Capitals goalie Braden Holtby's famous pregame ritual also includes playing guitar and signing for teammates.
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ARLINGTON, Va. — The guitar lives inside a small office at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility, removed from its leathery case only for the game-day jam sessions. Showtime typically comes around noon, squeezed into the window after the morning skate and team meeting, once the artist finishes getting rubbed down by the team masseuse. The setlist trends heavy on Indie and modern rock, particularly Jack Johnson, but requests are taken too. The crowd comes and goes, mostly other players visiting manager of team operations Rob Tillotson, who works behind his desk while songs flow from the chair near the door. But every so often, someone will stop and listen to the acoustic stylings of goaltender-turned-jukebox Braden Holtby.
By now, at the end of a historic season that saw him match Martin Brodeur’s single season record of 48 victories, but in 12 fewer games, the extent of Holtby’s detailed off-ice routine is known well. Ninety minutes before starts, he retreats into a private room, lays a towel over his face and focuses his mind. At the 70-minute mark, he tosses rubber balls against a cement wall, warming up his hand-eye coordination, and with an hour left he conducts visualization exercises on the bench. Right through the end of the national anthem, when Holtby kisses the names of his children that are painted onto the backplate of his mask, everything unfolds according to script.
Sometime last November, right before he peeled off 20 wins—and zero regulation losses—in his next 22 decisions, Holtby added one more task to his exhaustive checklist. An avid music fan from birth, mostly thanks to his mother, Tami, who fronted a Saskatchewan-based country band throughout his childhood, Holtby took some lessons in his junior hockey days and now collects guitars. (He returned from his late January 2016 All-Star Game appearance in Nashville with a decent haul.) So when another one arrived in the mail at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, he started strumming to pass the time.
“Especially over a long season like this, I’m always searching for ways to create that similarity every game day, of the mindset I’m trying to get into,” he says. “A lot it is the mental prep, the breathing, the imagery, but throughout the day you don’t want to be angry or sleepy or all those different feelings you have that could change your view on how you’re going to perform that night. Music just always takes you back to the same place. Any type of music, you listen to it, it changes your mood, your outlook on things. That’s my reason for doing it, I guess.”
Ask anyone inside the dressing room of the Presidents’ Trophy winners, who will open their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday at Verizon Center—the scene of Holtby kicked back with a guitar on his knee, playing Goo Goo Dolls and George Ezra tunes that float down the hallway, dovetails perfectly with his casual off-ice personality. After all, this is a 26-year-old with a bushy beard who drives a Jeep, reads thick books on team flights, fills crossword puzzles at breakfast and often sports glasses that counter his Superman heroics in the crease with a Clark Kent-esque look.
“He’s a mellow guy,” says forward Michael Latta, who is among Holtby’s regular audience members. “On the ice, he’s a total freak, I guess. He’s a competitive freak. Then off the ice he’s such a nice, relaxed guy. Chill, really into music and really cool.”
Dig a little deeper, though, and Holtby’s latest hobby becomes a window into how a fiery fourth-round draft pick, raised on farmland along the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, has developed an unflappable ethos described by teammates as “Zen.” This season he backstopped the Capitals to their best regular season in franchise history, and earned more career wins (149) and shutouts (23) than the nine netminders who were drafted ahead of him combined.
In other words, to best understand the hirsute Vezina Trophy favorite, one must face the music.
Years before Braden was born, while she was still a teenager, Tami Holtby sang in a rock-and-roll band called Class. “I was a rocker at heart,” she says. It was there at Lloydminster Comprehensive High School that she met Greg, her future husband and a burgeoning goaltender. When Greg moved to Saskatoon and played for the WHL’s Blades, and later the University of Saskatchewan, Tami’s interests switched to country. “That’s where the money was,” she says today, “where you could get lots of gigs.”
Tami Hunter and Walkin’ After Midnight, an homage to Patsy Cline, formed in the late 1980s, which meant Braden and his older sister, Taryn, grew up on the road. The group, featuring four others who backed up Tami’s lead vocals, playing both covers and original tunes, toured throughout western Canada—lounges, bars, jamborees and lots of rodeos. They used Tami’s maiden name because, for some reason, “not many deejays could pronounce Holtby.” Today, she laughs, this is no longer the case. Perhaps because band members understood that their responsibilities after rehearsal at the Holtby house always included firing pucks at Braden in the basement. “Even when we’d have a Christmas party or a band party or a get-together, it was just known that they would always entertain Braden that way and play downstairs,” she says.
Greg’s farming work offered flexible hours, but the children still tagged along plenty. When the band held late-night practices, Braden and Taryn would snooze in sleeping bags in the hallway, or under the stage. “That was one thing we teased them about,” Tami says, “that they were able to sleep on any bus or plane because they were used to loud music.” She fondly remembers once jamming at her bass player’s house, when suddenly Braden stood up, grabbed a guitar, pretended to pick and sang along, even though he couldn’t play. This told Tami that her son had been paying attention.
“When I look back now, I can see where he really did have that keen interest in music,” she says. “He was very attentive and listened all the time and watched, just like he is now—he’s very focused.”
In turn, music helped Braden when he moved from home at 17 and followed his father onto the Saskatoon Blades. Back in Lloydminster, local radio had only two music stations—country and a heavy-metal outfit called The Goat. Now sent away with a guitar borrowed from Tami and instructions to take lessons from a friend in Saskatoon, Braden found his tastes expanding. Starting with Jack Johnson’s third album, In Between Dreams, he says, “music was my escape. Lyrics and songs could put everything into perspective, and Jack Johnson’s always constantly singing about just relaxing and enjoying the ride, enjoying life in general. I could be frustrated from practice or morning skate, and I play that and get back into the skate where you’re content with yourself, content where you’re at, ready to face the day.”
The higher Braden rose on the ice, hopping into the Capitals’ organization after three full junior seasons, the stronger his bond with Tami grew. They discussed similarities in their respective professions, from performing before crowds to handling media requests to visualizing the night’s events before taking their respective stages. “Same pressures, same spotlight, that kind of thing,” Braden says. Several years ago, when Tami’s band played a set at Taryn’s wedding, Braden joined them on the stage. This Christmas, the family still gathered around the fire pit and sang carols. And when Braden’s first son Benjamin was born, he and his wife, Brandi, would make his middle name Hunter.
This all entered the public’s eye during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With a .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average in 14 games, a baby-faced, 22-year-old Holtby led the Capitals past Boston in the quarterfinals before falling to New York in the second round. Tami, meanwhile, became somewhat famous once television cameras captured her in the stands, embodying the wide range of emotions Capitals fans felt during the two series. Some information about her singing career was quickly unearthed—including her 1996 Saskatchewan Female Vocalist of the Year award and Walkin’ After Midnight’s status as Saskatchewan’s backup band of the year. And in Jan. 2014, when Hockey Day in Canada came to Lloydminster, CBC tasked Tami with writing a song about raising children in sport. The chorus went like this:
Cause whatever they are doing and they are working hard
Whether they’re shut down in overtime or named the game’s first star
We were right there from the start
Even though we’re miles apart
They will always be our babies in the game
It’s the morning of April 5 now, several hours before the Capitals hosted the Islanders and Holtby took his first crack at tying Brodeur’s mark. Between this pursuit, appearing at the All-Star Game, peeling off the NHL’s second-longest point streak in two decades and earning a nod to Team Canada for the upcoming 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Holtby had never been bothered this much by extracurricular matters outside this practice facility. And, understand, they are bothers
“I like to just play for the team you’re on,” he says. “That’s always been my goal. That stuff has been not as exciting to me as some other guys, I guess. Just because I like my time away, because that’s when I feel like I perform the best. All-Star Game and everything like that is an obstacle. It’s tough for me to find extra space where you can get away from the game and regroup and be ready for the long season. In the future, if that happens again, I think I’ll do it differently and learn from this year about it and try to perform better.
This is why Tillotson’s office, tucked away past the change room and players’ lounge, offers such sanctuary. Maybe it’s the birth of Holtby's second child, daughter Belle, or the five-year, $30.5 million contract he signed last July, or the comfort of anchoring a revamped defense, but fellow Capitals see an even more relaxed goalie than usual. Or maybe it’s that his guitar skills have expanded; now Holtby can open an app on his phone and learn chords to new songs on the spot. Defenseman John Carlson, for instance, likes Wonderwall by Oasis. Latta often asks to hear Matchbox Twenty’s 3 A.M. He also travels with a fold-up travel guitar, so the routine can continue on the road.
“It just really seems like he’s having a lot of fun,” defenseman Karl Alzner says. “He always has fun and jokes around and stuff, but I think he’s taken that to another level this year. He’s really been able to seem to calm himself on game days and practice days and really getting into the mix a little bit more.”
And yet, in other ways, Holtby remains the same pillar that Carlson calls “our MVP every game so far this season.” In seven fewer games than last season, when his 73 led the NHL and broke Olie Kolzig’s franchise record, Holtby maintained roughly the same save percentage (.923 to .922) and lowered his goals-against average to career-best levels (2.20).
Consecutive overtime losses to the Islanders and Penguins temporarily halted Holtby’s pursuit of Brodeur, which brought some team-wide motivation long after games stopped mattering in the standings, but Saturday’s scene in St. Louis couldn’t have been better: Brodeur, an assistant GM with the Blues, watching a dominant 5–1 win in which Holtby saw just 19 shots and then coming to the visiting locker room to offer congratulations. “Happy for you,” Brodeur told him, right after the Capitals offered Holtby a long ovation that he twice tried (and failed) to simmer down. Then, true to form, Holtby and goaltending coach Mitch Korn spent the flight home studying film.
Which all makes the afternoon concerts so intriguing for teammates. How, they wonder, can Holtby enter what defenseman Nate Schmidt calls “complete darkness, complete-zone focus” in the crease, whipping away pucks that get past him in practice, and then spend a quiet half-hour finger picking in peace? Why has his routine, most of which is performed alone, opened to include such an inclusive activity?
Simple. Music soothes.
"Everyone who's played with me knows that before you get to the rink at night, I don't change based on game day," he says. :There's too many games to do that, too much life to live other than worrying all day long about three hours of work. Once I get to the rink, that's when I really start to focus in. But the morning skate, all that, I don't really change. It's not a stay-away-from-him thing."
Across the locker room, the clock skipped past noon. Holtby rose from his stall and left through the back door. It was time to start playing.