Warren Zevon’s hockey-themed song titled, “Hit Somebody” is about an enforcer whose skills are limited to fighting, but who grudgingly patrols the ice protecting his more talented teammates.
In that classic song, one of the often repeated lines is “What’s a Canadian farm boy to do?” and for Hershey Bears’ rookie goaltending phenom, Braden Holtby, a native of Saskatchewan, his answer is to patrol the crease with authority.
“I grew up on a farm and my parents are still farmers; I go back every summer,” said Holtby, in response to what part of his life would probably surprise his legion of fans. I really don’t know what I’m portrayed as out there on the ice, but I think a lot of people would be shocked that I’m a farmer.”
While he was in fact born in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, as listed in Hershey’s media guide, the Bears netminder is actually from a small town near Lloydminster, but for convenience sake, he tells people he’s from Lloydminster.
“Although I was born in Lloydminster, I’m actually from a little town called Marshall,” he explained. “I usually just say I’m from Lloydminster because nobody has ever heard of Marshall. Marshall is a town of about 600 people, and it’s not even big enough for a minor hockey team in Canada, which is kind of crazy.”
Faced with no options to play minor hockey in his home town, Holtby was forced to go up the road about ten minutes away to the town of Lashburn to start his journey to the pros.
“When I played there, I was fortunate enough to play in my age group as a forward and then the age group above that as a goaltender, so I got to play twice as much hockey which was great for my development; it was one of the benefits of being in a small town.”
Holtby’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when he stepped up the ladder to the next level, Bantams, playing for the Midwest Red Wings.
“I played one year there and we were a terrible team. We went like 1-and-23 and we folded after the year, so I had to find a new place to play the next year, and there was a new team coming into Lloydminster.”
It sounds easy enough to forget the memories of the painful season and go back to playing in the town you were born to continue your career; however, it turned out there were more barriers to overcome, more specifically, the border patrols.
“I had to go through a whole bunch of trouble to get across the border to play there because Lloydminster is a border city, but I finally got that worked out and from there I got drafted by the Saskatoon Blades (WHL).”
With living at home while playing with Saskatoon ruled out because of the two-hour drive, Holtby was forced to leave home as a 15-year-old to play with the Blades; fortunately for him and his parents, there were a couple of familiar faces there who saw to it that the teenager’s three-year stay there went smoothly without much incident.
“I was really fortunate that a couple of friends of my parents from high school, Ian and Karen Belyea, lived in Saskatoon, and I was able to move in with them. They were great people who had two younger boys just a little younger than me. My parents are very thankful for what they did for me, and obviously I am too. They were unbelievably good to me, and I consider them family, and realistically, they were the sole reasons that I was able to get through those years there.”
Holtby’s coach in Saskatoon was Lorne Molleken, a former goalie himself who played over 300 games in the minor leagues during his pro career.
During Holtby’s three years under Molleken’s tutelage, he never played less than 50 games in a season, and like a typical teenager who does not see their parents’ infinite wisdom during those formative years, Holtby now sees that Molleken knew exactly what he was doing.
“Lorne was great to me. He gave all the faith in the world to me, and trusted me by allowing me to play that many games; but that being said, other than myself, he was the toughest one on me in Saskatoon,” Holtby said.
“He expected a lot out of me, and looking back, it was pretty frustrating for me at the time because I was young and trying to figure out what was going on. Now, when I look back at it, he knew what he was doing with his own personal experience of being a goalie and was only doing what was best for me.”
After the conclusion of his junior career with the Blades at the end of the 2008-09 season, Holtby became a member of the Bears, dressed as a backup in one regular season game, and watched from the stands as the Bears captured their 10th Calder Cup.
Holtby began the current season in Chocolatetown and got off to a fast start by winning two of three decisions, including a shutout in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, before being sent to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL to get some playing time because of the Bears’ logjam in the crease.
“It wasn’t as tough as you’d think,” said Holtby of getting sent down after the fast start. “Coming into the year, I kind of knew that the writing was on the wall and that I’d be down there a bit, but the most frustrating part was after those three games, knowing that I could play well at this league and knowing if I got my opportunity I would have done well with it.”
“Going down to South Carolina was tough, mentally and physically, too, with all the travel going back and forth, but in the overall picture, it turned out to be better for me. I got to play even more than I would have at the start of the year here, and I got to go through some emotional roller coasters that I probably wouldn’t have had to go through here just being a back up.”
Although there are many differences between the junior ranks and the pros, there is one thing that is the same in both leagues: the mode of transportation, the bus or “Iron Lung” as many players call it.
“I wouldn’t say the travel in either league is harder than the other, but it’s a different travel for sure. Obviously, the bus here in Hershey is a lot nicer than the one in junior, and the food here is a lot better. Also, here you tend to go on longer, more organized trips, where in junior, sometimes you went on 10 or 12 hour bus rides for just one game.”
Vision, which is a vital part of being a good goalie, has been a longtime struggle for Holtby, who wears glasses off of the ice; but thanks to the Blades, that problem seems to be under control now.
“I wear contacts and vision has been a huge problem for me the last few years. I’m very sensitive to some contacts, but I’ve been fortunate to hook up with a guy in Saskatoon who the Blades hooked me up with who has been a huge help to me and my family with our eye problems.”
“I guess you could say he’s the sole reason that I can see, because before he figured my problems out, I had tried about 30 different contacts over the last couple of years. Hopefully, over this upcoming summer, I’m getting the Lasik surgery with my dad, and I can’t wait for that.”
Looking at a goalie’s mask, you can get a pretty good idea of where or with whom his interests lie, and Holtby is no exception to that rule, but the design on his current mask was not his first choice.
“I was pretty happy with the one I got last year in the playoffs, but due to some legal reasons with HERCO (he had the familiar Hershey bar design, but with his last name on lettering instead of HERSHEY’S), I had to stop using that one. So, I had to come up with another design in about an hour with my current one.”
“I liked the Hershey/Washington theme that the other goalies before me had so I went with that on the front. The back of my mask is more personal, it has “carpe diem” on it, which means “seize the day” in Latin. That was the school motto back in high school in Lloydminster and I try to live my life by that, because I think that if you can live every day to its fullest, you are going to be successful.”
“I also have the Saskatchewan and Alberta flags on the back, to help me realize where I came from and to not get too ahead of myself.”
Holtby finished the recently concluded regular season with 24 wins for the Chocolate and White with an impressive number of victories for any goalie, much less a rookie who prior to the beginning of the season was not expected to play in Hershey.
“The only times I had seen him play before this season, were in development camps and those sort of situations,” said Hershey head coach, Mark French. “Washington’s plans were that he was going to spend the year in South Carolina and take the bulk of the work there, and then make the jump up here the next year. He got a little bit of good fortune early when Neuvy went down and he was able to step in and do the job. From that opportunity he has really grown and played exceptionally well. I think it’s easy to say that he’s played above our expectations for a first year guy.”
In seasons prior to the current one, Hershey’s goaltenders had the good fortune of having former Caps goaltending guru, Dave Prior, be a frequent visitor in town. However, this year, the Caps’ new goaltending coach, Arturs Irbe, has not been a frequent visitor to central Pennsylvania, which makes Holtby’s achievements even more remarkable.
“Mostly I’ve just stuck with my goalie coach back home, who is a sports psychologist, but Archie keeps in contact with me every little while, just to catch up on how things have been going; but it’s hard for him as a goalie coach to see what’s going on over the phone.”
“Goaltending is so much a visual thing as far as the technical aspects of the position. Hopefully, I can grow my relationship with Archie more in the coming years, because he is a fun guy to be around and tries to keep things on the light side.”
Holtby’s impressive season also resulted in him getting a couple of recalls to the show, but realistically those callups were based on convenience, with little chance of him seeing any game action. However, he still feels fortunate to have spent time in the show, and soaked up the experience for future use.
“Coming into the year, I didn’t think I’d get called up at all. I was more focusing on hopefully playing games in Hershey. Any time I can get up there and be around those guys in that atmosphere, I’ll take it. Being up there, I saw that there are still some holes in my game that I’m going to have to fine tune, but I think I can play when I get a chance up there.”
Although opponents have found few holes in Holtby’s armor while he manned the crease for the Bears, as evidenced by his single digit loss total (8), French said sometimes Holtby can be his own worst enemy.
“Braden is a very strong kid, mentally, but he’s very hard on himself. The one thing that we have talked to him about this year is that after each loss, he takes it to heart, which is a good thing, but at the same time when you play eighty games, if you get too emotional it will hurt your next performance. You need to learn from those losses, but let it go pretty quick. Because he cares so much, that can be a fault, but I think with maturity he will certainly be able to overcome that.”
With the high likelihood that he will see some substantial time in the upcoming playoffs for the Bears, Holtby is taking the wait and see approach, and not getting caught up in the hoopla.
“I have no clue how much I’ll play, or if I’ll play at all, or in every game. It’s up in the air, and I haven’t really been asking questions about it. Last year it was tough being in the stands, but even if I don’t play this year, it will be fun being in the locker room. It’s going to be a lot more fun to be a bigger part of it.”
Hopefully, for Bears’ fans, the “bigger part” will involve sipping the bubbly from the Calder Cup at the conclusion of the playoffs.