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Long before he became a point-per-game player, Hintz showed his dedication to hockey during a stint in Tampa almost a decade ago

05/16/2021, 2:15pm EDT
By Matthew DeFranks

By Matthew DeFranks, Dallas Morning News  May 10, 2021

(This is an excerpt from an article on Hintz being Stars “Masterton Trophy Nominee”)

It is tempting to think about what a fully healthy Hintz could have done this season. Even with the injury, he was on pace for an 86-point regular season, something not done in Dallas since Jamie Benn won the Art Ross Trophy with 87 points in 2014-15 and followed it with 89 points the following season, finishing third for the Hart Trophy.  For those that know Hintz, this year is no surprise. Two years ago, he played Game 7 in St. Louis with a fractured foot. Last year, he suffered a fractured ankle in the Western Conference Final against Vegas.

He began playing the sport when he was four years old, in part because his big brother Mikko played hockey, as did his best friends. It was a hobby more than anything, until Hintz realized this could be his profession after he was selected for Finland’s Under-16 national team. So as a 15-year-old in 2012, Hintz looked for a way to get better, and arrived in Tampa with no family, no friends, no ability to speak English, just committing himself to becoming a better skater and dedicating himself to hockey. It was with the Tampa Bay Juniors that Hintz first developed his most noticeable trait in the NHL: speed.

For the first time in his life, Hintz worked with a skating coach, and while most of his progression as a player came in Finland, Tampa remains an important chapter in building Hintz’s skillset. Brett Strot was Hintz’s coach almost a decade ago and owns the Tampa Bay Juniors program. “You could see he was really dialed in,” Strot said during a recent visit to the club’s new facility in Wesley Chapel, Fla. “It’s great to see people that truly have a goal and a dream, and understand that it’s a lot of these little details that make a difference.”

Away from the rink, life was a little different for Hintz. He was taking online classes and had a tutor to teach him English. There was one other Finnish player that was two years older than him, acting as part-friend, part-translator during Hintz’s five-month stay in Florida. Hintz lived with Tampa Bay Juniors general manager Kevin Wolter and said, “We basically had everything we needed.” “They liked to play ping-pong at 2 o’clock in the morning sometimes,” Wolter said. “He picked up simple things [in English]: go clean the kitchen, here’s a rag and some cleaner.”

The language barrier that existed was eased when Hintz was at the rink, working with skating coach Natalia (Tasha) Zagorodnikova, who used body language and movements to communicate and rebuild Hintz’s skating stride and technique. She also knew that Hintz could understand English better than he could respond in it. “He was kind of shy, a big teenager and very true that he didn’t get much training back then,” Zagorodnikova said. “When he came from home, he was very, very skilled and we could see that there was a huge potential with him, but there was no structural training yet. So I think we were lucky enough to introduce him a little bit to different things in training with hockey.

” Hintz: “The first thing that comes to my mind is that we had a really good skating coach. I worked with her three times a week, at least, every morning.” Zagorodnikova said she spent about half the time with Hintz off the ice. They worked on the 50-yard turf track at the previous facility in Ellenton, Fla., and on the wooden slide board that helps make minute changes to skating technique.

The biggest change Zagorodnikova made to Hintz’s skating was giving him a wider base to work from. She wanted him in a better position for his big frame to be able to be more grounded to the ice, but also in a position to change directions or crossover quickly.

“Getting him comfortable with how big and tall he is, and how good he can use that against other people in contact, on having that nice leverage,” Zagorodnikova said. “That’s basically what made the difference, I think. Everything else he can take from there.”

Hintz ended up in Tampa due to a connection provided by Tomi Haula, the father of Nashville center Erik Haula. Tomi Haula worked with agent Jay Grossman … who represented former NHL goalie Robb Stauber … who was Strot’s roommate at the University of Minnesota.  Strot played professionally for 10 years, and was an associate coach on the gold-medal winning United States women’s hockey team during the 2018 Olympics.

“We teach him how to run,” Strot said. “None of us know how to run. The fastest runners are the fastest skaters. We teach them how to run and move their body in a straight line. Then we teach them how to move their body upwards or sideways.”

Retooling a skating stride on the ice can be difficult since it can be difficult to slow it down. But off the ice, and on the 27-year-old slide board that Strot built himself, small tweaks can be made, like getting Hintz to produce more power from the back of his body by being more grounded with his foot positioning.  “You can’t lie on the board, you really can’t,” Zagorodnikova said. “You cannot hide things, you cannot lie on the board. You can really feel the differences. You can do it slowly, you can do it fast when you’re ready.”

As a teenager, Hintz suffered from back issues and growing pains as he transformed into the 6-3, 220-pound wrecking ball he is now. Still, Hintz had 20 goals and 15 assists in 20 games during his time with Tampa Bay Juniors.

“It is mentally very hard,” Zagorodnikova said. “I think this is toughness you need, he had. He went through hard times. He pushed through it, he worked hard. He continued to do it. So I’m not surprised he’s playing through the injury and is mentally tough.”

Strot and Zagorodnikova are quick to mention that Hintz was responsible for continuing his training after he left them around Christmastime, and that his success in the NHL stems from his consistent hard work.  “You can learn things in a week, a month, six months, but then are you going to keep applying it beyond that?” Strot said.

Zagorodnikova: “At the end, we can give him something and it’s up to him to take it. And he did.”

In the last decade, Hintz has risen the ranks: from second-round draft pick to World Junior gold medalist to promising prospect to franchise cornerstone. Hintz is no longer potential waiting to be realized. It’s realized.

Someone like Hintz that left home to a foreign country as a teenager, playing through multiple fractured limbs and on a groin that needs surgery clearly loves the game of hockey. So what is it about hockey that Hintz loves?

“It’s just the game,” Hintz said. “I think everybody has the same answer. You have the group of guys here and you can play together and everybody wants to win. That’s the reason we come here every day and try to get better.”

Photo by Tom Fox


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