Braden Holtby Wasn’t Full-Time Goalie Until Age 12
Braden Holtby is 25 years old. He just signed a five-year contract worth $30.5 million. But before any more hockey parents go running out to sign their eight or nine year old child up for an extra week of goalie camp this summer, consider this: Holtby didn’t even start playing the position full time until he was 12 years old.
In fact, Holtby credits that decision, made by his father, Greg, for developing many of the skills that led him to the NHL and this summer’s big pay day.
Not that Holtby was completely on board with his dad’s way of thinking at the time. He wanted to be a goaltender all the time, every time. But his father played for the Saskatoon Blades of the Major Junior Western Hockey League in the mid-1980s, and as a product of the pre-butterfly era that meant a strong emphasis on skating at a young age for his son.
So rather than send Braden to position-specific schools at an early age, Greg insisted his son also play out as long as he could. As a result, the younger Holtby was still splitting time between forward and goal until he was 12.
“Being a goaltending himself he knew what being a goaltender was later on in life as opposed to being a kid where you like the equipment, you like making the big glove saves and whatnot,” said Holtby, who was still playing as a forward during summer ball hockey and shinny sessions when he talked to InGoal Magazine for a cover story in 2012. “He really encouraged me to play as a forward and a goaltender until I was forced by the team to make a decision, so I played both up until peewee, which really helped develop my skating, helped develop my puck handling, all those other things you wouldn’t really get by choosing to be just a goaltender at a really young age.
“I was always confused back then why he wanted me to keep playing both when all I really wanted to be was a goaltender. But now it’s one of my biggest benefits.”
Holtby isn’t alone in that belief. Long before he became the goaltending coach in Washington and helped Holtby to his franchise record-setting season last year, long-time NHL goalie coach Mitch Korn shared a similar ideal while answering a parent’s question about his nine-year-old playing rep hockey during an InGoal Ask A Pro Session:
“There’s lots that goes into this decision, and we’re talking about a nine-year-old,” Korn responded. “And if you want to know something else, personally I don’t believe a nine-year-old should be a full-time goalie. I don’t believe anybody should be a full-time goalie in the States until they reach the pee wee level, which is 11 years old. I think a squirt, which here is 9 and 10 year olds, there should be two goalies on the team and when you are not playing goalie you are skating out because that’s how you develop skill, that’s how you learn the game, that’s how you learn to skate.
“I believe that at what we call the mite or atom level here – if they are six, seven, eight years old – everybody should have a shot at goalie,” Korn continued, “Like `this is your week, you get the gear, you get to practice Wednesday and play the game on Saturday.’ And then it’s somebody else’s turn. And then you find out whether you like it or don’t like it, they all get to experience it. That’s what this is about and then two kids kind of settle into it at the next level and then a full time goalie at age 11. People used to ask about goalie skates and you know what, the old goalie skate, the way we used to play, it mattered more. I don’t think it matters that much now. You don’t need to get an eight year old into a goalie skate.”
It’s often easier to say than do, especially with pressure from parents, peers and especially coaches to play at the highest level or risk falling behind at an early age, if not in actual skill development, then in perception. But if the long list of studies about the importance of playing other sports in the summer and developing physical literacy by not becoming position specific at too young an age aren’t enough to convince you, maybe the words of Korn and Holtby will help. After all, Holtby didn’t have a goalie coach until he was 16 years old.
Up until that point, his dad filled the role, starting in the basement and backyard rinks of the family farm in Marshall, Saskatchewan, stressing the raw skills that continue to serve him well in the NHL.
“When I was growing up I always wanted my dad to be my goalie coach and I never envisioned it being any different,” Holtby told InGoal. “But it got to a point – and he’s the first to admit it – that I reached a level he didn’t know enough about any more with the technical stuff, and he was learning at the same stage I was.”
So, as 16-year-old playing midget, Holtby was sent to work with John Stevenson, who was the Blades goaltending coach at the time. His dad came too, and together they got a more modern perspective on the position they loved.
“He got as much out of it as I did,” Holtby said. “It was fun to go through that with him and talk about different things in goaltending and learn side by side. Before then my dad and the TV were basically my two teachers.”