Nick Holden was getting ready to hit his golf ball on the second hole of the Mark Spector Golf Classic in Edmonton when he heard his cell go off.
By the time he picked it up, he saw that he’d missed a call from Vegas Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon. Holden knew immediately what that meant.
“I had an idea that I could be getting traded,” said Holden. “Just from talks, and how last year went.”
It was July 28, 2021. Holden returned the call and in his mind, virtually packed his bags. He was on the move. Again. At 34, Holden is not only a useful veteran defenceman, he is that rare species -- a happy hockey Nomad.
“It seems like I don’t really like to set roots down anywhere,” said Holden, perhaps with a touch of gallows humour. The Ottawa Senators were about to become his sixth NHL team. “I get a little bit bored and have to move every three years or so.”
Trouble is, Holden doesn’t move as freely as he once did as a junior player with the WHL Chilliwack Bruins. Holden and his wife, Angela, have four young children: Parker, 9, Carter, 7, Noa, 6, and Ryer, 3. Noa is the lone girl in the bunch.
The Canadian Tire Centre hasn’t seen this many children from one family since the four boys of Daniel and Bibi Alfredsson were running around the ice level floor at the CTC.
Holden jokes that some of his Senators teammates are so young they’re closer in age to Holden’s oldest boy, Carter, than they are to Carter’s dad. It’s a fair point. At nine years of age, Carter is only ten years younger than Senators winger Tim Stützle, who is 15 years younger than Holden. No wonder Holden’s kids can be seen playing table tennis and throwing footballs around with the young Sens.
For Holden, these are scenes he cherishes.
“For me, it’s just so cool,” he said. “My kids get a lot of positive benefits and experiences from me being in the NHL, but at the same time they do sacrifice a lot. Just, having to pick up and move at any time -- and me being away on the road a bunch. So, for me to be able to come into the dressing room and enjoy that is awesome. And the guys usually have a blast with them.
“We were fortunate to have our kids early on and now they’re getting old enough, and I’m still able to play, where they’re going to be able to remember some of this stuff, remember coming into the room.”
Six on this Holden hockey line: From left to right - Carter, Ryer, Nick, Angela, Noa and Parker. (Courtesy Holden Family)
Modern hockey parents -- NHL players included -- tend to have a couple of children, three at the most. Most of the young Senators are single and carefree, and years away from being fathers. But when Holden was in Las Vegas from 2018-21, the kids ran wild in the bowels of T-Mobile Arena.
“(Jonathan) Marchessault had four kids, (Max) Pacioretty had five,” Holden said, of his ex-Vegas teammates. “It was crazy. I think we had almost 30 kids on that team. That was pretty fun.”
Oh, and Holden also played some hockey in Vegas, especially the first two seasons, where he dressed for 122 games and produced 29 points as a mostly stay-at-home defenceman. He averaged 18:18 minutes per game his first season in Vegas and 18:51 in his second.
That third season, the pandemic year, was a strange one for Holden. Facing pressures in a flat salary cap, the Knights put Holden on waivers in January, just as the abbreviated season was starting, to help alleviate the team’s cap crunch. After clearing, Holden spent a lot of time mired on the Knights’ taxi squad. He had signed a two-year, $3.4-million contract the previous February. He carried that $1.7M AAV to Ottawa and will be a UFA next summer.
Holden played just 17 games in 2020-21, averaging a little more than 15 minutes per game.
Lost year, right?
Hardly. As so often happens in hockey, circumstances change, injuries happen. Doors open. As the Vegas Knights played three playoff rounds, Holden found himself holdin’ on to a significant role as a solid defender in the gritty playoff milieu. He played close to 16 minutes per game, chipped in seven points and was plus 2.
That same player who had been waived in January was now the subject of a June Hockey News headline: Nick Holden is having a breakthrough playoffs at 34.
His play caught the eye of Senators general manager Pierre Dorion, who had spoken to Holden when he was a UFA back in 2018, before the first deal he signed with Vegas. Needing help on the blueline, Dorion made the deal on that late July day when Holden was playing best ball for charity on The Quarry Golf Club course in Edmonton.
For Holden, the Sens swapped out winger Evgenii Dadonov who had two years left on a contract with an AAV of $5 million and also picked up a third-round draft pick (2022) in the deal.
Holden has been a welcome addition to the Senators blueline, although every defenceman not named Thomas Chabot or Artem Zub was stinging after a wild 7-5 loss to the Washington Capitals on Monday.
“That was not exactly the best way to defend against that group,” said Holden. “But I don’t think there’s any need for us to panic or start worrying too much. I think guys are still getting used to playing with each other. I think, too, after playing a whole year in your own division you’re not used to some of the other teams' style of play -- it’s all part of getting back into the regular groove of a regular season.”
It’s a fair point. After last season’s North Division experience, the Senators have a lot of young professionals who have rarely faced a premier team like the Capitals before, and for some it was their first time playing against Ovechkin and company.
“It’s a new experience for guys,” said Holden.
A broader look at Ottawa’s defence after six games shows the seven spot put up by Washington to be an anomaly. Toss out that game and the Senators have given up 2.4 goals per game in their first five outings. In their first five last season they yielded four goals per game -- and got worse after that.
Smith has been bullish on Holden’s contribution to the D-corps. At 17:37 per game, Holden is getting more ice time than every D-man except Chabot and Zub.
“I think Holdy moves the puck well, he’s real smart. Whoever he plays with plays well,” Smith said recently.
That was put to the acid test when Holden was paired with Nikita Zaitsev versus Washington. Zaitsev had a rough night, as did Brown paired with Victor Mete. After the game, Smith essentially said if he could have played Chabot and Zub all night he would have. Instead, they both played close to half the game.
On the upcoming road trip to Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota, the pairings will get remixed, no doubt, with veteran Michael Del Zotto also getting worked in. There is also little doubt that after Chabot and Zub, Holden is Ottawa’s No. 3 defenceman. He is here to hold the fort until the next wave comes in -- prospects like Jake Sanderson, Tyler Kleven, Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker.
Smith likes the “subtleties” of Holden’s defending. Isolate on No. 5 and you will see a very active stick, breaking up passes and negating shots, clearing the front of the net.
“He’s a guy that knows how to play the game, knows where to be, and knows forechecks, can read systems,” said Smith. “That’s the advantage of experience . . . of not panicking, talking to your partner.
“I always bring up (veteran) Ron Hainsey with Morgan Reilly in Toronto. When he played with him he played great. He talked to him the whole game. It makes the game easier for you.”
Angela and Nick Holden were a big hit at the Senators Halloween party with their theme of a Tims drive-thru attendant serving a local cop. (Courtesy Holden Family)
Approaching his mid-thirties, Holden is the oldest player on a team of kids, but as he told Smith at the time he was acquired: “I’m young at heart.” According to sources, friends kid Holden’s wife, Angela, about the demands of raising “five” children, Nick being the fifth.
That was evident at the Senators Halloween party, where Nick and Angela stole the show, some players say. Putting a new spin on the term hockey enforcer, Nick dressed up as a cop while Angela was a Tim Hortons drive-thru attendant.
“My brother (Jack) is a police officer in Edmonton and so I was kind of trying to mock him a little bit,” Holden says. “I always give him a hard time, saying he’s eating donuts and all that stereotypical stuff. So in the picture we took, I was eating a donut at the Tim Hortons drive-thru and my brother had a few choice words for everybody when he saw it. It was all good fun.”
Growing up in St. Albert, northwest of Edmonton, Holden played hockey for fun, and after growing out of the initial and universal Canadian childhood dream of playing in the NHL, he didn’t realistically see a future in hockey. In his teens, he became a plumber’s apprentice and figured on a life in the trades (to this day, Holden is more than capable of clearing a clogged sink). After he made the junior team in Chilliwack in 2006, the apprenticeship got put on hold.
But even after a fine junior career as a big (6-foot-4), steady defenceman with decent numbers (38 points in his final year), a life in the pros was hardly certain. At the time of his draft year, 2005, he was an unheralded player on a Sherwood Park provincial team and was not selected.
In 2008, Holden signed his first pro contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but for the next three seasons played almost entirely in the minors, earning $65,000 per year with Syracuse and then Springfield.
It wasn’t until 2013, at age 26, that Holden became an NHL regular, after signing a free-agent contract with the Colorado Avalanche. Following three seasons with the Avs, he was with the New York Rangers for close to two seasons, joining the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline in 2018. The next three seasons were in Vegas, leading up to his trade in Ottawa.
For all of his career wandering, Holden has deep roots in Northern Alberta and offers more than token participation in charitable efforts. In 2016, when wildfires destroyed 2,400 homes and businesses in Fort McMurray, Holden worked with the Sport Central charity to provide hockey and other sports gear to the children of Fort McMurray who lost their belongings, including hockey equipment, in the fires.
According to Mark Spector, co-chair of the charity golf classic that is a major fund-raiser for Sport Central, Holden is more than just a participant. Players like Holden and Colton Parayko of the St. Louis Blues are driving forces in the cause of getting hockey equipment to tens of thousands of Alberta children in need.
Though he downplays it, Holden routinely gives up the free sticks and other equipment that as an NHL player he receives from suppliers like Warrior to provide the gear or cash equivalent -- and more -- to children who don’t have the means to buy it.
“Sport Central does a great job getting gear, so how much my contribution adds to it, I don’t know, but I’ve just kind of donated whatever I was getting from Warrior,” said Holden. “They (the charity) kind of put together a little wish list they need and the Warrior guys hook them up. It works out well.”
That Holden was traded while on hole two of the annual Spector/Sport Central golf event is now part of tournament lore.
“We were joking, ‘well, that was a first in Sport Central golf tournament history,’” said Holden. “But it worked out well. When I found out it was Ottawa, I was excited for the opportunity.”