Capitals' Braden Holtby Owes Elite Status to NHL's 'Goalie Whisperer' Mitch Korn

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistApril 22, 2016

Washington Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn, left, talks with Mark Dekanich, right, during Media Day at NHL hockey training camp, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

DENVER — About an hour before the Washington Capitals were to face the Colorado Avalanche on April 1, Braden Holtby stood a few feet from a Pepsi Center cement wall and continually fired a small, blue rubber ball against it with his right hand.

Every single time he did this, about 50 times or so upon one observation, the ricocheting ball landed safely into Holtby's left hand. Then the process started over in rapid fashion.

Just off to Holtby's right, Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn observed his latest protege before sitting down for a while with a reportersomething he doesn't do very often.

Korn's day otherwise is scheduled pretty much down to the last nanosecond, and at the top of the agenda for most everything he does is the never-ending quest of finding ways to stop pucks better.

"Little time for hobbies," Korn later texted when asked about some of his interests outside of hockey.

Korn's abiding passion is getting Holtby to the promised land of June to play for a Stanley Cup. All of the other short-term goals he had for Holtby have already been accomplished, such as being good enough to be the leading candidate to win the Vezina Trophy and tie Martin Brodeur's NHL record for wins in a season (48), which he accomplished in the penultimate game of the regular season.

In his second season as goalie coach with the Capsfollowing Barry Trotz from Nashville, where he spent 15 years with him as wellKorn is doing for Holtby what he did for Pekka Rinne, Tomas Vokoun, Mike Dunham, Chris Mason and, before that with the Buffalo Sabres, the one and only Dominik Hasek.

Mitch Korn (center) with Nashville.
Mitch Korn (center) with Nashville.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press

Holtby has been even better in the postseason so far.

After the first three games of Washington's first-round series with Philadelphia, his record stands at 3-0 with a .978 save percentage (91 saves on 93 shots) and 0.67 goals-against average.

If Holtby wins a Stanley Cup, it will not only be the first for him and the Caps in their franchise history, but for Korn and Trotz as well. And yet, when asked if a Stanley Cup is the one thing left to obsess over in an otherwise hugely successful career, Korn gives what many might think is a surprising answer.

"While I want to win, I do not measure success by winning and losing," said Korn, 58.

How's that again? Isn't that all there is in the NHL, perhaps the most unforgiving pro sport when it comes to coaching tenure being connected to wins and losses?

Make no mistake, Korn wants to win, and his teams over the years have done a lot of that thanks to many goalies who were considered their team's best player.

But Korn is a cerebral man who looks at life "a little differently," according to his former Nashville assistant goalie coach and current successor Ben Vanderklok. He places greater value on molding good people who can handle more in life than just stopping a puck.

"He cares about his players like they're his own kids," said Vanderklok, who served as Korn's assistant for five years before succeeding him in 2014. "Sometimes it's hard to have a relationship with a player outside the rink, but Mitch really values that. He's as interested in how his player's family is or some medical condition some family member might have."

Korn, who has a grown daughter of his own, said he derives no more satisfaction from anything than seeing his former "students" go on to become mentors themselves. And there are many of those, including University of Michigan goalie coach Steve Shields, who played for Korn as a Sabre from 1995-98.

26 Mar 1998:  Goaltender Steve Shields of the Buffalo Sabres in action during a game against the Vancouver Canucks at the G.M. Place in Vancouver, Canada. The Sabres defeated the Canucks 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Craig Melvin  /Allsport
Craig Melvin/Getty Images

"I remember my first year with Buffalo, feeling like I was up to my eyeballs, just worried if I could stay afloat. I went back and forth from the Sabres and Rochester (AHL) and wasn't sure I could stay in the NHL," Shields said. "And Mitch just literally handed me a plan that was all laid out as to what would happen. I was going to do this and this and this and then I was going to be a regular NHL goalie, and that's exactly what happened. That really made me feel like all I had to do was follow his plan and things would be fine. But he was so much more than just a goalie coach. He really did care about you as a person. We became friends, not just player-coach. You could tell him anything, and he could relate."

Other former players who have gone on to become coaches at various levels of hockey include Wade Flaherty, Nick Petraglia and Mike Valley. He is always just a phone call away, always eager to offer any guidance he can and know more about their struggles.

"I measure success by the way people grow and mature, in the quality of life that we help them improve upon," Korn said. "And that's kids in the summer (at his many goalie camps, called "Korn Camps"), people who worked for me at the University of Miami, that staff of the people that I've coached and taught that are now out there teaching and coaching. I tell every goalie in our organization, whether we trade for him, whether we draft him: 'My goal is when you leave here, and when everybody leaves here, that you leave way better than when you got here.'"

How, then, does that happen? Is there a Korn motto, an overriding philosophy about goaltending? What is the secret sauce in Korn's recipe for success?

"There is no secret," Korn said. "When I do coaching clinics, I say there's no magic drill, there's no magic meeting, there's no magic video that can turn a guy from clod to god. It is a process. It takes a long time. It's that big jigsaw puzzle and you've got to have as many pieces as you can, and they have to fit together and it requires a big body of work and there's lots of trial and error.

"Let's say I put you in a tough positionseventh game of the playoffs, last 45 seconds of the gameand I need a save. I can't create that. I can't fill my practice rink full of people, turn the clock on and say, 'We're playing the last 45 secondsget nervous.' So, you've got to pay your dues, you've got to play your body of work.

"People correlate the goalie to the baseball pitcher or the football quarterback. You know what the big difference is there? The quarterback or the pitcher have the ball. We don't have the puck. We are almost completely, totally reactionary. We are very often victims, and we have to find ways, as the game gets faster and the guys shoot harder, to get that job done on a consistent basis."

Here, Korn just sits back and shakes his head.

"There's just so many things that go into this," he said.

Apr 1, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) defends his net in the second period against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Along with the drill Holtby performed before the game in Colorado, there are many other physical exercises Korn teaches to making goaltending easier:

  • He'll set up a whiteboard with a little slot opening underneath and have pucks come through them to goalies, only the pucks are white.
  • He'll put breathable black mesh coverings over a goalie's face to diminish his vision and sensitivity to light in hopes of a goalie becoming less distracted and likelier to use his first intuition and improve upon it.
  • He'll set up a mirror at the side of the net and tell goalies to watch themselves in their hugging of the posts and reverse-skating moves to protect the corners.

The physical stuff is just one part of it. The mental aspect of playing the position is something Korn devotes large amounts of time to with his players. It's important for him to get to know a player of his as well as possible so he can begin to tailor a regimen he thinks the player will best respond to.

There is no one size fits all approach to Korn's coaching, which might be one of those secret ingredients to the recipe.

"What sets him apart is his innovation. He's always a step ahead of the game," said Holtby, who is having the best season of his career at age 26. "He's not looking for the late solution to the problem. He's looking for the problem before it occurs. You don't see many people in coaching, and especially in goaltending, be like that. He just really gets into seeing people become their best self. You can see that at his camps and here in the NHL."

As detailed in an article by the Washington Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan, when Korn first sized up Holtby, he wondered if he was "blue-collar" enough. To Korn, that meant being able to take shots off the shoulder, off the mask, things like that.

Some guys might have bristled at thatespecially Holtby, a farm boy from Saskatchewan. But Holtby worked to show he would do anything it took to get better, and a strong bond has formed as a result.

Korn said Holtby has everything you'd want for a goalie to become successful.

"He's very intense, he's very cerebral, he processes things extremely well, he's got really good body control. He possesses many great things that you have to possess to play this game as it gets faster and harder in the net," Korn said.

"I never took what he said about the blue-collar thing in a hurtful way," said Holtby, who shares the same birthday as Korn (Sept. 16). "Everything he does is to improve the goalie. With my work ethic, I've always been told it's good, but to be told that it can be better was something new and something that I took to heart as a positive."

Ever since Korn saw his goaltending hero, Eddie Giacomin of the New York Rangers, as a little kid at Madison Square Garden, the Bronx native knew right away what he wanted to do. He wanted to give it a shot as a player first, and he managed to land a hockey scholarship at Kent State.

But always in the back of his mind, Korn thought he might be better cut out to teach the position for a living.

At 15, he was a camp counselor at a CAN/AM hockey school in Guelph, Ontario. At 17, he was hired as an instructor at the camp under former NHL goalie Ted Ouimet, whom Korn calls "my real mentor."

After his playing career ended at Kent State, he got his first coaching job there in 1980 while getting his master's degree. He was hired the following year as an assistant coach and administrator at Miami of Ohio, where he would stay for the next 30 years, earning a full state of Ohio teacher's pension.

But the workaholic from the Bronx didn't just stay satisfied with life at the college level.

One day in 1990, while giving a lecture to students at a hockey camp in Buffalo, then-Sabres head coach Rick Dudley happened to walk by and took some of it in. Dudley was so impressed with Korn's symposium that he offered him a job as a part-time goalie coach of the Sabres.

Despite also working full time at Miami of Ohio, Korn later worked out an agreement with the school to be full time with the Sabres too. That meant spending half of his time in Ohio and the other half in Buffalo or elsewhere in the NHL circuit.

BILL JANSCHA/Associated Press

In 1992, the Sabres acquired a skinny kid from the Chicago Blackhawks named Dominik Hasek, who had shown a little promise but wasn't thought to be a future star.

Under Korn, Hasek would win the Vezina Trophy four times.

"He was ahead of his time in some ways, just a totally unique goaltender. I was lucky to have had him kind of fall into my lap," Korn said. "People thought Dom was out of control at times, but every single move he made had a purpose to it. His body control was off the charts."

Korn left the Sabres in 1998 to join his good friend Trotz with the expansion Predators while still working at Miami of Ohio. It wasn't long before the Predators were surprising people with their quality of goaltending, starting with Dunham for a few years and then continuing on with Vokoun, Mason and Rinne.

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 09:  Goalie coach Mitch Korn of the Nashville Predators speaks to head coach Barry Trotz during a game against the Minnesota Wild at Bridgestone Arena on March 9, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Image
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

"Barry and I, we're brothers from another mother," said Korn, wholike Trotzis not tall in physical stature. "With Barry's defensive system, he gives any goalie a chance to succeed. But then it's up to that goalie to take it from there."

When Trotz was hired before the 2014-15 season in Washington, one of his first moves was to convince Korn to come with him.

"He's a teacher," Trotz said. "He really forges a relationship with his goaltenders. He can relate to them, and them to him. He connects the dots from the skill set to the cerebral parts of the game. I've been with Mitch for a long time and we'll be friends for the rest of our life. We enjoy each other's company."

It's not all just work, work, work with Korn.

Like Trotz, he enjoys a good, bawdy joke and loves to sling one-liners at people. At every one of his hockey camps, he presents an "Ear of Korn"the real thing in a huskto the kid he finds most entertaining.

At 58, Korn isn't sure how much longer he wants to work in the no-life, high-pressure world of pro coaching. With his Ohio pension and investments from his NHL wages, Korn is thinking seriously of living a more relaxed, semi-retired life of winters in Florida and summers up north teaching at his hockey camps.

"He says that every year," Vanderklok said. "Like he's said, he has no hobbies, so I don't know what he'll do. I asked him once after he said that, I said, 'What are you going to do, play cribbage?'"

Whenever the time does allow for more reflection, Korn said he'll always shake his head in wonder.

"I don't take a single second of this for granted," he said. "This is really all I ever wanted to do, just a little short guy from the Bronx. And I got to do it."

Otherwise, Korn and the Caps seem laser-focused on one thing: getting to June. They appear to be a lock to get at least to May now, after three games of the first round.

It always seems to come down to goaltending in the playoffs. The Caps have the likely Vezina winner and the league's top goalie whisperer as his 24/7 consultant.

That still guarantees nothing in the NHL. But the odds of June hockey in the nation's capital are looking better than average.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated. 

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him @Adater.


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