Braden Holtby pays tribute to Gord Downie with Team Canada mask

In a special edition of the opening montage, Hockey Night in Canada salutes Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip.

Braden Holtby is not normally the kind of goalie who gets creative with the paint job on his masks, but this was no normal summer.

For the reigning Vezina Trophy winner or the band he loves.

So as Holtby made preparations for his Team Canada debut at the World Cup, he opted for a design that paid tribute to Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. Given the way the band united the country with a 15-date tour after Downie was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer, it was a natural choice for the native of Lloydminster, Sask.

“Everyone knows the story in Canada,” Holtby told Sportsnet in an interview. “It’s one of those things that has turned a positive from a negative. It’s pretty amazing kind of what Canadians do. I grew up and I can have vivid memories of listening to my first Hip songs. We even had a class in school, a little part of it that was based on (the song) ‘Wheat Kings’ – I mean you just remember it. It’s Canadian, it’s the Hip, and with me being a huge music lover (it made sense).

“This being the biggest stage for hockey and a lot of Gord’s songs have hockey in them, I mean it ties the two in and I think it’ll be very good.”

The plan, ultimately, is to auction the mask off for charity. Word has already been passed along to the band and Holtby hopes the Hip will determine where the money ends up.

He’s never met Downie or other members of the band, but has long been a fan.

Music is a big part of his life. The 26-year-old travels with a small guitar during the season and his mother, Tami, was in a country band when he was a kid.

Of the Tragically Hip’s massive catalogue of songs, he identifies “New Orleans is Sinking” as a favourite.

“I’ve always loved that song, I don’t know why, since I was young,” he said. “I heard it all the time, my mom’s band they would play it all the time. There’s a lot of different songs. What’s pretty cool about their music, it’s hard to pick one because they put so many different styles on their tracks. That one’s always one that I could never turn off.”

Holtby is coming off an exceptional year with the Washington Capitals, where he was named the NHL’s top goalie after posting a 48-9-5 record and .922 save percentage during the regular season.

He enters the World Cup as the presumed No. 2 to Carey Price, but that could change depending on how Price rebounds from knee issues that ended his season in late November.

With training camp now underway, he’s just happy to be wearing the Maple Leaf. Holtby’s only previous international experience was backup duty at the world under-18 championship. He’s still getting used to the idea that he’s now involved in a best-on-best tournament for the first time.

“It’s pretty special,” he said. “It doesn’t seem right for me right now.”

Even though his off-season training program prevented him from attending one of the Tragically Hip concerts in person, Holtby kept tabs on what was happening back home. He was particularly impressed with the Kingston, Ont., show that was broadcast coast-to-coast and seen by more than 11 million Canadians.

“It’s hard to put into words really,” he said. “We think it’s hard playing as professional hockey players in front of a crowd, I don’t know how the band managed to play such a good show with that atmosphere and the amount of emotion that would be going in. (The reaction) just shows how much of an influence they’ve had on Canadians; how much pride we take in their band is as much as they take in Canada.

“You can’t even describe it, really.”

It was only after the Kingston show on Aug. 20 that Holtby made the decision to honour them during the World Cup. That didn’t leave much time to make the necessary arrangements with designer Dave Gunnarsson in Sweden.

He used a generic-looking mask during practices this week until the Tragically Hip design arrived Friday morning – just in time for Team Canada’s pre-tournament opener against Team USA.

“I’ve never really been creative with my masks at all,” said Holtby. “I’ve always just wanted a simple team logo on it, and kind of kept it that way. I was talking to our video coach in Washington (Brett Leonhardt), we were just talking about the concert and the Hip and going over it, and came up with the idea that it would be pretty special to do that on such a stage like the World Cup in Toronto.

“Luckily, everything fell into place.”