SAN JOSE -- Tomas Hertl stood tall and without crutches on Monday morning, a heavy wrap and a large, long brace supporting a left knee surgically repaired less than two weeks earlier.
The Sharks’ center kept pointing to positives during a 12-minute meeting with the media, with nothing in his body language belying the words coming out of his mouth.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Sharks interim head coach Bob Boughner said, “but he still has a smile on his face every day.”
Hertl has reason to rock a frown. He was in the midst of a career year, four days removed from his first NHL All-Star Game appearance when an odd collision with Vancouver defenseman Chris Tanev tore his left knee’s ACL and MCL.
Hertl knew something structurally was wrong with his joint but felt good about his rehab prospects while skating off the ice under his own power. Initial optimism was so high the Sharks even considered wrapping the knee up for a return to the game. Hertl balked at the idea, knowing from experience that his MCL wasn’t right. He lost 45 games of the 2013-14 campaign rehabbing a torn MCL and PCL and, despite a significant physical setback, was keeping fingers crossed for a similar prognosis.
A next-day MRI didn’t deliver such news. It revealed the worst-case scenario instead.
“I had been there [and the imaging center] many times over the years for MRIs, so it was tough for them to tell me it was the ACL,” Hertl said. “They know what it takes to get through it. Sometimes people get lucky. Sometimes they don’t. I’m just focused on looking forward to get working and get back. That will be a tough break for me, but I’m going to be back in September playing hockey again.
"I’m going to come back better than ever.”
Hertl was resolute in those last two statements. His drive is based in making those predictions come true.
He also knows depression hurts the effort. That’s why Hertl is focused solely on the positive despite disappointing news and the long rehab ahead.
“The hardest part is [taking care of] the head,” Hertl said. “That’s what the guys say. There are long days in rehab, and you’re not really part of the team because you’re just at a gym with physical therapists. You’re not playing the games. It’s not easy being away from hockey, but you have to keep a positive mind. The guys around here are great and making jokes. I don’t mind working out and I know I will come back stronger and I will have no issues.
"I’m looking forward to the work every day to make progress with my knee.”
Hertl plans to stay in San Jose as the season wraps, hopefully heading home for the summer as usual. He should be ready to walk comfortably by that point after a few months in rehab.
His workouts resumed on Monday, with some cardio working on both arms and his healthy leg. There’s significant work ahead on the knee, especially while re-gaining full range of motion and strength in surrounding muscle. That process is just starting even with surgery freshly placed into the memory bank.
The Tanev collision is right there, too, though he harbors no ill will for the way he got hurt. Hertl was working to snag a pass beyond the net when the defenseman came in hot and low. The impact pushed Hertl up against the boards, an incident that caused damage to his knee.
“It was just a moment where we hit knee on knee,” Hertl said. “That’s just bad luck. That’s how it happens sometimes. Sometimes you take a huge hit and nothing happens and other times you get hurt on something small.”
Hertl refuses to let that add to his frustration. It mounted shortly after receiving bad news on his ACL and during a subsequent call with his mother. He quickly brought levity to the situation and remains committed to being around those with a similar attitude during this rough patch.
“The rehab can be long and boring. There’s always something to do with it,” Hertl said. “… I was really bummed the first few days. I was coming off the All-Star Game and everything was great. I was feeling good again playing hockey. But there’s nothing I can do about that now other than focus on positive signs.
"I would be more mad if it were the last week of the season and I was going to miss the offseason and part of the next one. I have a long seven or eight months ahead, but I can heal up to full strength and get ready to go for next year.”