Tomas Hertl and the Cautionary Tale of Petr Prucha

 By: Michael Abitabilo

With his highlight reel goals and million-dollar smile, San Jose Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl has taken the NHL by storm this season (while agitating some hockey purists along the way).  His Czech pedigree and rare combination of size and skill have led to more than one comparison between Hertl and his boyhood idol, Jaromir Jagr. (Of course, Hertl’s blatant imitation of Jagr helped feed that beast.)

As of December 19, Hertl was on top of the European-rookies-playing-in-the-NHL world, having scored 15 goals with 10 assists in his first 35 NHL games.  But that all changed about 19 minutes into the first period of the Sharks’ game against the Los Angeles Kings that night, when Hertl was injured in a knee-on-knee collision with Kings Captain Dustin Brown. On December 23, the San Jose Sharks announced that Hertl will undergo knee surgery surgery to repair damage caused by the collision. As a result, the 20-year-old Hertl will be unable to play for his native Czech Republic in the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a hot shot rookie from the Czech Republic lights up the NHL, earns a spot on his country’s Olympic team alongside his favorite player, only to have it all taken away as a result of a knee-on-knee collision.  STOP!

Hertl’s story is unfortunate, but oddly familiar. In the post-lockout 2005-2006 season, the New York Rangers emerged from the doldrums of the early 2000s as a skilled but hard-working team under coach Tom Renney. One of the best story lines that year was the breakout of Petr Prucha, then a 23-year-old rookie from the Czech Republic. Prucha had emerged from relative obscurity (he was an eighth round draft pick in 2002) to find success playing with his boyhood idol – you guessed it, the aforementioned Jaromir Jagr.

In his first 49 NHL games, Prucha had amassed an incredible 25 goals, including an amazing stretch in early December during which he scored nine goals in just five games. He was the toast of the town and had earned a spot on the Czech Republic’s 2006 Olympic team in Turin, Italy. Like Hertl, though, Prucha’s dreams of representing his country alongside his idol were abruptly dashed. On February 4, 2006, Prucha was injured as a result of a knee-on-knee collision with Turner Stevenson of the Philadelphia Flyers.  The injury didn’t require surgery, but Prucha was forced to miss the Olympics. Prucha returned to the Rangers shortly after the Olympic break and finished his rookie season with 30 goals and 17 assists in 68 games.

At the time of the injury, the silver lining was that Prucha was just 23, and seemingly on the verge of a prosperous NHL career. Certainly he would be eligible to represent his country in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, it seemed. But Prucha never regained the magic following his rookie year. In his second season, his numbers dipped a bit: he scored 22 goals with 18 assists in 79 games. In 62 games the following year, Prucha posted just seven goals and 10 assists. By 2008-2009, Prucha’s production had fallen off a cliff. After scoring just four goals in 28 games, Prucha was included as part of a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes. Prucha played just one more full season in the NHL after that, scoring 13 goals in 79 games for the 2009-2010 Phoenix Coyotes.

Prucha’s regression cost him the chance to play for the Czech Republic in the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver. Currently playing for Ska St. Petersburg of the KHL (with Ilya Kovalchuk!), Prucha is not considered to be a candidate for the 2014 team in Sochi.

And that brings us back to Hertl. The precedent (Pruchadent? Eh..) is there for Hertl’s injury to be remembered as a turning point in his career.  Hopefully, though, Hertl will make a full recovery and have a long NHL career. If so, we likely will see him in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea and maybe even the 2022 Olympics in TBD (outer space?). And who knows, at this rate, maybe he’ll get that chance to play with Jagr after all.

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and sort of regrets buying that Petr Prucha jersey in 2006.