PRAGUE (AP) — After the San Jose Sharks missed the NHL playoffs for a third straight season, Tomas Hertl is determined to turn things around.
Starting the new season in front of his hometown fans only adds to his motivation.
The Sharks and the Nashville Predators will open the regular season with matches on Friday and Saturday at Prague’s O2 Arena as part of the league’s return to Europe for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m glad I have a chance to play here, it might not happen again,” Hertl said after a training in front of a cheering crowd on Thursday.
The 28-year-old Czech center, who was drafted by the Sharks 10 years ago, recently signed a $65.1 million, eight-year contract to remain in San Jose. And he knows what kinds of expectations comes with that kind of money.
“I want to get San Jose back to the playoffs and I’m ready to do all I can to make it happen,” Hertl said.
New San Jose coach David Quinn hoped the circumstances provide a boost for his team.
“It’s a new season, it’s our opener so there’s a level of excitement unlike the other games you play throughout the season,” Quinn said. “But I think playing with Tomas in his hometown and being able to watch how excited he is certainly should provide a little bit of extra motivation for our guys.”
The Sharks also have Czech defenseman Radim Simek.
It’s the ninth season overall that the NHL comes to Europe as part of its efforts to grow the local fan base in hockey-mad countries like the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and others.
The Sharks have contested four previous games outside North America. They faced the Columbus Blue Jackets in Stockholm in two games in 2010 after they played the Calgary Flames for a couple of games in Tokyo in 1998.
Nashville has never played a regular-season game in Europe before. The Predators were set to open the 2020-21 season in Prague against the Boston Bruins before the pandemic scrapped the NHL’s plans.
Friday’s opener in Prague will mark the first NHL game in Europe since the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres faced off in Stockholm on Nov. 9, 2019.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers were the last NHL teams to play in Prague on Oct 4, 2019.
The league’s 2022 Global Series will be completed in Tampere, Finland, where the defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche will face the Blue Jackets in another pair of regular-season games on Nov. 4-5.
The Predators hope to continue a run of eight straight playoff berths, an accomplishment that is tied with Washington for the second-longest active streak in the NHL.
They have added players to the team who could help make it happen, including defenseman Ryan McDonagh from Tampa and right winger Nino Niederreiter from the Carolina Hurricanes. They also signed Filip Forsberg to an extension after he and fellow forward Matt Duchene each tied the franchise record with 38 goals.
“We haven’t been really focused to say we’re better, we’ve got to perform,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “We like the players that we have, we like the additions that we had to our team. … Now, it’s upon us, coaches and players, to put the work in and get to the identity we want to get to and be very consistent in how we play and then, our actions will determine how good we are.”
Duchene finished last season with 86 points, with Forsberg just behind on 84 in 69 games.
“I’m not really worrying about numbers,” Duchene said about his goals for the new season.
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