jihlava and next year will transition to a day facility. Rittich’s mother, Jana, works at the same school as her husband, helping special-needs students. That experience is invaluable in the family’s support system for Tomas.
Last season, a touching video of Tomas being introduced to Harvey the Hound went viral. David was actually a little uncomfortable with the video of such a private moment going public, but he was happy his brother got to meet the Flames’ mascot. “He loves me,” David said. “I hope he’s happy. It’s really hard to say because sometimes you can only guess what he’s feeling.”
After a series of three one-year deals, Rittich finally got some security, this time with a two-year contract that pays him $2.75 million a year. It will almost certainly not be his last deal. Rittich cherishes every day he’s in the best league in the world, but it’s with a certain swagger that he plays. He doesn’t intend on taming his goaltending style and, in fact, thinks he has become more aggressive since he’s come into the NHL.
As McLennan said, Rittich is comfortable in his pads and is making no apologies for it. “I’m not a guy with all the talent from a young age and a goalie who had great numbers or played in North America before,” Rittich said. “I came from, I would say nowhere. Look at me now. It’s pretty impressive, and it’s pretty good for me.”