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… And Then We Got Mario Kart Tattoos

Mar 6 2019
Photo by
James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by
James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports
Braden Holtby
Washington Capitals
Mar 6 2019
M

ario Kart is all about the sound effects. That’s the beauty, at least for me. I mean, I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan with 900 cows, so I’m not exactly a video game connoisseur or anything. But in my humble opinion, it’s only Mario Kart if it’s the N64 version. That’s the key, because then you’ve got the controllers with the short wires, so everybody has to be hunched over right next to the TV.

And you’ve got the old-school sound effects.

With the sound effects, it’s like a spectator sport.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I guess you just have to imagine a hotel room full of grown men all huddled around a TV. It’s a couple of hours before the biggest hockey game of our lives, and everybody’s screaming out, “WHEL-COME TOO MAAAAAAR-EEO KART!!!!!!”

*BOING*

This was all Nate Schmidt’s idea, for the record. A couple seasons ago, he went to an old-school game store in Toronto and bought a used Nintendo 64. On the road, you have a lot of downtime, especially during the playoffs. So it was kind of a genius idea. But you know how these things go. First it’s like a little joke — it’s him and a few guys up in his room after the morning skate, messing around.

But then you start hearing guys chirping a bit in the locker room.

“You shoulda seen how I hit Beags with the Koopa Shell on Rainbow Road. Home stretch. Nailed him.”

I have never owned a video game system in my life, so I barely knew what they were talking about. But then, you know … you’re coming back from dinner or something, and you hear the guys yelling from behind the door of some hotel room….

“WEEEEE-HEEEEEE! Boom! You’re done! You’re done!

So I got a little curious. Next thing you know, by the playoffs, we had about half the team up in a hotel suite watching every race.

You can imagine how the whole thing escalated. We’re hockey players. So any excuse to be competitive, right? You had guys who were dedicated to being the greatest Mario Kart racers in the world, and you had guys who were dedicated to being the best Mario Kart color commentators in the world.

“He’s got the banana peel! Luigi’s got the banana peel! This is trouble for Oshie! MAMA-MIAAAAAAAA!”

It was pure comedy.

I think part of it was the fact that there’s so much pressure and stress during a playoff run. You’re away from your family for such long stretches. Guys just needed to have that feeling of freedom and fun, kind of like when you’re at a tournament with your buddies growing up.

We tried to create that atmosphere during last year’s playoff run. Everybody counted us out, so it was almost like we thought, Why not?

Actually, we didn’t try to create anything. We didn’t have to. It just happened.

And then I’ll never forget, we’re sitting around one day before the finals, and somebody … I think it was Oshie who started it, was like….

You had guys who were dedicated to being the greatest Mario Kart racers in the world.

“If we win, I’m doing it. I swear. I’m getting him inked on me.”

Then someone’s like, “You won’t do it. Come on.”

And Oshie’s like, “Oh, I’m doing it.”

“You won’t.”

“Oh, I will. If we win the Cup … I’m getting a Wario tattoo.”


When I was growing up, I thought NHL players were almost not human. To me, Patrick Roy was like a superhero or something. I had no concept that he went home and ate dinner and went to sleep. He was Patrick Roy, you know?

To say that I was obsessed with sports is probably an understatement.

Part of that was because I grew up in the middle of nowhere.

My dad ran the family farm. Before that, it had been my grandpa’s farm. And before that, it was my great-grandpa’s farm. Anyone within 10 miles was considered our “neighbor.”

Cattle and grain.

About 900 cattle, and a whole lot of grain. Infinite grain.

It’s so flat there. You can’t imagine how flat, unless you’re from there. Where we are, there aren’t even really trees.

My dad used to get so mad at me, because I was supposed to help him herd the cows at the end of the day. That was my little job on the farm. We would stand on opposite sides of the field and make sure there weren’t any stragglers. But he used to make the cattle prods by cutting off the end of old hockey sticks, so that was like the perfect baseball bat for me. I’d be on my side of the field throwing rocks in the air and pretending I was crushing home runs for the Blue Jays, and cows would be wandering off in every direction.

Courtesy of the Holtby Family

My dad would be yelling across the field, “Braden! Bradennnnnnnnnnn!”

My head was in the clouds.

I used to stand in front of the TV at night watching the Jays, and I’d take every single swing along with the batters.

I always had to be creative, because there was no one around. There were only 15 kids in my whole class — 12 girls and 3 boys. So I got pretty good at making up my own games. I used to go down to our basement and “shoot on myself.” Hockey stick in my right hand. Goalie glove on my left. I’d fire the ball off the wall one-handed and practice saving the rebound.

Roy with the glove save … unbelievable!

That kind of thing.

I probably saved 10 million shots off that wall as Patrick Roy. Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, everything on the line. In our little unfinished basement in the middle of nowhere.

For some reason, I always believed I was going to play goalie in the NHL. Like, really believed. You couldn’t tell me any different. And it made no sense, really. My dad didn’t even want me to play in net. He had been a goalie growing up, so he knew what a thankless position it can be. He always tried to convince me to play forward. But my minor hockey team was made of up of basically any kid who could conceivably stand up on skates in a 40-mile radius. We were so bad that I felt like if I played in net at least that’s where all the action was gonna be.

I always believed I was going to play goalie in the NHL. Like, really believed.

Man, we would get peppered.

We’d lose 12–1.

18–2.

22–4.

And Patrick Roy was my hero, right? What did Roy do when he got scored on? He went nuts. So that’s what I did. I’d be yelling at my poor teammates, I’d be smashing my stick off the crossbar, I’d be squirting water everywhere.

I’d go crazy, because that’s what I thought was cool.

But I’m getting scored on like 12 times a game, so it was just comical.

My dad was not one of those Big Hockey Dads at all. He was really stoic, really chill. But one day we came home and he said, “Braden, I’m only going to tell you this one time. You break the stick, you buy the stick. That’s it.”

So then I had to get really good at smashing the sticks without them snapping, or else it was $30 a pop.

Courtesy of the Holtby Family

Off the ice, I was a completely different person. Honestly, to this day I’ve never been in any kind of fight, not even like a verbal fight. But I was just so, so competitive when it came to sports.

As I got older, I wasn’t on anybody’s radar, to say the least. Actually, funny story — my bantam year, our team went 1–32 or something like that. We won one game the whole season, and we celebrated the victory like we won the whole league.

After the season, the team folded. That was it. So I’m 14 years old, and I’m definitely going to play in the NHL, and I don’t even have anywhere to play hockey. I ended up moving with my aunt and uncle to the Alberta side of Lloydminster so I could keep playing. Then when I was turning 16, I moved away by myself to play midget hockey in Saskatoon. And for me, it was like moving to New York City. I didn’t know anybody, and when I showed up to the first day of school, it was a disaster.

I had no idea who to talk to. I was so nervous. At lunch, I went to the cafeteria and everybody knew each other. Everybody was already sitting together, and I just kind of freaked out. I ended up spending the entire lunch hour sitting in a stall in the bathroom, just praying for it to be over.

But then a really cool thing happened. The next day I ended up making friends with this kid in my chemistry class, and he just so happened to be Indian and he was really into cricket. Coming from our little farm, I had no idea cricket even existed, but he taught me all about it. He had this way about him —where he could befriend anybody and make them feel at ease. That’s something I admire so much in people, especially in kids.

I was awkward back then. Still am, a little bit. We couldn’t have been more different, but he reached out and helped me feel comfortable, and I ended up making a bunch of great friends from there.

On the ice, it was up and down. I had so many little idiosyncrasies. When the coaches would yell for everybody to put all the pucks in the net, I wouldn’t let it happen. I used to stop every puck and then stack them all individually on top of the net.

No pucks over my line, you know? It was a whole thing in my mind. If you tried to sneak one in from the blue line while I was taking a drink, I’d lose it. My emotions were just all over the place when I was on the ice.

Then two things happened that really changed my life.

Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades

One, I made the Saskatoon Blades’ junior team. That was a huge dream of mine, because my dad had been a goalie for the Blades.

Two, I met John Stevenson, and he introduced me to a way of thinking that changed my life. John was my goalie coach with the Blades, and he also happened to be a sports psychologist. He saw how emotional I was — how up and down — and he said he thought he could help me.

At first, I was skeptical, to say the least.

I’ll never forget the first little building block that he introduced me to … it’s going to seem like such a cliché. It seemed like such a cliché to me at the time. But the more life I’ve experienced, the more that it seems really profound.

John said, “Look, when you’re in net, or when you’re anywhere, and you’re feeling stressed and anxious and your mind is racing, just repeat these words in your head….”

My emotions were just all over the place when I was on the ice. Then two things happened that really changed my life.

I have no future.

I have no past.

I’m here to make the moment last.

I’m in the here and now.

That was it.

I have no future.

I have no past.

I’m here to make the moment last.

I’m in the here and now.

It’s such a simple thing, but that was the building block that changed my whole way of thinking on the ice. And it actually changed me quite a lot as a person, too. As a goalie, especially at the NHL level, it’s such a mind game. Everybody’s athletic, everybody’s good. But handling all the pressures at home, and in the media, and in the locker room, and on the ice, and still trying to stay in the moment?

It’s hard, man. It’s really hard.

You grow up thinking that NHL players aren’t even human, but then you become one, and you’re like, Do I belong? Am I good enough? Do my teammates like me? Am I doing too much? Am I not doing enough?

It’s 99% mental.

The only thing that can exist in the world is that next shot.

When I’m playing my best, I’m barely thinking. I’m barely hearing anything. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you the songs that they play in the arena, even during warmups. I don’t even hear the crowd. Nothing. There’s no future. No past. Nothing going on at home. No save percentage. Nothing. You’re just there.

That’s why I try to never even show any emotion on my face, good or bad. People probably think … well, I don’t know what people think about me. But when I step onto the ice, I’m in a different place.

Whether I stop the puck or it goes in, I do the same thing afterward. I squirt the water bottle and I follow one drop all the way down to the ice. It’s just a little ritual to keep me focused. We’re just here, trying to stop the next puck, you know?

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Of course, I still pick up on the negativity and the stress at times. But I think if there’s one lesson that you can take away from the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, it’s that you have to accept that so much of hockey is out of your control.

We’re champions now, right? We broke the curse. We brought a Cup to D.C. We changed the whole narrative.

But go back to the first round against Columbus. We’re down 0–2 in the series. Game 3 goes to double overtime. There’s a shot from the point. Goes through bodies. I don’t see it.

It hits the knob of my stick.

Deflects wide.

If that shot is an inch to the left or right, we’re done. Down 0–3. No chance. We’re failures again. We can’t win the big one. Same old story.

But it hits my knob.

I didn’t do anything different than I normally do. It just happened to hit my knob. So then what happens? We go down and score. We fight back and win the series.

There’s so much you can’t control in this game, and I think the best thing you can do is try to be free out there.

There’s a story from those playoffs that perfectly captures that spirit. I think it all started right before the Pittsburgh series. One day, my wife is in the kitchen, and sees something laying in the grass in our backyard. She goes out to investigate, and she comes back inside and says, “We got a little present thrown over the fence.”

She’s holding these ziplock bags, and inside the bags there’s these little notes. You could tell from the handwriting that the kids who made them were maybe seven or eight years old. Big red marker. All Caps.

They said like, COME ON HOLTS!!!! YOU GOT THIS!!!! GO CAPS!!!!

A couple of games later, my wife is in the kitchen again, and she sees more bags come flying over the fence. I guess these kids had their little mission, and at that point it was like their superstition. They had to deliver my game-day motivation.

Everybody in D.C. was doing their part, right?

This time they said something like …

GO HOLTBEAST!!!! WIN THE STANLEY CUP!!!!! HOLTS #1 #1 #1

I was pumped. Not gonna lie.

Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire/AP ImagesSeriously though, those moments do really remind you that it’s not just a business. You used to be that little kid, right? At least I was. That’s why you started playing the game in the first place — to feel that joy, to feel that freedom.

The interesting thing about that Pittsburgh series is that … honestly? I think we probably played better against them in the playoffs the year before. But for whatever reason, we got the little breaks this time.

Game 6 in overtime, they ring one off the post. Three minutes later, we get a breakaway and Kuzy goes down and buries it to win the series. Honestly, the emotion that I felt when that shot went in was probably even more overwhelming than the emotion I felt when we won the Cup. I’ll never forget the feeling I had skating down the ice to get to Kuzy, knowing that we’d beaten them. It was just pure euphoria.

People make a big deal about the hatred and the rivalry with Pittsburgh. But the reason why it was such an incredible feeling was because of how much we respected them as a team. I really mean that. That whole run, we were just playing free. We weren’t sitting around the hotel before the game feeling anxious and reading Twitter. We were literally sitting around the TV playing Mario Kart, acting like kids again.

I don’t know if it was fate, or what it was, but I think it was kind of fitting that I got to play against two guys who mean a lot to me in the finals.

One was Nate Schmidt, the guy who’d brought our whole team together with the N64, and who was just an unbelievable teammate and friend. When he got taken by Vegas in the expansion draft, it was kind of tough for me, personally. As a goalie, you’re a bit isolated from the team. That’s just the nature of the position. So when you lose a friend like that, it’s a bit different. To see him again in the Stanley Cup finals was just … perfect.

The other guy was Marc-André Fleury. It’s kind of funny, but growing up, I ended up transitioning my favorite goalie from Roy to Fleury as I got a little older. When I was 14, and on my way to my incredible one-win season, Fleury was stealing the show for Team Canada at the World Juniors. At the time, the Quebec style with the huge pads and the blocking technique was taking over. I always hated that style. Then Fleury comes along with all this energy and athleticism, and he’s flying from post to post, and I just loved it. He became my new idol. So I never thought we’d fast-forward 10 years and I’d be seeing him in the playoffs all the time.

I have to admit, every time I saw him in the handshake line, I felt like I was still a kid.

So for him to be the guy lining up in the other crease for the Stanley Cup finals? That was just unbelievable. When you’re playing against someone like that, it’s not a hatred that fuels you. When they make an incredible save, in your mind, you’re like, “O.K., my turn. Let’s put on a show.”

People ask me a lot about “the save” in Game 2. And for a while, I didn’t really know how to answer. Because you’re not supposed to be in that position in the first place. You never want to be in that position, where you’re making a save in desperation. When I reached out with my stick, he had to shoot it exactly where I thought he’d shoot it. There’s luck involved, for sure.

But since I’m here, and since you’ve listened to my whole story, what I’d really say about that save is this….

As soon as I gathered the puck, and I got to my feet, my adrenaline was obviously through the roof like everybody else. I mean, everybody saw Ovi’s face on the bench. If that goes in …. and they tie it … who knows?

But then I squirted my water bottle, and I followed a drop all the way to the ice, and I forgot about it. I’m not even just saying that. It was just gone. Too much hockey left.

So yeah, it was not my best save ever. No way.

But I’m sure when I look back on it, when all of this is over someday, it’ll be extremely special. Because when you’re all alone in the basement in Saskatchewan, one-handing balls off the wall, that’s the moment you’re dreaming about right?

And so dreams … well, what can I say? Dreams really can come true.


You know, everybody makes a big deal about the partying.

And to be fair, we did have ourselves a good time.

D.C. had been waiting for the Stanley Cup for 44 years. They were ready.

But I remember calling up Nisky like two days after we won, and I said, “Dude, maybe this is a weird question, but are you really, really tired? Because I’m so tired.”

And he was like, “Dude, I’m so tired. Oh my God. I can’t move. I can’t get out of bed.”

One thing about the Stanley Cup finals is that it’s such a roller coaster. And you put your body and mind through so much that when it’s all over, it’s almost like your hard drive shuts down. All I wanted to do was sleep. But then we had our little day at the ballpark at the Nationals game, and I was rejuvenated. I can’t even really explain the feeling….

There had been so much animosity and so much of a divide in D.C. the last few years, and that day it just felt like everybody in the entire city looked at one another and was like, “Man, let’s just have some fun.”

It was like a snow day away from school for the whole city.

We got down to the Georgetown Waterfront, and there were so many people everywhere. It was kind of overwhelming. So we saw this big fountain, and we just jumped in. We didn’t even think about it. We just jumped right in and started doing snow angels in the water.

Everybody was just … free.

And then the whole thing came full circle.

Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty Images

I don’t even know who said it. But they remembered. They remembered the promise, man. They were like, “We said we’d do it. We’re doing it.”

And then Oshie was like, “We’re doing it, dude. I’m getting a Wario tattoo. I’M GETTING A WARIO TATTOO! HOLTS! CALL THE TATTOO GUYS!”

So I called the tattoo guys.

(Thank you to the fine folks at Tattoo Paradise, who let us come in on short notice and also let us order a bunch of pizzas to the shop. We appreciate you.)

Some of this is blurry, but the moment that I will never forget is Jakub Vrána lying there on the table, in so much pain. Just dying. And he’s like, “Guys, somebody just hold my hand.”

And so we took turns holding his hand, like, “It’s gonna be okay, buddy. It’s gonna be over soon.”

In the end, those are the moments that you’ll always remember. That’s why you play the game. Because so much of it is a blur. Honestly, the hours after we won the Cup are a blur. There’s so much media, so many people, so many interviews. You barely process it. Even my day with the Cup was a blur. There’s just not enough time. You never really get a moment to let it all sink in.

But there are still these little moments that stick.

For me, it was taking the Stanley Cup into the big open field on our family’s farm. Same field where I used to stand on one side, while my dad stood wayyyyy over on the other side, and I was supposed to be patrolling the cows with the cut-off hockey stick as my cattle prod.

The Stanley Cup was sitting there, in our field, way up in the middle of nowhere.

Just sitting there on the Holtby’s farm in Marshall, Saskatchewan.

The Stanley Cup, for real.

Braden Holtby
Washington Capitals