On Feb. 25, what seems like a lifetime ago, the Washington Capitals beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 in a shootout. Ilya Kovalchuk made his Caps debut on home ice and the team honored Alex Ovechkin's 700th career goal with a pre-game ceremony. In net, Braden Holtby made 30 saves for the win. It was also Law Enforcement Appreciation Night.
Fast-forward a few months and the world is completely different. The NHL is just starting to prepare for games to return due to the Covid-19 epidemic, while anti-police brutality protests have gripped the United States and beyond. Many NHLers, including Holtby, have made public statements about the unrest, while supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
So what happens next season if Washington holds another special night for law enforcement?
"You see what's happening right now and it doesn't seem real," Holtby said. "But at the same time, some of the best people I've ever met are law enforcement officers. To see some of the brutality going on, it really tears you. Maybe I don't know what actually is happening sometimes."
Having said that, Holtby hopes the people he knows in law enforcement are the ones that become the leaders, the ones who can change things from the inside.
Give Holtby credit: he has long used his profile to help different communities and he's not doing it for the social media cred. In fact, he barely uses social media because he believes it's flooded with folks talking before they think. He and his wife, Brandi, have been visible members of the D.C. community and lent their support to causes like human rights and LGBTQ advocacy over the years. While Brandi has the more active online presence, Holtby put out a very thorough statement on Twitter earlier in the week.
"Every day I was depressed, upset and angry," he said. "I just needed to say something."
While these are fraught times for many people, hockey players are in the uncomfortable spot of seeing what is happening in America but not necessarily knowing how to react. The combination of humility and privilege that makes up most of the league's culture doesn't exactly lend itself to politics, but Holtby for one is trying to learn about the issues as much as possible.
"The world needs change," he said. "We're hockey players and a lot of us skipped some of our education to become hockey players, but if we focus on the right areas and listen, we can learn."
Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, Holtby was aware of the racism that people in First Nations communities faced, but he had little experience with anti-Black racism. Needless to say, living in Washington, D.C. for the past decade opened his eyes to that world and a passion for American history helped round out his views.
Now he and his wife are raising two children in the nation's capital and trying to find that tricky parenthood information balance.
"You don't want to paint a picture that the world is an awful place," he said. "But you also want to paint a realistic picture."
On the ice, the Capitals will soon (well, relatively soon) get back on the ice and if all goes according to plan, start gunning for their second Stanley Cup in three seasons. Holtby is slated to become an unrestricted free agent once the season ends, but he's going to have his eyes on the prize for Washington as soon as he straps the pads on again. And whether he re-signs with the Caps (no guarantee, given the ascent of young goalie star Ilya Samsonov) or heads to another NHL city, it's not hard to imagine Holtby and his wife continuing their community work, no matter the locale.
As for the folks on social media who don't want to hear the opinions of hockey players, crowing for NHLers to 'stick to sports' instead?
"We're all just trying to be humans," Holtby said. "It's crazy to think that's an argument."