PRAGUE – Tomas Hertl thought the Dallas Stars were going to draft him.
“I was actually thinking Dallas at 13 because [their Czech scout] Jiri Hrdina was going on the stage,” Hertl recalled about sitting in then-Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh during the 2012 Draft. “But they took [Radek] Faksa.”
Not surprisingly, that can be an actual tell for who an organization is selecting in the first round, the area scout who comes up with the contingent making the selection.
“There’s a lot of little tells,” then-San Jose Sharks director of scouting Tim Burke laughed. So many, you even toss out red herrings during the Draft.
“Sometimes we have somebody go to talk to somebody that we think it might throw somebody else off.”
But Hertl felt good when he saw Sharks’ Czech scout Karel Masopust headed to the stage with GM Doug Wilson, Burke, scout Shin Larsson, and company. San Jose was picking 17th.
“I see Karel, so it must be the next Czech guy. It was probably me, there weren’t [any other Czechs] around,” Hertl said of that spot in the Draft. “When I heard my name, I was so excited to walk on the stage.”
For the late Masopust, who passed away in 2019 at 76, selecting Hertl was a moment two years in the making.
Perhaps there was something about a teenage Tomas Hertl that reminded Karel Masopust about himself.
“Smart, loving, super-competitive, leaders, charismatic, and difference-makers. Just great human beings,” son Jan Masopust, now residing in Chicago, mused. “Maybe that is why most people liked my dad and like Tommy, and [why] my dad liked him.”
In his youth, Masopust was a defenseman, who skated on Czechoslovakia’s 1968 Olympic silver medal-winning side. He joined the San Jose Sharks as a European scout in 1993, unearthing gems like Christian Ehrhoff and Milan Michalek, but home base remained his native Prague.
Burke remembered the first time that Masopust brought Hertl to his attention: “Karel brought him up like two years before he was drafted.”
Hertl starred for the HC Slavia Praha junior team back then.
“[Karel] knew people around [Hertl]. He knew the coaches on the team that he played for,” now-Sharks director of European scouting Larsson explained. “All those things mixed together probably just made him feel really good.”
Meeting Masopust, a representative from an honest-to-goodness NHL organization, was a watershed moment for the teenage Hertl.
“I was coming back home, and I’d tell my parents that I was just talking with Karel, the Sharks like my game, and I was just so excited about it. That’s kind of the first step, the first dream, NHL teams even like talking about it,” Hertl said. “We had a couple great conversations.”
Burke, however, was worried.
Well, worried that Hertl wouldn’t fall to the Sharks in the upcoming Draft. In the 2012 World Junior Championships, the 18-year-old tied for the team lead with five points in six games.
“At the World Junior tournament, he played really well. And we were like, oh boy, this is not good,” Burke reminisced. “We still didn’t know when we were going to pick, right? But I kept saying to myself, how can this guy be in our range? I just can’t believe it if people are seeing what I’m seeing.”
Larsson concurred: “It was obvious to me too, that he had a rare package of that size and skill.”
But a couple of small things might have helped deliver big Hertl to the Sharks.
“On an average world junior team where he was one of the youngest guys in the team, he was one of their better players as far as through the neutral zone, the defensive zone, playing a 200-foot game. Doing things that younger players don’t normally do in those tournaments,” Burke said. “He was an important player on a team that wasn’t great, so that could have discredited him [in the Draft].”
Also, as luck would have it – and any scout worth their salt, including both Burke and Larsson, would tell you that being lucky is as important as being good in scouting – Hertl’s late birthday made him out of sight and mind during a critical pre-Draft showcase.
“I think that that’s one of the reasons why we were able to get him, that he didn’t play in the under-18 tournament at the end of the year,” Burke pointed out about the 18-year-old, born on November 18, 1993. “It’s the last time people get to see everybody.”
Masopust, of course, never left Hertl’s corner. Hertl even recalled Masopust translating for him, being his “guy” during the 2012 Draft Combine, even though he wasn’t part of the Sharks organization yet.
“Karel never wavered on him,” Burke said. “Karel kept talking about this guy loves to play hockey, he’s got some life to him. There’s something about him that you want to be around this guy.
“You could tell that by [Hertl’s] smile, but you couldn’t tell it because he couldn’t converse [in English].”
Masopust’s belief played no small part in getting Wilson and Burke on board.
“Anybody that knew Karel, or worked with him, knows that he wasn’t very high on a lot of players,” Larsson recalled of his mentor. “Burkie knew that this guy was probably special because of that.”
Not that Burke needed much convincing. But if he needed it, Masopust was somebody he trusted.
“Karel was a very important guy for us. Not only was he on top of it, but he knew who not to take,” Burke said. “And he was so sure about [Hertl]. He goes, I don’t care what you’re going to see from now on. This guy is a player.”
That’s what a scouting director wants from an area scout: “This is what we’re looking for. It was so much of a conviction, it ended up eventually getting all of us. So it wasn’t a tough decision when he was there [at No. 17].”
What was tough?
“It was tough waiting,” Burke remembered about being on the Draft Day floor on June 22, 2012.
And it wasn’t just the Stars that scared the San Jose Sharks.
Both Burke and Larsson agree that the Washington Capitals, armed with the 11th and 16th picks, were a concern too.
“Washington took that timeout before they actually picked [Filip] Forsberg [at No. 11],” Larsson shared. “That was probably a moment where you thought that could have been Hertl.”
Faksa went 13th. The Caps opted for Tom Wilson at 16th.
And there was another prospect, besides Hertl, that the Sharks liked in their range.
“[Teuvo] Teravainen was another guy we looked at,” Burke revealed. “They were both in the same range.”
But the choice was clear.
“I asked Karel and I asked Shin about one or the other. And they both said absolutely Hertl,” Burke recounted. “There was no hesitation.”
He explained: “We weren’t sure [Teravainen] was going to be a center. We knew he had skill. He’s one of those guys that as a center on a bigger rink, he was okay. He’s turned out to be a pretty good wing.”
Teravainen would go next to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We didn’t think Hertl would fall,” Burke said. “It was almost wishful thinking.”
It’s fair to say that Tomas Hertl, now 28, and San Jose’s no. 1 center, has fulfilled all of the Sharks’ wishes.
From the very beginning, too.
“When he first came [to development camp], right away, if you challenged him, he would do it,” Burke observed. “He’s got a real second effort to him.
“We hit him hard with some stuff about certain parts of his game that had to improve. And he did.”
Masopust’s presence was key as a translator and a conduit for the Sharks’ message, which could come across as tough love from Burke.
“Karel and I worked together for a long time, we were very close. He knew how to translate my emotions to [Hertl],” Burke disclosed. “Karel was close to him. But he also told him the truth.”
The truth included but was not limited to: “He had a long release on his shot, and his one-timer needed a little bit of work. He had a little bit of an extra stick handle sometimes. Reluctant to shoot.”
But that’s par for course for a typical 18-year-old hockey player, even the best of them. The important thing was Hertl’s can-do attitude.
“It wasn’t anything that wasn’t fixable,” Burke noted. “This kid was determined, he wanted to be good. That was very evident from day one.”
What was also evident from day one, at least to Masopust?
Jan Masopust remembered: “[My dad] told me Tomas is an exceptional talent and ready to play in the NHL now, meaning his intelligence on the ice as well as his physical ability, meaning his size and strength was ready to play men’s hockey.”
Following the Draft, Hertl returned to HC Slavia Praha, this time the men’s team, for another season, but by the next year, he was an instant star for the San Jose Sharks.
And the rest is history, though much of it unwritten for Hertl and the Sharks, in the first season of an eight-year, $65.1 million dollar extension, inked last March.
It could be a career-long commitment between Hertl and the Sharks, and it’s a shame that Masopust won’t be there to see it all.
Masopust, 76, passed away on May 25, 2019. He had retired from scouting in 2013.
“It was sad because he was the guy who got me on the Sharks. I can thank him for this chance, where I am now,” Hertl acknowledged in Berlin, on the eve of his emotional return to his and Masopust’s hometown. “Because who knows, if you go to a different team, you never know how it will go. I think the Sharks were perfect for me. I think he knew it too.”
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