ESTERO, Fla. — The museum was built on a dead-end road overlooking the 18th tee, across the parkway from a minor league rink, in a gated community of carriage homes for the part-timers and the snowbirds. Admission costs nothing except an invitation from the docent, a man of knickknacks who stocks Canadian beer in the fridge. There are hockey bags in the garage, paintings of goaltenders overlooking both the toilet and the pool, rippling in the covered courtyard. The previous owner preferred privacy when he swam in the nude.
Mitch Korn bought the house five years ago when the market crashed, a quiet base for a life spent on the move, a cozy retirement spot for whenever he chose to stop. Between directing summer camps for young netminders and guiding the professional ones for the Washington Capitals, Korn had little time for curating exhibits. But on this September weekend, with the Capitals playing in a rookie tournament at nearby Germain Arena, the museum — a history lesson in goaltending, a treasure chest of relics, four decades of coaching crammed into three rooms — finally opened for tours.
“This, for me, is my journey,” Korn said. “And it’s not a normal journey.”
So please, come in. Grab a beer. Start in the office, bobbleheads bobbing on the bookshelf, pucks mounted in a glass case, an ear of corn nailed onto a plaque, the first best-at-camp award Korn ever gave in 1977, before someone gifted the vegetable back. Check the articles on the walls. Seven years with the Buffalo Sabres, 16 with the Nashville Predators. Two more (and counting) with the Capitals. A quarter-century into his NHL career, it’s all here.
“Goalie Guru,” said one headline from the 1990s, below it a bespectacled 36-year-old in Buffalo, chatting with future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, the year Hasek won his first of four Vezina trophies under Korn.
“Contributed more to the decade-long decline in scoring than any one man,” read a piece from the National Post, published during the Nashville Predators’ inaugural season in 1998-99, as his influence spread throughout the league and the “Children of the Korn” began growing in numbers.
“Expect the unexpected,” said the white T-shirt, decorated with a cartoon caricature of Korn minding the net, commissioned by the colleague he has worked beside for longer than anyone, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz.
After the 2013-14 season, when Trotz was fired from Nashville, Korn began considering his next move. He had options, including retiring and moving here for good, but waited to see where Trotz would land. Once word began spreading about Washington, Trotz called Korn and asked about taking one last ride together. As Korn later recounted, “When one of your best friends asks you to help, you help.”
This week, once the looming rookie tournament motivated Korn to put the final touches on a few showcase shelves, Trotz and the coaching staff became the first tourists inside the Mitch Korn Museum.
“If you look around, there’s family moments, team moments, moments in his life where it’s almost a documentary of the really important things to Mitch,” Trotz said. “It’s a total man cave and it’s exceptional.”
Into the living room now. Notice the paintings and photographs on the walls? See the goaltender from the 1920s, shaved ice stuck to his pad like dryer lint, chicken wire strung from the rafters for protection, wearing a hat instead of a mask?
“That’s how it all started, man,” Korn said. “As a goalie guy, that’s really cool.”
Listen to the Jackson 5 on the working jukebox, next to the wall of mini-wooden goalie sticks, autographed by last-name-only legends like Roy, Hull, Lemieux, Belfour and Fuhr. Scour the goaltending manual Korn helped write for his campers and goalies at Miami (Ohio) University, updated yearly until it grew so thick the staples wouldn’t hold. Marvel over the replica face mask of his boyhood idol, Eddie Giacomin, holes punched into the flush fiberglass face for ventilation, today more suitable for wielding chainsaws than stopping pucks.
A less nostalgic collector might wonder how much this all would fetch at an auction, but Korn has no desire to sell. The signatures are personalized, each reminding Korn of a different time of the journey, all strung together by the same prevailing thought: For a massive hockey fan who never reached the NHL — he was second-team all-conference at Kent State in 1978; that award is displayed too — but wound up affecting the sport more than most, gathering all this along the way felt pretty damn cool.
“I know people say stuff doesn’t matter,” Korn said. “But this stuff matters.”
There’s the photo of the stitched-up Gerry Cheevers mask Trotz gifted him when they left Nashville, with the grease-pencil note about how Korn turned “scars into stars.” There’s the picture of Sabres goaltenders Hasek and Steve Shields smiling next to Korn, short enough that he stood between them on a ladder, and the replica shot with Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton, two Predators reared from relative obscurity.
There are, in the most impressive wing of the house, the three wooden lockers, shipped to Florida last January, each crammed with tokens from his three NHL stops, such as jerseys, mugs, pucks, passes, glasses, bobbleheads and, hung inside the relatively empty Washington stall, red gloves from the 2015 Winter Classic.
“It’s not that far along yet,” Korn said.
The latest addition arrived sometime last season, when Korn first started setting up the museum. It’s found across the living room, another photo on another overflowing shelf, this one signed by Capitals goaltenders Braden Holtby and Justin Peters.
“Here’s to a start of a lot of great things!” Holtby wrote, before he tied the franchise record for single-season wins and shutouts, led the postseason in goals against average and save percentage, and finished fourth by a sliver in Vezina trophy voting.
Korn always loved snapping pictures, even when colleagues grumbled over another camera whipped out at another team function. But what if his memory worsened with age like his father, the man they called “Pop Korn”? All the frames and scrapbooks and 8-by-10 binders, still unpacked somewhere in storage, would help him remember a career that Trotz declared, without question, belonged in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Besides, only in death should any memorabilia leave the museum and, true to form, Korn already planned for that too. According to his will, his only daughter, Ashley, gets first dibs on whatever she wants. The remaining items fall under the supervision of Nick Petraglia, an assistant coach at Miami whom Korn named the executor of the estate. At Korn’s wish, Petraglia will gather Korn’s closest friends at the house. Then, in the spirit of their fantasy hockey league named in Korn’s honor, they will select an order and start to draft.
“This is really my entire life,” Korn said. “My whole story is here.”
He unplugged the jukebox and switched off the lights. He slung his red Capitals jacket over his shoulder and stepped into the garage.
“A good chunk of it, anyway.”