By Ian Oland
CROFTON, MD — As a scattered shower passed through the area, Braden Holtby took photos with Capitals fans out on the porch of the Crofton Country Club, indifferent to the weather. Always a bit uncomfortable with the fame that comes from being a star hockey player, the former Capitals goaltender seemed at home in the moment, grinning ear-to-ear as Caps faithful approached him. He looked happy.
Holtby had just finished 18 holes of golf as a celebrity guest of the second annual Laughlin Family Foundation Golf Tournament. The Vezina Trophy winner was not promoted or advertised for the event. But in the morning, he was just there — unmistakable in a khaki-colored Big Bear Trading Company cap, colorful slim-fit dress shirt, and aviator sunglasses. With no active social media, Holtby has captivated Caps’ Twitter whenever he’s been photographed around town since he left for the Vancouver Canucks in 2020 and later the Dallas Stars in 2021.
As he was chatting with guests, I came over to say hello. I wasn’t sure if Braden would remember me. I also wasn’t sure how he’d react to an interview request, which I would give him every opportunity to turn down with no hard feelings. Braden has always been great and upfront with Capitals media, especially after difficult games, but this was a private event and he had no obligation to talk to me. And let’s be honest, I’m not the perfect vehicle — fan-turned-journalist — to ask him some of the bigger questions that we’ve all been wondering over the last few months.
Is he retired from hockey? Is he back in DC for good?
“Hey! How have you been?” Holtby said warmly when I walked up. “I’d be happy to talk to you.”
A crowd gathered to our right as we spoke.
Holtby reached the highest of highs an NHL goaltender can reach during his ten seasons in DC. In fact, the Stanley Cup championship Holtby led the Capitals to arguably makes him the franchise’s best netminder, narrowly eclipsing Olie Kolzig. By now, we know Holtby’s accomplishments by heart: a five-time All-Star, the Vezina Trophy winner in 2016, the Jennings Trophy winner in 2017, and the maker of The Save.
At his best, Holtby was a workhorse and a constant in net. His 48 victories in 2016 tied him with Hockey Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur for the most wins in a single season ever. During the 2014-15 season, Holtby played a league-high 73 games and 4,247 minutes, recording nine shutouts.
Picked late in the 2008 draft, Holtby was never supposed to star or even be a fixture in the NHL; he had a 12 percent chance of making it as a fourth-round pick. The Capitals were stacked with young netminders in front of him too with Semyon Varlamov (first-round pick) and Michal Neuvirth (second-round pick). But that did not stop Braden. He forced a quick promotion from South Carolina to Hershey. He dominated the AHL. When Holtby arrived in Washington, he was so good it was nearly impossible to take him out of the net.
Holtby was fiery and passionate, earning the nickname Holtbeast. He was kind of weird too. He had eccentricities (they later calmed down… well, somewhat) that our site called Holtbyisms. He was fearless and zen.
Fans watched as a gawky, glasses-wearing nerd out of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, matured into a handsome, bearded fashion icon, rocketing the team to two Presidents’ Trophies. The son of goaltender Greg Holtby, Braden was honored with a mural of himself painted on a bridge just outside his parents’ Canadian hometown.
Holtby has not just been a great hockey player. He was the first player in team history to participate in the DC Pride Parade. He continued to do so even after the cameras turned off. He publicly declined a Trump White House visit because of what the Trump administration meant to the vulnerable people he championed. Braden made a speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s National Dinner. The goaltender fought for inclusivity in a league that struggles to make the game approachable for everyone.
Braden moved on in 2020, marking the end of an era in DC. Time, like it does for every athlete, muddied his skills. After posting a career-best save percentage of .925 in 2016-17, Holtby stopped pucks less frequently. His save percentage dipped to a then-career low of .897 in 2019-20. While Braden’s star dimmed, Ilya Samsonov developed and tantalized with his acrobatic saves and athleticism. The cap-strapped Capitals opted to go young in net, making Holtby an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. It was generally accepted by fans as a painful but necessary decision. With the perfect storm of the pandemic and a down statistical year, Holtby landed a depressed, prove-it deal with the Vancouver Canucks (two years, $8.6 million) where he’d be a mentor and compete with Thatcher Demko for the starting job.
“Some people leave situations or teams and have some sort of bitterness,” Holtby said to me. “That kind of thing. When I left, it was more I was trying to find my own way, to get back to finding myself in the game again.”
The Holtbys sold their Alexandria, Virginia home and moved to Canada.
Vancouver seemed to be a promising landing spot for Braden. Not only would good play return him to a starting spot and a big possible payday, but he would also be coached by Ian Clark, generally considered one of the best goaltending coaches in the NHL. Clark led Sergei Bobrovsky to two Vezina Trophies with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I know how much a good relationship and the talent of a goalie coach can go,” Holtby said then, a nod to former mentor Mitch Korn. “That was definitely a big part of really wanting to come to Vancouver and a good chance of success.”
The Canucks were young and on the rise. They had just come off a playoff run that ended in the second round and saw them lose in seven games to the Vegas Golden Knights. Analysts predicted a huge year.
For Holtby, however, the transition was awkward almost immediately.
Braden initially wasn’t allowed to cross the Canada/United States border because of not having the proper paperwork for his two famous tortoises, Honey and Maple. The couple had an import permit for the pets but did not have an export one from the United States Fish and Wildlife Services. After a bunch of press, Holtby was able to rejoin his family two days later in Canada after the USFWS reached out to the family to expedite their pets’ permits.
“Yeah, that story kind of blew up obviously,” Holtby said. “We were trying to grasp at any straw we could to get them over. My wife on Twitter was the last one. There weren’t many stories going on at that time so that really caught on in a slow media time.”
I asked the dedicated tortoise dad how Honey and Maple are doing today.
“They’re fine. Yeah, they’re still around, which is… one of those things,” Holtby said laughing.
A month later, Holtby received backlash after his Canucks goalie mask appropriated First Nations artwork. Holtby righted the wrong by the team’s home opener on January 20, apologizing for the mistake and having a First Nations artist paint his new mask.
Those two events were contrary to Holtby’s experience in Washington and foreshadowing of what was to come in Vancouver. The Canucks struggled mightily on defense and started the season winning only two of their first seven games. Holtby surrendered five-or-more goals in three of his first seven starts. During the first two weeks of February, the team dropped six straight games, pushing them to the bottom of the division and dropping them from playoff contention.
COVID-19 ravaged the team in late March, forcing the postponement of eight games. Nearly the entire roster (21 players) and four staff members tested positive for the virus, including Holtby, Nate Schmidt, Jay Beagle, and Travis Boyd. The Washington Post described the Canucks’ outbreak as “the worst in the NHL this season — and perhaps in North American professional sports since the start of the pandemic.” To get in all the games before the end of the season, the NHL scheduled Vancouver to play 19 games in 31 days. The Canucks finished dead last in the Scotia North Division (50 standings points), giving up the sixth-most goals (188) in the NHL.
Holtby posted a losing record (7-11-3) for the first time in his illustrious career and had career lows in goals against average (3.67) and save percentage (.889). He was bought out of the remaining year in his contract after the Canucks gave their starter of the future, Demko, a five-year, $25 million extension. Holtby’s buy-out came after Vancouver tried to find a trade partner and left him unprotected in the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
Holtby was signed by the Dallas Stars exactly a day later, inking a one-year deal. Holtby’s family, including their two children Belle and Benjamin, were forced to move again.
“We are excited to add Braden to our goaltending group,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said in a release. “We’re looking forward to Braden giving us the elite goaltending that he’s shown he’s capable of throughout his career. He has won every major award a goaltender can win and we are thrilled that a person of his pedigree is joining our organization.”
Dallas was an interesting landing spot because Holtby joined a team two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2020. The team already had veterans Ben Bishop (injured) and Anton Khudobin in net with young star Jake Oettinger waiting in the wings. At best, Holtby would emerge as the team’s starter; at worst, he’d mentor Oettinger.
Holtby started the season on fire during his first four appearances in net, stopping 139 of his first 147 shots (.946 SV%). But as the season creeped into the winter, he made fewer and fewer starts. Holtby got the nod four times in both November and December. January saw Holtby make a season-high six starts after Khudobin suffered a season-ending hip injury. Holtby’s final game that month, a January 28 game against the Capitals, proved to be significant and put a lot of things in perspective.
The game marked the first time Holtby had faced the Capitals since leaving the organization two years prior. During the 2020-21 season, teams only played intradivision rivals due to the pandemic. Holtby predicted before puck drop that “it’s going to be strange tonight. Very odd.”
He was right. Holtby was chased from the net after giving up five goals in two periods. Some of Holtby’s closest friends on the Caps, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Tom Wilson, scored against him.
“I was pretty uncomfortable playing the Caps in Dallas,” Holtby said. “It was tough. A lot tougher than I thought it would be.”
During the third period, Holtby came out of the tunnel and sat directly beside the Capitals bench, talking to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
“I hate to see that he had a tough night,” Backstrom said afterward. “We all know what he has done for our organization, for our club, and for our fans. He is a good friend of a lot of guys on the team. I think everyone loves him.”
Holtby would make only two more starts — February 13 against the Colorado Avalanche and March 4 against the Winnipeg Jets — before a lower-body injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. But he did make one more trip.
On March 20, 2022, the Dallas Stars rolled into Washington for the teams’ final matchup of the season. I was at the game celebrating my son’s fifth birthday.
During the first TV timeout, the Capitals played a tribute video for Holtby on the jumbotron. Holtby walked out of the tunnel beside section 117 to watch.
Forever a Capital.#ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/6C4hl7MoIJ
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 20, 2022
As fans realized Holtby’s presence, they raised to their feet and cheered. Loudly. The roar and emotion gave me goosebumps.
Capitals fans’ ovation for Braden Holtby during his Homecoming Game on March 20, 2022.
I was there for my son’s fifth birthday. It’s a moment I will never forget. Months later, seeing it again, it’s still just as heavy and sweet. pic.twitter.com/utgaIPLsbV
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) September 15, 2022
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the arena that loud,” Capitals fan Ryan Merten said. “Everyone was cheering, screaming, and applauding. Holtby was pretty much the first goalie I ever really liked or followed.”
Holtby could be seen tearing up by fans sitting near him.
“Braden appeared so moved,” Greg Chernack, who was in attendance at the game, said to me. “The tribute video really captured him both as a player and a figure in the community. Not many pro athletes have taken a stand for gay rights the way he did, and I think you saw how much that meant to fans on top of his exemplary play on the ice.”
Play started up again. And fans kept the ovation going. Sure, it would ebb some but then it’d pick back up again. It continued like that for several minutes.
“It was touching and special,” Holtby said of the gesture from Caps fans. “A little uncomfortable, too. I’m not the kind of guy that enjoys having all eyes on him. I was very nervous about going back. Once I was out there, and unfortunately not out on the ice, just seeing Caps fans – their appreciation was beyond what I ever would have thought it’d be.”
Holtby was also struck by how weird it was to go into the visitor’s locker room – perhaps because a large part of himself still identified as a Capitals player.
“Being the enemy on the other team was strange,” Holtby said. “I walk into Cap One and that’s home. It’s weird to go into the locker room again and go in the other side… I spent so much time in one place and you become so accustomed to being a part of it that it was tough to be on the other side.”
After the season concluded, the Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli reported that Holtby was unlikely to play the 2022-23 season and that his career may be over due to a lower-body injury — a shock considering his high level of play with the Stars and his age, 32.
Holtby has not commented publicly on the report until I asked him about it on Monday.
“Yeah, we’re just going over a few things right now,” Holtby said when I asked if he was retired, noticeably uncomfortable. “Number one on my mind right now is getting some stability for my kids back in their life. They’re at an age now where their life is more important than a hockey career. That’s number one.
“The last few years have been tough,” he added. “I’m getting old. I’m at a point where I’m not about to say one way or the other, but for me, I need to be more present in other things, and then maybe if the love of the game comes back somehow, then maybe, who knows? Right now I’m enjoying spending time with my family and doing some other stuff, too.”
When I asked what the injury was, Holtby opted to keep it private.
In January, The Washington Post reported that the Holtbys bought a new home in the DC area. It’s believed to be in Northern Virginia.
Once the Stars’ season ended, Braden started popping up around town again. It caused a lot of excitement online.
Holtby was spotted at Nationals games with Karl Alzner, a Sheryl Crow/Jason Isbell concert at Wolf Trap, DC Pride, and local ice cream shop Lazy Mikes.
“When we moved away, we were kind of excited to see new things and have new experiences,” Holtby said. “But I think, timing-wise was with where the world was with COVID and everything, kind of unfortunate for everyone, but moving cross country twice during those years, that puts a lot of stress on your kids and your family. I think we realized pretty soon that stability and having a place that you can call home is pretty important. It didn’t take long for us to realize that DC is our home. Kids were born here. My wife and I moved out here – she was fresh out of college and I was right out of junior hockey. As far as adulthood goes, this is our home. We’re just happy to be back. Glad we moved away. We appreciate things more that way.”
Photo: Chris Palombi
Monday, Holtby shocked over 150 guests by attending the second annual Laughlin Family Foundation Golf Tournament. The event was created to raise money for rare cancer research after Craig Laughlin’s wife, Linda, battled a rare form of endometrial cancer – uterine serous carcinoma – in 2018. The event, largely organized by Courtney Laughlin, raised over $170k, which was nearly double the amount in 2021.
“We actually got back to town, and Karl Alzner said Locker wondered if I had any interest coming out,” Holtby said. “It seemed like the timing was great and it’s obviously a great cause. Locker’s been so good for myself and everyone in the community, too, that it’s a no-brainer to come and help them.”
For $1,500, a group of three golfers would be randomly partnered with a local celebrity sports guest. Celebs that participated included Washington Capitals play-by-play announcers Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin; Capitals alumni Alan May, Rod Langway (HHOF), Peter Bondra, Karl Alzner, Brent Johnson, and Ken Sabourin; radio voice of the Capitals John Walton; Washington Wizards announcer Chris Miller; NASCAR driver Ryan Ellis; Capitals PA announcer Wes Johnson; and national anthem singers Bob McDonald, and Caleb Green. Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak even made a surprise appearance during the live auction later in the night.
“I just talked to Karl, and said ‘Invite your buddy, Holtby!!” Craig Laughlin said when asked how he got Holtby to attend. “I talked to Karl months ago and I knew Braden would come back and live here. Braden was building a house, Alzner was building a house. Karl was golfing with Holtby when I texted. ‘Please invite him to the golf tournament. He’d be awesome!’
“I think both of them have a huge passion for baseball,” Laughlin added. “I think they both coach their teams. They spend a lot of time with their kids on the field. They used to throw the ball around during warmups. Now the kids are playing.”
About a week before the event, Holtby confirmed he’d appear, but the Laughlins opted to leave the news unannounced as to not put too much pressure on the legendary goaltender.
The lucky group that got to partner with Braden was Peter Bulcavage (executive vice president of Buch Construction), Gordon Wallace, and Kevin Mikk.
“We didn’t know that we were playing with Braden until we got there,” Bulcavage said. “Gordon and I showed up a little bit early because I had the Koozies for the event. Once we dropped them off, we went back to the car and grabbed our clubs. We went over to the cart and that’s when we saw the cart sign. Holtby, Braden.”
“It was probably more shock than anything else,” he added. “I wasn’t aware he was going to be there, let alone playing. I took the picture of the cart and sent it to my wife and brother. That’s the only photo I took all day. Gordon let his wife know because Braden is her favorite player.”
Bulcavage said Holtby shared countless stories with his group, such as what it was like growing up in Saskatchewan, being an Avalanche fan in Oilers territory, and his Stanley Cup experience. Braden apparently got a bonus night with the Stanley Cup.
“That in and of itself would have been enough, but when you add in the opportunity to talk to him as a person, as a husband, as a dad, as a DIYer — we joked about learning how to do pretty much anything by watching YouTube — that was next level,” Bulcavage said. “He was so gracious. So humble. So down to earth. And, it certainly didn’t hurt that he hit the ball a mile on our way to a nice round of 13-under par. It was truly an unforgettable experience.”
Holtby pledged to the Laughlins that he’d stay through the golf tournament, which ended at 4:30 PM. Instead, he met with fans outside the club house for about 30 minutes and then went inside for dinner and drinks. In the back bar, he sat at a table with Alzner and Sajak, enthusiastically sharing stories. During a live auction, Holtby also signed several items, including a large Holtbeast illustration that raised $1,500.
Holtby hugged Kevin, who bid for the item.
In the future, we may never know when or where Braden will show up next. When asked if he would become more active on social media, Braden began laughing, shaking his head, and saying no multiple times. But Monday’s event seemed like a beginning. If the first 10 years of his career in DC were about him accomplishing his personal goals, the next few decades seem destined to be about both his family and giving back to all of us. Though I’m not quite sure he knows how much he’s already done.
“He’s an amazing ambassador and we’re lucky to have him back,” Bulcavage said.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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