NEWBURGH, N.Y. — Five goalie camps down and two more ahead on another beloved summer circuit, Mitch Korn hopped from his equipment van outside the Ice Time Sports Complex with a throaty cold and an eager grin. The previous session in Connecticut had ended that afternoon, a Monday in late July, so the operation quickly rumbled toward this one-rink city, chosen because Korn’s sister lives nearby and that means free laundry.
“Let’s start moving,” Korn told his staff. He coughed once, the tax for so many weeks spent on the road. “Let’s go.”
Out from the van spilled hockey bags the size of go-karts, stuffed with the teaching tools for which Korn has become known: buckets of pucks, bungee cords, medicine balls, a thin mirror about six feet wide and traffic cones that light up. Thirty-five years of college hockey, the American Hockey League and the NHL had led Korn to these tools, which form the reputation for education and innovation that accompanies the new Capitals goalie coach to Washington.
Depending on the source, Korn is either a goaltending guru, a netminder whisperer or, as longtime colleague Barry Trotz calls him, “Yoda” and “The Voice of Reason.” He is also a pull-no-punches jokester, an opportunistic self-deprecator, a frequent storyteller, a devout follower of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” — and a 5-foot-4, 57-year-old Jewish man from the Bronx who made it in a sport few played back home, without playing much of it himself.
But here in Newburgh, Korn would soon play the role of overseer. The following morning, 48 campers would arrive, aged 8 to 18, dubbed by Trotz as “Children of the Korn.” Adding the counselors, coaches and local players found to shoot pucks, roughly 80 bodies would skate for afternoon stations, all under Korn’s watch. The Capitals, with a tenuous goaltending situation that saw four goalies with at least 10 starts last season, would have to wait.
“We want to leave as little to chance for the morning as possible,” Korn said inside the staff locker room.
He unzipped a bag still adorned with Nashville Predators logos, home for the past 16 seasons before Washington hired him in June, and pulled out a red Magnum Sharpie for drawing lines on the ice. “Only time in my life I get to use these,” he said, before hanging four stopwatches on a hook, arranging three staplers on a bench and popping one cherry lozenge into his mouth. Wake-up was set for 7 a.m. Time to go again.
An hour into Tuesday morning and Korn already had compared a camper’s haircut to singer Rick Astley’s, likened a staffer to actor Bob Denver and told campers that The Washington Post was famous for “breaking the scandal at Watergate, where Richard Nixon met Monica Lewinsky.” He loves Newburgh more than most summer stops, mainly for the kids who speak with New York accents, just like Korn, and the adults who understand his roots, Sundays spent with the family at the old Madison Square Garden watching the Rangers, weekday mornings with friends at slapdash rinks in the tri-state area.
And — this is important — most like his jokes.
“You know that I’m not normal,” he said during orientation. “I have a bizarre sense of humor. But don’t confuse laughs with weakness. I am not weak.”
It’s a resolve forged back in the Bronx, when Korn crafted his first goaltending glove out of a first baseman’s mitt, roller skate straps and cardboard from packets of loose leaf paper.
It was toughened after the family moved to Westwood, N.J., where Korn shared a room with his sister and grandmother and practiced at Bergen County’s only ice rink, a studio with four walls and no boards. And it has been tested over countless summers of logging 7,000 miles in the white van, though the latest trips felt different.
It’s been a whirlwind offseason, he told the kids and parents. The first goalie camp began June 7 in Nashville. On June 8, the Capitals called. They wanted someone to teach 25-year-old Braden Holtby, who was coming off a season marked by confidence issues and a career-high goals against average of 2.85. To Trotz, few were better equipped for this than Korn, who from Holtby and backup Justin Peters will seek not only results but an elephantine skin.
“When you’re around Mitch, you got to bring that with you,” said Steve Cady, a former colleague at Miami (Ohio) University. “You can go to the bank with that. With his sharp wit, he’ll find a way to cut you up any chance he gets.”
At camp, the kids didn’t fare much easier. During a morning ice session, as they practiced their skating techniques, Korn’s voice boomed through a wireless microphone and over the loudspeakers.
“My grandmother has no legs,” he yelled, at no one in particular. “And she crawls around the house faster than that.”
After lunch came stations. A dozen hummed at once, each with a distinct prop, and Korn struggled to name his favorite. The medicine balls stabilized the goalie’s core. White pucks disappear against the ice, and black mini-pucks, no bigger than a macaroon, offered a similar visual challenge. A high screen board, resembling flaps at a car wash, made goalies track the puck amid the thicket of dangling strips.
Korn picked up some of these drills from other coaches. The white pucks were inspired by Halloween-themed orange ones at a pro shop in Nashville. Others, like the “focus enhancers” — effectively black mesh laundry bags worn over masks — were born over a few beers.
“This all keeps Mitch young,” said Justin Camuto, Korn’s right-hand man at these camps. “It keeps his motor going.”
The motor has gunned for decades, ever since he began working camps at age 15. Hired full-time by Miami (Ohio) in 1981, Korn managed the rink, wrote a 300-page manual for arena operations, helped design the installation of the campus’s first computer network, oversaw the intramural program, created the annual “Korn Cup” broomball tournament, briefly called radio play-by-play for WOXY and coached the goalies until 1991. The next year, he began commuting between his rink duties in Oxford, Ohio, and NHL goalie gigs, first with the Buffalo Sabres and later the Predators.
For seven seasons in Buffalo, he worked with Dominik Hasek, who only thanked two people in his recent Hall of Fame induction speech, one of whom was Korn. He became known to Sabres fans, so much so that upon returning to the United States from a staff trip to Niagara Falls, the border patrolman gushed, “You’re Mitch Korn!”
Then came 16 seasons with the Predators, all of them beside Trotz, where Korn noticed symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in Tomas Vokoun, a diagnosis that put Vokoun’s career back on track. Then he helped Pekka Rinne become a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist. And last season, when a hip infection sidelined Rinne, Carter Hutton suddenly transformed from an overmatched backup into a serviceable replacement.
Said Ben Vanderklok, Korn’s eventual replacement in Nashville: “He’s arguably one of, if not the best, goalie guy in the NHL.”
As Tuesday wound down, though, Korn was struggling. The cough had gotten worse. The van needed an oil change. Three days remained in Newburgh, then four more at the final stop in Buffalo. After that would come moving from Nashville, planning for the preseason in Washington, connecting with Holtby and vacationing in South Carolina, all while stomaching the unmistakable feeling of boredom, known to Korn as “camp withdrawal.”
“I have to elevate my energy to a pitch where I’m literally on stage for six, seven hours,” he said. “Like a live Broadway play. Hell, I’m not playing hockey anymore. This is my game.”
For now, Korn had focused his enthusiasm onto one station, where a young camper who had struggled earlier that morning was suddenly dropping into half-butterflies and stopping mini-pucks that whizzed off angled boards.
Korn lurked and remarked about how amazing this was, that even the worst goalies could show such fast improvement. It’s because of these moments, Korn said, that whenever he decides to retire from the NHL, there is no chance in hell these camps will get shelved, too.
“I’ll take them to my grave,” Korn said. “Who wants to live in Florida in the summer?”
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