More than three decades ago, as a teenager from the Bronx looking to crack the hockey coaching circuit, Mitch Korn latched onto a summer program called CAN/AM Hockey School, located in Guelph, Ontario. The experience gave Korn his start as a goaltending guru, and the friends he met there would ultimately wind their way back into his life, almost prophetic in the way everything has come together.
The head goaltender coach was named Dave Prior, who would later assume the same position for the Washington Capitals. Also working those camps were two up-and-comers named Brian MacLellan and George McPhee, the current and former general managers of the franchise Korn just officially joined.
“I’ve known those guys for 40 years,” Korn said Tuesday, hours after the Capitals announced him as their new goaltending coach, “which is scary to think about.”
The stories and connections Korn brought to his teleconference with beat writers were legion, each revealing a different part of the winding journey that brought him from Nashville, where he worked with Barry Trotz for 15 seasons, to Washington, where he takes over for Olie Kolzig. Korn said he has mined Kolzig for information already, but has not yet reached out to Prior. Kolzig will remain with the organization in a part-time scouting and teaching role.
“I will reach out to Dave because we’re friends,” Korn said. “But I also believe that I want to try to form some of my own opinions. When people give you thoughts and put ideas in your head, they’re often good, but I would rather assess with a clean mind.”
Here’s one story: Korn was born and raised in the Bronx, and often jokes that “the only other short New York Jewish guy is [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman. He runs the league, so that job wasn’t available to me.” Back when the NHL was in its infancy, still working with the Original Six franchises, Korn’s father would take him to Madison Square Garden. “I’m showing my age,” he said. “I know that.”
Here’s another: In the summer of 1990, Korn was working another goalie camp, one of the countless he’s worked over his career. This one was held at the Sabres’ practice rink. Then a coach at Miami (Ohio) University), Korn compiled a practice video using clips of his college pupils and flicked it on inside a dark meeting room. He never saw Rick Dudley, then Buffalo head coach, enter the room.
As the talking points flipped past on the video, Dudley found himself muttering, “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that.” Then, he said, “I want to hire this guy.”
A year later, in the summer of 1991, Korn took a phone call from Craig Ramsay, Buffalo’s assistant general manager. Ramsay asked if he had any interest in joining the Sabres. Of course, Korn said.
And one more: Dominik Hasek once walked onto a team flight wearing an overcoat to handle the Buffalo winter. This was before everyone called him “The Dominator,” before Korn’s teachings helped turn him into a Hall of Famer, a member of the 2014 class announced Tuesday. So Korn and others started calling him “The Count.”
“Which he didn’t like,” Korn said. “But once he got good, the Count disappeared and the Dominator appeared.”
>> One of Korn’s most immediate tasks will be working with Trotz and MacLellan to identify a veteran backup for Braden Holtby, the presumed starter in Washington. One target will almost certainly be Tomas Vokoun, who played for Korn in Nashville and also spent a season with the Capitals. Korn helped Vokoun identify his obsessive compulsive disorder, a critical diagnosis that jumpstarted his career.
Vokoun missed the 2013-14 season dealing with blood clots, and Korn declined to discuss specific free agents, but if the Capitals decide to head that route, the lines of communication are clearly open.
“We’ve got a fantastic relationship,” Korn said. “We also stay in touch regarding the future. I don’t think I’m at liberty to start talking right now about who’s going to fill out our roster and who’s not. We’ve started to talk, but we’ve got more work to do.”
>> Korn’s reputation also comes packaged with the unique props he uses at camps and with NHL net-minders, like unbreakable mirrors, white pucks that blend into the ice and mini-pucks. While Korn would prefer using an iPad for video review with his professional students over mirrors, the other props will soon be shipped arrive in his new home.
“I’ve already called the equipment manager,” he said. “They’re on order in Washington.”
>> Here’s one more quote from Korn, on developing a goaltender schedule with Trotz:
“We’ll sit down, we’ll get a short-term game plan, because you don’t want goalies to play too much, you don’t want goalies to play too little. We’ll put a game plan together short-term, because the longer you plan out, the less likely it will occur.
“I give my opinion, like any assistant coach. The head coach has the final say. When the head coach makes the call, everyone’s on board. It just works that way. We’ve had no issues with it, no problems. There’s been times, honest to goodness, I’ve suggested one thing and he’s done another. I get it. And there’s been times that I’ve suggested one thing and he’s done it.
“There’s great respect. There’s no egos. I will tell you that Barry Trotz doesn’t have an egotistical bone in his body. When he makes a decision, there’s no agendas. He makes it because he think it’s the best decision.”