SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Defenseman Jan Rutta has an easy confidence about him, an affable demeanor that belies the challenge he faced entering Blackhawks training camp.
He’s quick with a quip, comfortable conversing in his second language of English and already talking trash in the Hawks’ fantasy-football league. He also has been uncommonly poised in his first two weeks on North American ice.
But that confidence didn’t come naturally to Rutta. Like many other athletes, he discovered the power of mental-skills training three years ago. Now he never gets too high after a victory, never gets too low after a loss and never lets a bad play eat him up or a good play swell his head.
‘‘Just feel the same way all the time and be positive,’’ Rutta said.
That said, Rutta never expected to be where is right now, seemingly a lock for a spot on the Hawks’ blue line after a thoroughly impressive camp. After all, he’s a 27-year-old rookie. He never was drafted. He’s not coming from the Kontinental Hockey League or even the Swedish Elite League, but rather from the Czech Extraliga, which generally is considered a step down. He didn’t even fully establish himself in the top league in the Extraliga until he was 25.
Even Rutta had all but given up on his NHL dream.
‘‘I was kind of sure it was gone,’’ he said with a laugh.
Everything changed last season, when he posted eight goals and 24 assists in 46 games with Pirati Chomutov. That earned him a spot on the Czech national team at the world championships, which is where he caught the eye of several NHL teams, eventually signing a one-year deal with the Hawks.
Just like that, Rutta went from a decent career in a third-tier league to the NHL. The possibility hadn’t even entered his mind until the end of the season.
‘‘Because I’m 27,’’ he said. ‘‘I feel pretty young, but it’s kind of old these days in the NHL. You never know in hockey, I guess. . . . It was kind of [being] in the right spot at the right time.’’
Rutta was an intriguing signing — competent right-handed defensemen are a precious commodity in the NHL — but he still seemed like a long shot to make the team. For one thing, the Hawks signed veteran right-hander Cody Franson to a player tryout agreement before camp. For another, the jump from the Extraliga to the NHL was just too great and surely would require a stint in the American Hockey League to adjust to the North American game.
So much for that. Rutta freely acknowledges the players he has faced in camp and in the preseason are better than the players he faced back home. But he scored a goal in his first preseason game, fired off eight shots in his second and was singled out by coach Joel Quenneville as ‘‘really good’’ in an otherwise-poor team performance Monday against the Bruins.
‘‘It depends on the player, I would say,’’ Rutta said of the transition. ‘‘When I went from the Czech league to the national team, everyone was telling me that it’s a big step, and it really wasn’t. I don’t think [the Czech league] is a bad league. . . . The world-class players are playing here, but it’s definitely not bad.’’
That’s Rutta. He’s calm, confident and poised — on and off the ice.
‘‘You get better with age, kind of like fine wine,’’ Quenneville said with a smile. ‘‘I just like his composure in the short amount of time he’s been involved in this [NHL] type of game. His reads and gap are high, high-end. I just feel right now it was a great signing, and we feel he can really help and add some quality minutes to our back end.’’
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