There was one lesson I learned very early on covering the Capitals: look forward to the development and preseason camps, because you have a chance to interview Braden Holtby.
I had a lot of hockey learning to do at the first development camp I covered in ’09—so much, in fact, that I didn’t even realize I’d asked the director of media relations at the time, Nate Ewell, where I could find the PR contact I’d been corresponding with about covering the camp (Kelly Murray, who put up with my rather clueless initial email about interview requests). And Braden—as young as he was then—was very patient with my questions. I could ask him about things like Jim Craig’s mind technique in the 1980 Olympics, and Braden would always give answers that helped clarify a goalie’s mindset—or at least as much as a “civilian” like me could understand.
I learned a lot, so I got into the habit of bugging him at every camp he attended in D.C. I think eventually he got used to it—I always wonder what players think about reporters who consistently pepper them with odd questions; but Braden never laughed at them or showed annoyance, answering questions with the gravity of a professor–a trait he’s kept through this postseason. He was polite, would remember me from summer to summer or September to September (depending on the camp), and always had good answers ready. One time, he came out of the locker room at Kettler still with a whole bunch of goalie equipment on, but he still sat down on the bench next to the rink and answered as many questions as I had.
I learned a lot about hockey, but I also learned a lot about the athlete and his mindset through these interviews. And this is something I think reporters rarely give enough weight to nowadays.
As a reporter, judging a player’s attitude as it relates to hockey is tricky. You only actually interact with them for a few moments each day; you may see them play on the ice for an hour or two each day. You may never really know much about what kind of person they are away from the rink. It seems much more reliable to go with what the accepted hockey wisdom is (don’t start young, inexperienced goalies in the playoffs) and statistics. But you miss a key ingredient in your analysis if you do so.
When it comes to hockey, Braden Holtby is a perfectionist. He’s got the kind of edge that means he’ll never be taken for granted. He always plays like his last meal was four days ago. And he’s got sick skills. But he’s also a student of the game, and willing to adjust accordingly. And it’s that odd, cold, calm analytical aspect—one that you can hear in every postgame press conference, and one that you could decipher when he answered, as a 19 year old, random questions about the heart of a goaltender’s game—which tames the fury and polishes the talent, and makes him the kind of goalie that can keep his team right where they need to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was kind of an odd moment to be sitting in the Verizon Center press box Thursday and hearing Holtby’s name announced as the starting goalie. Because we journalists have a tendency toward being egocentric and relating everything back to ourselves, it was fun to think back to all the times where there had been little media around Braden at all and you could sit and ask him questions for as long as you wanted. In reality, I’m sure, many of the media have stories very similar to mine about chatting with him. But I got a sneaking suspicion Thursday that it’s going to be difficult to casually ask for a one-on-one interview with Holtby at a Caps training camp again without it being a big deal. I had already been surprised it hadn’t caught on this past September after his successful NHL debut the previous year.
It was obvious, too, as the evening progressed. In the locker room after Thursday’s game, you couldn’t escape Holtby’s influence. I didn’t even go into his media scrum (one of the largest groups of the night, I’m happy to report), but he was often the subject of the other scrums I was in with other players. I think Brooks Laich got asked about Holtby’s awesomeness at least three separate times.
But what really encourages me is that I’ve seen little to no change in any of those characteristics that told me I should put so much confidence in Holtby’s goaltending to begin with. He’s still searching for perfection. He’s still learning and adjusting. And his analytical side of the game appears as sharp as ever–or at least his ability to communicate that.
I think that’s why he’s so successful, and it explains why he can bounce back when all the numbers and all the pundits in the world are stumped. This isn’t to say Holtby won’t struggle in the future or cost the Caps a few games here and there. But I am not the least bit surprised by Holtby’s successful play in this postseason.
The star was there early on for anyone who cared to see it.