Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals goaltender, has won 42 games already this season and to put that number in perspective, consider that only one other team – the Los Angeles Kings – has collectively managed more victories. But there is far more to Holtby than his ability to stop pucks, according to defenceman Karl Alzner.
"Sometimes, we call him, 'The most interesting man in the world,'" says Alzner, with a smile, "just because he's got a lot of different facets to his personality."
Alzner would know. He is a long-time teammate of Holtby's, going back to their days together with the Hershey Bears, when the goal of playing for a Stanley Cup favourite was little more than a pipe dream. Holtby is making that happen, someone who Alzner describes as "just a normal good guy when he's not playing, and focused and razor-sharp when he is.
Sometimes, we say, 'It's weird that he doesn't get weird on us,' if that makes any sense."
It does, actually.
Goaltending as a profession has traditionally attracted its share of eccentric, quirky oddball personalities. Holtby is an exception, a player with a wide range of interests, hailing from an interesting family with its roots firmly planted in rural Saskatchewan.
His mother, Tami, sang professionally with Walkin' After Midnight, an award-winning country band. His sister, Taryn, a veterinarian, is also an exceptional curler and in 2013, as a member of Jill Shumay's rink qualified as Saskatchewan's representative in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. His father, Greg, is a former WHL goaltender and Braden caught the netminding bug from him.
Holtby loves music and sports and has the sort of ultra-competitive personality that has allowed him to roar to the top of the profession. This year, he is having, on behalf of the Capitals, the sort of season that Carey Price had for the Montreal Canadiens a year ago, in which Price won every goaltending honour that he could – and for good measure, also the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.
The NHL record for wins in a single season by a goaltender is 48, held by Martin Brodeur since 2006-07, and Holtby has a shot at matching or even exceeding that total, depending upon how the Caps fare in the final three weeks of the season.
Washington coach Barry Trotz came from an organization, the Nashville Predators, which has done an exceptional job developing goaltenders. He brought his goaltending guru, Mitch Korn, with him and Korn, working with Holtby, has helped refine his technique with his unique teaching skills – using medicine balls, white pucks, anything that forces a goalie to stop shots more efficiently.
But even before Korn arrived, Holtby was already pushing to the top. According to Trotz, Holtby compares favourably in demeanour to the New York Rangers' perpetual 30-game winner, Henrik Lundqvist. Both have many interests away from the game that helps them stay grounded.
"Knowing what I know from being around the game long enough, goal is a hard position to play mentally," Trotz said. "When things aren't going well, you need to let the game go and have other interests so you can get away from it mentally. I think that's what makes those guys good.
"Guys that obsess about everything, where it's just about the game and nothing else, I think it can be real tough at that position. He's a bit of a Renaissance man in terms of his joys and hobbies, but he's still old school when it comes to the work ethic and he stays grounded, that's probably the main thing."
Holtby favours the great songwriters of a previous generation – from Bob Dylan to Warren Zevon – and says he grew up listening to music because "my mom was playing live music all the time. Unfortunately, when I was young, I wasn't smart enough to pick up an instrument. It was just hockey and sports all the time.
"Once I moved away from home, music was the thing that kept me going. When you move away as a young kid, I found some artists that you could learn from. Just the lyrics, the way the music makes you feel, it can change your mood with just a song. I got into that and now that's probably my favourite pastime – music, good music."
Holtby was a ninth-round pick in the 2004 WHL bantam draft, chosen by the Saskatoon Blades, the team his dad had played for decades previously. Projected as an NHL second-rounder in 2008, he didn't get chosen until the fourth round, 93rd overall, by Washington, just the 10th goalie picked in that draft.
He had an exceptional final junior season – a 40-16-4 record – and then turned pro the next year, dividing time between the Hershey Bears of the AHL and the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. The next three seasons, he shuttled back and forth between Hershey and Washington before arriving full-time in the NHL in 2013-14.
"My dad was a goalie; I grew up wanting to be like dad, like everyone does," Holtby said. "That's just kind of my personality. Every sport I played, I liked to be in a defensive role. I was a catcher in baseball; I liked that equally or more than hockey and goaltending. You grow up in a small town, you're not in the mix of big-city life, so I spent every day playing hockey, with a couple of friends, and I never thought there was anything else I could do but be a hockey player.
"Saying that, from a small town, I was pretty rough around the edges, technically. I was a little bit of a late bloomer, pretty athletic, but not very smart in a lot of ways. I had to learn that later on."
In Saskatoon, Holtby crossed paths with John Stevenson, the Blades' goalie coach, who also had a Masters in sports psychology from York University and eventually earned a second Masters in counselling psychology from City University in Edmonton.
"I was one of those guys, my mindset was, 'I'm going to be intense, I'm going to work and I'm going to be successful that way,'" Holtby said. "John taught me all the ways to control your mind and how you have to be a little calmer to be consistent over a long season in such a stressful position.
"He changed my whole life, the hockey and life in general. Without John, I wouldn't be here today."
Stevenson has worked with a variety of athletes and entertainers over the years, including the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and says he starts them all out with "the performance wheel.
"What I show them is, there's the physical part of your game, the technical part, the tactical part, the mental part and then there's what I call the hub of the wheel – your lifestyle, your nutrition, your hydration and your sleep. When Braden first came to see me, we attacked each of those areas.
"One of the first times I ever met Braden, the head coach in Saskatoon was Lorne Molleken. Traditionally coaches will say in practice, 'Okay, goalies, put all the pucks in the net' and I remember Braden taking every single puck and putting them on top of the net. He would never ever put a puck in the net. That was the first inkling I had that this is a special kid.
"There's this theory that, in practice, you don't shoot really hard on your goalie because you don't want to hurt him, and you have to take it easy on him. Well, Braden would get angry if guys wouldn't shoot the puck hard. He wanted them to shoot to score, shoot to beat him, because he wanted to get better.
"Braden treated practice like the game – and that's very much an exception to the rule. That's how intense he was."
According to Stevenson, working with his father gave Holtby a strong technical foundation – and it was up to him to help him with the mental side of the game.
"Because of his perfectionism, the very thing that made him a great Western Hockey League goalie was the thing that was going to hurt him as a pro – that inability to let go of a goal.
"He was clearly the best goalie in the WHL, but when he went to the world junior camp and he was one of the first guys to be let go, that, in my opinion, was a turning point. He finally came to me and said, 'Johnny, what do I need to do to get better?' I said, 'Technically, physically, tactically, you're a stud in the league. But until you learn how to let go of a goal and get refocused, you're going to have problems.'"
"John taught me to control the things I can control and stay in the moment," Holtby explained. "That was a big thing for me. When you get sent to the East Coast league in your first year, all these dreams of making it to the NHL real quick seem a long way away. I just took everything in and tried to get better. I thought, if I just keep getting better, I'm going to be good enough to make it one day.
"But luck is a big part of it, too. To get a chance in an organization where you're drafted into – you can't stray anywhere else. The fact that there was an opportunity to play in the NHL at a younger age than a lot of guys get, I tried to be ready for it. Good things happen when you stay in the moment and just have fun."
Holtby's first real big splash came in the spring of 2012, a year when he played just seven NHL games because he was third on the organizational depth chart behind Tomas Vokoun, who'd been signed as a free agent, and Michal Neuvirth. Then both got hurt, and he came up and played 14 playoff games that spring, going 7-7 with a 1.95 goals-against average. If you remember anything about that run – two seven-game series, it was the picture of his mom, the television cameras constantly finding her in the stands, cheering like mad for her son.
Holtby points to that as a defining moment.
"I didn't have a very good year in Hershey; I wasn't very happy with myself and the way I played, but I got a break and a chance to play," he said. "It was one of those things. I'm just glad I got an opportunity."
Justin Williams won two Stanley Cup championships with the Los Angeles Kings before signing with Washington in the off-season as a free agent. The Kings' Jonathan Quick has consistently been one of the best goalies in the league the past handful of seasons, and Williams says he didn't know much about Holtby until he arrived in Washington.
"That was one of the first questions I had," said Williams, "because you can't win without goaltending, but everyone assured me he was the real deal. West Coast, East Coast, you don't see much of each other. Every goaltender in the NHL is good, but what makes [Holtby] great is his competitiveness and his will to be one of the best. In practice, he doesn't like pucks in the net; he gets mad when we score. He strives to be the best – and that's the difference between good and great goalies, and that's who you want in net."
The Capitals got to 100 points faster than anyone in recent NHL history, and to do that, you need a strong team playing in front of the goalie. Washington has that – two quality scoring lines, two good checking lines, an effective if not star-studded defence corps.
But the goaltending has allowed them to win consistently.
Earlier in March, along with Price and the Chicago Blackhawks' Corey Crawford, Holtby was named to the roster for Canada's 2016 World Cup team.
Holtby is not obsessed by statistics, but will acknowledge that he would like to get the single-season wins record "because wins are the only thing I care about," he said.
"Statistics for goaltending are such a tough thing to look at. It's like an ERA for a pitcher in baseball. If you have one bad outing, it can change dramatically. Wins you can have more control over – puck handling, rebound control, staying calm – those things tend to show up more in wins than in stats.
"Consistency is the only way to do that, and that's what we're all striving to find as goaltenders – because that's how you stay around for a long time. It's a cool thing, but we have a lot of work to do because it's going to be tough preparing every day to keep our pace up. But it'll be a fun challenge – and something that could be useful to us between now and the end of the season."