OTTAWA — When Braden Holtby last represented Canada on the international stage it was almost a decade ago and he barely played.
The 26-year-old from Lloydminster, Sask., has been slowly inching upward ever since. From fourth-round pick of the Washington Capitals to starting netminder in the NHL to Vezina Trophy winner and record-setter and back once more with Team Canada, this time as the likely next-in-line behind Carey Price at the World Cup of Hockey.
"It’s a long road," Holtby said following the second day of World Cup training camp. "I just always focused on that next goal, that next level trying to get there. It’s always been the dream to be here, so you never really think twice about it you just do what’s necessary."
Holtby played eight minutes 50 seconds at his last international experience nine years ago (2007), the backup to future Colorado Avalanche draft pick Trevor Cann at the under-18 championships in Finland. The Canadians finished fourth that year, despite boasting Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, and Logan Couture, all of whom would join Holtby again nearly a decade later on the latest incarnation of the Canadian World Cup team.
Doughty somehow remembers it all quite well, even down to the fact that Cann (who’s yet to play an NHL game) and not Holtby, started. Couture recalled playing cards with Holtby in their Finnish hotel room, describing him as a goaltender who was long under the radar.
Holtby was passed over entirely for the world junior championships.
"Even back then I remember he was a good goalie," Doughty said. "Obviously to be on the under-18 team you’ve got to be a really good goalie and I guess he’s just taken that talent to another level. He’s one of the best goalies in the league now."
Doughty said he couldn’t envision then Holtby rising like he did.
"But at the same time a bunch of those guys on that (2007) team I never would’ve thought they’ve done what they’ve done," said Doughty, the second overall pick in the same 2008 draft that saw Holtby picked 93rd. "So many guys are unbelievable players at that age and they kind of go the wrong way down the roller-coaster and they don’t make the NHL. And then other guys come out of nowhere … You can’t really predict anything at that age."
Holtby was shocked when Canada invited him to their summer Olympic training camp in 2013, somewhat in awe of the talent around him. He knew he wasn’t part of the top group at that point, then just a couple years into his career with Washington.
"I knew the ability was there," Holtby said. "I just had to find it."
It didn’t come right away. Holtby stumbled backward in the 2013-14 season (.915 save percentage) before leaping into the elite crowd with 41 wins, nine shutouts and a .923 save percentage two years ago. In capturing the Vezina last season, Holtby matched Martin Brodeur’s single season wins record, totalling 48 (in 12 fewer games than Brodeur) for the Capitals.
He doesn’t look at his conquest as the league’s top goaltender, nor his inclusion on Team Canada as turning points in a career that’s always trended up. He circles back to the point when he first made it into the NHL, when he first realized he could compete for his ultimate goal: the Stanley Cup.
"And that’s really the only focus," said Holtby, who went 48-9-7 last year as the Capitals were vanquished in the second round by Pittsburgh. "I’m not really too focused on other personal stuff."
Holtby credits Mitch Korn, the Capitals goalie coach, and Barry Trotz, the team’s head coach (and Team Canada assistant) for his ascendancy into the upper class of goaltenders. The Capitals have evolved into a well-rounded unit since Trotz took over in 2014, a President’s Trophy winner with 120 points last year, the NHL’s best mark in a decade.
A once unlikely participant on the Canadian national squad, Holtby now finds himself competing for playing time with Price as well as Corey Crawford, a two-time Stanley Cup champ. He says the best part of training camp thus far has been watching the other two, chuckling as he admits his plan to "steal a couple things from them".
Given how high he’s climbed they may steal something from him, too.