Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby contributed an article to the Players’ Tribune Wednesday morning ahead of winning the 250th game of his career later that night. Holtby is now the second quickest goaltender to 250 wins.
The nearly 4,000 word article is full of endearing anecdotes about likely the greatest goaltender in franchise history. Holtby talks openly about his family’s farm and how poor of a farmer he actually was. He also gives a glimpse into his early childhood, which he describes as awkward, and what life lessons he learned in hockey along the way to become a zenmaster at the NHL level. And, oh yeah, he reveals the full story behind the team’s Stanley Cup tattoos and their addiction to Mario Kart.
Here are the 10 best things I learned from the Players’ Tribune article.
Holtby painted a picture of his early life on the Holtby family farm in rural Saskatchewan. The Holtby farm had 900 cattle and is surrounded by what Holtby called an “infinite” amount of grain. The farm was owned by his family for generations, but Braden? Not cut out to be a cattle farmer.
“My dad used to get so mad at me, because I was supposed to help him herd the cows at the end of the day,” Holtby said. “That was my little job on the farm. We would stand on opposite sides of the field and make sure there weren’t any stragglers.”
Instead, young Holtby would use the cattle prod (actually an old hockey stick with the end cut off) as a baseball bat and pretend to be hitting home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I’d be on my side of the field throwing rocks in the air and pretending I was crushing home runs for the Blue Jays, and cows would be wandering off in every direction,” said Holtby. “My dad would be yelling across the field, ‘Braden! Bradennnnnnnnnnn!'”
Probably the most endearing stories from the article are the ones where Holtby describes what it was like to grow up as an awkward kid in the middle of nowhere. He had to make up his own games because there just wasn’t much to do. His hometown had a population of a little over 500 people and at school, there were only 15 kids in his class, 12 girls and three boys.
Holtby described a game he would play in his basement, having to shoot a ball at himself so he could pretend to be his idol, goaltender Patrick Roy.
“I used to go down to our basement and ‘shoot on myself.’ Hockey stick in my right hand. Goalie glove on my left. I’d fire the ball off the wall one-handed and practice saving the rebound.”
When he turned 16, young Braden moved to Saskatoon to play hockey. He describes a disastrous first day of school. He didn’t get stuffed into any lockers, but he did end up hiding out in a bathroom during lunch because he didn’t have anyone to sit with.
“I had no idea who to talk to. I was so nervous. At lunch, I went to the cafeteria and everybody knew each other. Everybody was already sitting together, and I just kind of freaked out. I ended up spending the entire lunch hour sitting in a stall in the bathroom, just praying for it to be over,” Holtby said.
Luckily for Holtby, he was later befriended by an Indian kid in his chemistry class, who taught Holtby about cricket and just had a way of making Braden feel at ease.
“I was awkward back then. Still am, a little bit. We couldn’t have been more different, but he reached out and helped me feel comfortable, and I ended up making a bunch of great friends from there,” Holtby said.
Holtby said he always believed that he would become an NHL goalie someday, despite some being on some truly terrible minor hockey teams and his dad trying to push him into becoming a forward. Holtby described a season where his bantam team went the whole season with only one win, and games where he would get lit up 12-1, or 18-2.
But Braden’s idol growing up was Patrick Roy and he adopted some of his idol’s fiery antics.
“And Patrick Roy was my hero, right? What did Roy do when he got scored on? He went nuts. So that’s what I did,” Holtby recounted. “I’d be yelling at my poor teammates, I’d be smashing my stick off the crossbar, I’d be squirting water everywhere. I’d go crazy, because that’s what I thought was cool. But I’m getting scored on like 12 times a game, so it was just comical.”
Holtby’s dad, Greg, laid down the law for his son.
“My dad was not one of those Big Hockey Dads at all. He was really stoic, really chill. But one day we came home and he said, ‘Braden, I’m only going to tell you this one time. You break the stick, you buy the stick. That’s it.’ So then I had to get really good at smashing the sticks without them snapping, or else it was $30 a pop,” Braden said.
Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America
Holtby eventually found his zen as he matured, and especially with the help of goalie coach and sports psychologist, John Stevenson.
Stevenson and Holtby met when Holtby played for the Saskatoon Blades. Stevenson sought to teach Holtby how to level out his emotions, to not be so emotionally volatile. Holtby says he still uses those lessons to help him keep the strong mental game needed to be a goalie in the NHL.
“John said, ‘Look, when you’re in net, or when you’re anywhere, and you’re feeling stressed and anxious and your mind is racing, just repeat these words in your head.’
I have no future.
I have no past.
I’m here to make the moment last.
I’m in the here and now.
Whether he stops the puck or doesn’t, Holtby said he doesn’t dwell during the game. He just squirts his water bottle in the air and follows one drop all the way down, focusing his mind back on the moment.
The Capitals played Mario Kart on the road all through the playoffs–both as a way to kill time, but also keep loose.
Matt Niskanen once told the Washington Post that he spent the night before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals playing four hours of Mario Kart.
The team played in a communal suite at their hotel, and the matches would get intense. Holtby described it as “like a spectator sport.”
“You can imagine how the whole thing escalated. We’re hockey players. So any excuse to be competitive, right? You had guys who were dedicated to being the greatest Mario Kart racers in the world, and you had guys who were dedicated to being the best Mario Kart color commentators in the world,” Holtby said.
“He’s got the banana peel! Luigi’s got the banana peel! This is trouble for Oshie! MAMA-MIAAAAAAAA!” Holtby re-enacted in the article.
In a strange twist of fate, the Nintendo 64 was actually purchased for the team by Nate Schmidt, who bought it for the Capitals during the 2017-18 playoffs in Toronto and left it with the team when he was taken in the expansion draft. Schmidt bought another one for the Golden Knights, but admitted that the Knights weren’t as into it as the Caps were.
One day during the playoffs, right before the Pittsburgh series, Holtby said, his wife started finding zip-locked bags being thrown over the fence into their yard.
Inside the bags were notes, written in a big red marker, clearly by some of the kids in their neighborhood. The notes read like adorable positive affirmations.
“COME ON HOLTS!!!! YOU GOT THIS!!!! GO CAPS!!!!”
Holtby says the kids continued throwing the notes over his fence, all variations on “GO HOLTBEAST!!!! WIN THE STANLEY CUP!!!!! HOLTS #1 #1 #1”.
Holtby was pumped about it. “I guess these kids had their little mission, and at that point it was like their superstition. They had to deliver my game-day motivation.”
The Caps netminder took a moment to acknowledge one of the Vegas Golden Knights that had a special place in his heart.
On the day of the expansion draft, Holtby was visibly pained when Schmidt was taken by Vegas. The two were close friends.
“When he got taken by Vegas in the expansion draft, it was kind of tough for me, personally,” Holtby said. “As a goalie, you’re a bit isolated from the team. That’s just the nature of the position. So when you lose a friend like that, it’s a bit different.”
“To see him again in the Stanley Cup finals was just…perfect,” said Holtby.
Holtby said he gets asked a lot about The Save, and for a while, he said, he didn’t know what to answer. No goaltender wants to be in a position where they are making a desperation save, having to rely on luck or a good bounce.
But the truth?
Holtby admitted that his adrenaline was riding high after the momentous stick save, just like everyone else. “I mean, everybody saw Ovi’s face on the bench.”
If that save wasn’t made, if that puck went in, what could have been?
Holtby did not think about that. Instead, he literally forgot about the save.
“But then I squirted my water bottle, and I followed a drop all the way to the ice, and I forgot about it. I’m not even just saying that. It was just gone. Too much hockey left. So yeah, it was not my best save ever. No way,” Holtby said.
Sometime during the Stanley Cup Final, Holtby said, TJ Oshie made a sudden proclamation that if the Caps won the Stanley Cup, he would get a character from Mario Kart inked on him.
“If we win, I’m doing it. I swear. I’m getting him inked on me.”
Then someone’s like, “You won’t do it. Come on.”
And Oshie’s like, “Oh, I’m doing it.”
“Oh, I will. If we win the Cup…I’m getting a Wario tattoo.”
(Why Wario? It remains a mystery. According to this article, Oshie’s go-to character in the game was, of course, Yoshie.)
After the Cup was won and the Capitals brought the Cup back to DC, there was a special feeling to the way the players shared the Cup with the city. Holtby called it “like a snow day away from school for the whole city.”
It was sometime after the Capitals had “a couple beers,” in Alex Ovechkin’s words, after the Capitals had jumped into the fountains in Georgetown to have a swim. Oshie remembered his promise.
They were like, “We said we’d do it. We’re doing it.”
And then Oshie was like, “We’re doing it, dude. I’m getting a Wario tattoo. I’M GETTING A WARIO TATTOO! HOLTS! CALL THE TATTOO GUYS!”
It’s the little moments that stick out to Holtby.
“In the end, those are the moments that you’ll always remember. That’s why you play the game. Because so much of it is a blur. Honestly, the hours after we won the Cup are a blur. There’s so much media, so many people, so many interviews. You barely process it. Even my day with the Cup was a blur. There’s just not enough time. You never really get a moment to let it all sink in.”
For Holtby, where it all came full circle was back on Holtby Family Farm.
With the Stanley Cup back in the same field he used to patrol the cows in when he was young.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.