Part 2: Holtby links success to not being full-time goalie until 12
As the Washington Capitals continue to celebrate their first ever Stanley Cup Championship, it seemed like a good time to reflect back on some of the advice that two key components of that victory, Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn and starting goaltender Braden Holtby, have shared with InGoal Magazine over the years. Think of it as a chance to refresh content some of you may not have seen already, while at the same time celebrating a couple of great goaltending minds who have graciously shared their time and insights into the position with us multiple times over the past eight-plus years.
We started with Korn, and the story behind using medicine balls to help stabilize his goaltenders movements, a tool he used a lot with Holtby after joining the Capitals in 2014, and continue now with Holtby, and how his dad’s refusal to let him play goal full time early on led him to the NHL:
Washington Capitals No. 1 Braden Holtby won the Vezina Trophy in 2016 and added the Stanley Cup this season, so goaltending parents everywhere might want to pay attention when he lists not being a full-time goalie at too young an age as one of the keys to his success.
It wasn’t a choice he made for himself. Holtby wanted to be a full-time goalie, but credits his father, Greg, who played for the Saskatoon Blades of the Major Junior Western Hockey League in the mid- 1980s, for forcing him to also keep playing forward until he was 12 years old.
“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,” Holtby said. “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.”
A lot has changed since Holtby was 12 years old in 2002. Holtby didn’t have a goalie coach until he was a 16-year-old playing midget, and went to work with then-Saskatoon Blades goaltending coach John Stevenson, who was one of the first people he thanked after winning the Cup.
“Before then my dad and the TV were basically my two teachers,” Holtby said.
Goalies are specializing at earlier ages now, and in many countries these days wouldn’t even be allowed to split time between goal and playing out until they are 12. But as we reflect back on the Capitals winning the Cup by looking at past articles with Holtby and Korn, it’s worth considering their perspective on how soon is too soon to just be a goalie. Korn weighed in on it during a Q-and-A with InGoal readers in 2011, when he was asked about the benefits of shot volume versus shot quality in relation to a nine-year-old goalie considering moving up to rep and seeing fewer shots, or staying busier playing house:
“First off, no nine-year-old is a natural,” Korn replied. “I have seen many talented, athletic kids at all ages, especially younger ones, burn out, disappear, and get caught as they age. This is a process and it’s nice that he has been able to take to this position and seem to absorb some of the initial components of it to have success. There are hundreds of stories of guys who played travel hockey, that were better than everybody, that by the time they were 16 were burned out and could no longer, or no longer chose to play. And there are stories of those who at 16 became stars and continue to climb the ladder. There are stories of guys that are late bloomers that never played on travel teams, that didn’t make it until they were older, that were 16, 17, 18 and came out of nowhere and were successful. So there’s no right or wrong answer.
“The answer is family related. So do we have the resources to do this? Do we have the time to do this? Is he good enough in school where he can do this travel and extra requirements to allow him to excel. There are many more decisions than just the hockey at age nine.”
Korn switched to workload and the ideal for a young goalie, as he continued his response:
“I don’t think a goalie should play on the best team, and I don’t think a goalie should play on the worst team. I think the best scenario, if you had a choice, is to play on a team where the goalie has an opportunity to make a positive difference every time they play. Where they had an impact on the success or failure of that team on any given day and they are just not a statue and a function of the team, but they can have an impact on the result. That’s why we play: We want to make a positive difference every time we play. So playing on the best teams it’s hard to do that. Playing on the worst teams, you get bad habits and bad attitudes because you can’t win no matter what you do. You need room for error because it’s really hard when you know ‘if I give it up two we’re not going to get points tonight,’ which my guys have to go through on some occasions. So there’s lots that goes into this decision and we’re talking about a nine-year-old.”
Korn then switched to age, and his thoughts echoed the sentiments Holtby shared years later:
“Personally I don’t believe a nine-year-old should be a full-time goalie,” Korn said. “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, 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.”