Flames' Rittich ready to compete for starts: 'Not a new experience for me'

David Rittich talks about the Flames signing Jacob Markstrom and how competition will help both goalies.

Never one to mask his emotions, no one would have blamed David Rittich for admitting the news hit him hard.

After all, it’s not every day an NHL all-star is instantly demoted to back-up the following season.

The six-year, $36 million commitment the Calgary Flames made to Jacob Markstrom three months ago made it clear Rittich’s future as an NHL starter will ultimately have to be elsewhere.

It was yet another setback for the undrafted netminder, whose improbable rise through the ranks included being overlooked as the playoff starter two years in a row.

However, perhaps with the help of his new mental coach, the 28-year-old Czech product insists he took the signing in stride.

“I’m not taking it in any way as bad,” said Rittich, speaking for the first time since the Flames radically altered their goaltending ranks.

“Why should I get frustrated? Hockey is a hard sport and you have two spots for goalies, and you have to push yourself to get good and get your spot. I think we’re both going to fight to get the net and play the most games we can.”

As he was quick to point out, it was just two seasons ago he entered camp in a similar position, expecting to play second-fiddle to a veteran newcomer.

“Honestly, it’s not a new experience for me – I’ve been in the same position with Smitty (Mike Smith), and I went through it very well,” Rittich said, insisting he’s not simply putting on a brave face.

“I never had a bad attitude, so I feel like I came with the same attitude every year. I’m enjoying myself on the ice and in the locker room with great players and great people. The biggest thing is, which team can say they have two all-star goalies on their team?”

Only the Flames can.

It has been more than four months since Rittich was thrown to the wolves in the middle of the team’s epic Game 6 meltdown against Dallas.

Allowing three goals on nine shots, it punctuated the third straight season in which his red-hot start ended with second-half struggles. Big Save Dave’s first all-star appearance was followed by a finish that saw the fan favourite’s stat line slide to a 24-17-6 record, a 2.97 goals against average and .907 save percentage.

Last year, his off-season focus was to step up his conditioning, with an eye on handling the workload of a starter — ahead of Cam Talbot.

The last handful of months, his preparation included two very different things: a mental coach and a virtual reality program for goalies that had him swatting at air while wearing oversized goggles in his garage.

“You can do your workout everywhere you want, outside or your basement — you don’t need a big spot for it,” chuckled the personable dressing room delight, who admitted he was skeptical at first.

“I didn’t believe until I tried it for the first time how realistic it can be – I was actually pretty surprised. I honestly feel it’s really helpful for the reaction stuff and the reflexes.”

Rittich’s emotional reactions were also delved into with a former assistant coach of his from the Czech Republic.

Endearing himself to fans and broadcasters for kissing posts, fist-pumping and generally wearing his heart on his sleeve, the colourful goalie has also infuriated opponents like the Edmonton Oilers, who took exception to a post-shootout stick-toss celebration, a la Jose Bautista.

He has long proclaimed he’ll never apologize, nor alter his approach to a game in which most goalies see staying even-keeled as paramount to their success.

“Honestly it’s never going to change – it’s going to be the same,” he said, when asked if his new coach wanted to curb his enthusiasm.

“It’s part of me and part of my game. My mental coach is actually pretty good with that. I knew him and I wanted to start again with him because I felt everything he ever told me came to me in my career. It’s good for me. I’m feeling a little lighter about my head.”

The free agent signing of Markstrom clearly called for some situational management around it, which is why coach Geoff Ward, goalie guru Jordan Sigalet and general manager Brad Treliving all reached out to discuss it with Rittich. By all accounts he’s taken it in stride.

“I think he’s handled it well,” Ward said.

“I give him a lot of credit because at the end of the day you can talk to somebody as much as you want to, but ultimately he has to make the decision that he’s not going to be bitter, he’s going to get better. He’s made that decision and treated it the proper way.”

By all accounts, the man who has one year and $2.75 million left on his deal is far from thinking about what lies ahead when he hits the open market this summer.

“His last two days of practice have been really good — he’s focused, he’s loose,” Ward said. “He’s come in and he is himself. I think he’s put the situation to a place where he feels okay with it.

"Now it’s just about going out and competing. We’ve told him from Day 1 we’ll need both of our goaltenders. We feel it’s a position of strength for us and we have good depth there."

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