UNIONDALE, N.Y. — John Stevenson first noticed the smile, flickering on television beneath the mask of his pupil-turned-friend, radiating through the telephone whenever they talked. He had seen it disappear toward the end of last season, when the demands of the Washington Capitals’ old regime scorched Braden Holtby’s confidence. But now, watching from home in Alberta, at the start of what eventually became a record-setting season for Holtby, the sports psychologist sensed the smile returning, and with good reason.
Last summer, the Capitals hired goaltending coach Mitch Korn. They dubbed Holtby the starter. They trusted the foundation laid by Stevenson and others along the way, and in doing so brought back the smile.
“That’s when I saw,” Stevenson said. “He was having fun again. That’s when I knew Braden was back.”
Holtby was back, backstopping 73 games and 41 wins — tying franchise marks — and turning his teammates into breathless lauders, searching each night for new superlatives. He rocketed into the Vezina Trophy finalist discussion but ultimately fell short.
Korn, described by Stevenson as “the best goalie coach in the world,” arrived in Washington armed with his unorthodox props, refined methods and massive expectations, and together he and Holtby have succeeded. But Holtby’s growth was built on a foundation laid piece by piece, team by team, years earlier. Sought out by the Holtby family as a private positional coach, Stevenson eventually introduced Holtby to the mental aspect so critical to his game. It was reaffirmed before last spring’s trade deadline, when a Washington legend insisted Holtby return to what he did best.
It “greased the skids,” as Korn said, for what came next: the nine shutouts, also tied for the most in Capitals history. Twice Holtby broke the club’s consecutive appearances record, brushing aside questions about durability and growing stronger as the season continued, including a 1.68 goals-against average against the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. His renewed tranquility inside the crease will be necessary in Game 6 on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum as the Islanders’ home crowd jeers him and tries to rock the unflappable netminder.
“Obviously what I do or people like me do is never in that environment,” Korn said before the regular season ended. “We practice, we try to prepare, we’re never in that environment. The player is in that environment. So everything that he accomplished, the way he handled himself throughout, is all Braden Holtby. He’s a little bit of everybody he’s worked with, and everyone who’s provided advice or response to his previous experiences.”
Holtby was 15 years old when his parents contacted Stevenson, unaware of the coach’s acumen in the mental realm of sports. Greg Holtby, a former goaltender for the Saskatoon Blades, had taught his son all he could.
“It’s almost like Earl Woods with Tiger,” Stevenson said. “Can I coach him? Yes. But I think it’s time for someone to take over and tutor him.”
Like any normal teenage goaltender, all dreams with little finesse, Holtby believed everything “was all butterfly technique and that stuff,” until Stevenson “pounded my brain pretty hard to get me to realize something.”
Stevenson sensed Holtby had NHL-level talent, that he was far and away the most skilled goaltender in the Western Hockey League. Mentally, however, Holtby was “not even close.” He had a temper, breaking sticks after allowing goals and losing focus upon facing the slightest hint of adversity.
So Stevenson taught him about belly breathing, and the importance of staying calm. They discussed how the league’s best goaltenders rediscovered their focus, such as former NHL goalie Kirk McLean, who visualized a toilet in the corner of the rink to flush away bad thoughts. That technique led to Holtby’s ritual of squirting water into the air and following one droplet onto the ice. He even introduced training methods such as white pucks, which, in a neat bit of serendipity, Stevenson had learned the year before at a goalie camp in Edmonton — from Korn.
Holtby, meanwhile, devoured books about sports psychology, and they discussed golfer Jack Nicklaus’s imagery techniques. Stevenson’s wife, a vision training specialist, introduced Holtby to a three-dimensional machine called a CogniSens NeuroTracker that trains multiple-object processing and a light board that hones peripheral vision.
“My first year away from him professionally, I think that’s when I really found out how crucial that experience I had with him was,” Holtby said. “Kind of take it for granted when it’s right there at your fingertips, and once it’s gone, you have to start doing it on your own. It makes it harder, but you learn it even more.
“It’s finding out why your brain does that and trying to change it when you do have those negative thoughts. Every goalie has them. It’s what you do with them after. That’s one thing I really learned from him. No thought is a bad thought; it’s just what you do with it. It’s hard to put it all into one interview. It’s years’ worth of education.”
Last spring, then-goaltending coach Olie Kolzig called Holtby into the video room at the team’s practice facility. The coach at the time, Adam Oates, had required Holtby to play a less aggressive style, chaining him deeper in the crease and limiting his tendencies. His statistics were suffering and his psyche was even worse.
“He was done,” Kolzig said. “He was fried. His confidence was shot and I felt for him.”
That afternoon, they started reviewing video when Kolzig paused and interrupted. He had seen bits of himself in Holtby, from the curbed temper to the raw skills that turned Kolzig into the greatest goaltender in franchise history.
“Listen,” he later recalled saying, “let’s get back to you playing the way you did.”
The conversation happened without Oates’s knowledge, and Holtby changed without Oates noticing. He stationed himself higher in the crease. The weight lifted off his shoulders. From Feb. 27, 2014, until the end of the season, when the Capitals missed the playoffs and subsequently fired Oates, Holtby went 6-2-2 with a .921 save percentage, not far off the .923 he has since posted under Korn and Coach Barry Trotz.
“He just seems more at peace,” Kolzig said.
Like Stevenson, Kolzig’s role took a back seat when Korn arrived, both because of Kolzig’s new job as professional development coach and the trust he had in his replacement. But also like Stevenson, Kolzig watched with pride from afar as Holtby chased down his records.
“I think what he went through last year is going to continue to burn that fire for him,” Kolzig said. “It’s almost like the need for some respect that when I finally got my chance I didn’t want to give that up. I think what Braden went through last year and the three-goalie rotation, he didn’t want to be in that situation again or give that net up.
“I think his resolve and with the success you saw at the end of last year, reverting back to the way he was playing, that with Mitch tightening him up a little more, not allowing any pucks to get through, I think he’s as confident as ever.”
Friday afternoon, a day after his second straight victory over the Islanders gave the Capitals a 3-2 series lead, Holtby was third on the ice at Nassau Coliseum. He flicked his helmet down and glided backward across the rink, away from the visiting tunnel, where an equipment manager stood. Like he was skipping rocks, the equipment manager slid a puck across the ice. In stride, Holtby cocked his stick back, tracked the puck and cranked a one-timer. The cage of his mask made it almost impossible to tell, but, without question, Holtby was smiling.