When he was growing up on a farm in Marshall, Saskatchewan Braden Holtby’s father set up a backyard rink under a large spotlight so he could train well into the night.
When Holtby went inside he spent countless additional hours firing pucks off the walls in the family basement.
“I had a way when I was young of shooting on myself somehow. I’d shoot off the wall and try to save it,” he recalled in an interview with Caps Snaps and Addison Huber of Russian Machine Never Breaks. “The walls are kind of looking a little worse for wear now.”
“I played hockey all day” he added. “There is not much else to do in Saskatchewan.”
At 20, Holtby’s goaltending skills have made him a much-discussed prospect. But the Caps organization already has two young goalies: Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. All of which means that Holtby’s future will depend on the same kind of dogged persistence he displayed as a farm boy in Canada.
“The way I am going into the season is to just have a really good camp and a really good start in Hershey and then hopefully just prove to them that I am ready for the NHL,” he said. “And if something happens that I get my opportunity I will be ready to prove myself. But you can’t think about it too much, and you just got to keep working hard and keep performing and doing things that you need to do, and you will get your chance, I guess.”
Holtby learned the fundamentals of the game from his father, who played goalie for the Saskatoon Blades, a junior team in the Western Hockey League, and was a no-nonsense mentor who would put his son’s team through a tough skate if he played poorly in the pervious game.
One thing his father did not insist on was that Holtby also become a goaltender. “My dad always tried to convince me not to be a goalie–mostly on the fact, I think, because the goalie’s equipment is so expensive,” he said. “I always loved the position. I was fortunate enough that I grew up in a small town that I could play in an age group above me as a goalie and then in my age group as a forward.”
Holtby spent part of his summers playing baseball: he was a shortstop and, naturally, a catcher. He still likes the sport and was wearing a Nationals cap during the interview.
After following in his father’s footsteps and making his mark with the Saskatoon Blades, Holtby played his first professional season in 2009-2010, ricocheting among three teams.
Holtby played with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL, did a few stints for the Caps as a backup goaltender (he suited up and was on the bench for five games but did not play) and moved back and forth to the Hershey Bears. He had a starting role on the Bears when Neuvirth was called up to D.C. after Semyon Varlamov’s injury and finished his season with the team when it won the Calder Cup. Holtby led AHL rookie goaltenders in the goals-against-average (2.32) and save percentage (.917.) and played in the ECHL All-Star Game.
In his effort to gain an edge over the competition, Holtby’s pre-game ritual involves visualization: rehearsing his moves without a player or puck. He recently had Lasik eye surgery because his sweat used to interfere with his contacts.
Holtby was in the spotlight on Thursday when he had a run-in with Evgeny Kuznetsov, one of the Caps top prospects. (He whacked Kuznetsov with his stick after concluding that Russian was taunting him after a goal.) But he said that he and Kuznetsov had turned the page. “There wasn’t any off-ice issues or anything,” he said. “It was just the heat of the moment type thing on the ice, and we are not looking too much into it.”
In fact, the Russian prospects and Holtby were on the same team when the Caps prospects played paintball later that day, a contest that pitted Team World against Team USA. Even though the Russians and Holtby were comrades there was a near instance of friendly paintball fire. “The Russians were kind of going together–all three of them,” Holtby said. “They were behind me and I was trying to yell that I was on the same team, but obviously none of them could understand. So I just kind of hid there and paintballs are flying by me.”
Bruce Boudreau said earlier this week that Holtby was doing his best to prove himself. “Here is a guy that was expected to play most of the year in the East Coast last year and he ended up being the number one goalie for an awful long time in Hershey. He is a year ahead of himself right now.”
“The cream already rises to the top,” the coach added. “Neuvy and Varly are two years ahead of him. It will be interesting to see where Braden is in the same time frame.”
Said Holtby: “I have always been into hockey. It has always been basically the main thing in my life. I don’t even know what I would do if I couldn’t play it.”
Just like old times, Holtby shoots the puck off the boards and back at himself.