Troy Brouwer knows Braden Holtby thrives amid distractions. Game 7 against the New York Rangers isn’t a concern.
“I think he’s proven himself. He’s able to shrug off these big distractions,” Brouwer said. “He’s been able to put those things aside, and he’s been able to play real well on big stages.”
Yeah, but now Holtby’s a father after his fiancée, Brandi Bodnar, gave birth to son Benjamin Hunter on Thursday.
“That too,” Brouwer said.
Holtby was back thinking about hockey Friday and quick to turn focus back to the Washington Capitals’ biggest game of the season on Saturday night, the decisive game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. He even politely asked reporters to move on to hockey questions following a discussion about his life-altering event.
“It was planned so it would be the least amount of a distraction to our team as possible,” Holtby said. “It was a great day. Mom and baby are doing great. But now I’m focusing on hockey.”
Holtby has been unflappable in these playoffs, putting up a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, all along knowing his first child was on the way.
“It’s kind of been the worst kept secret and the biggest secret at the same time,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “Guys aren’t worried even though it can be a big distraction, and it is. It is a distraction, there’s no denying that and it’s a big time in his life and I’m sure it will always be memorable and now even more so.”
Holtby is the fourth Caps player to become a first-time father this season, joining Matt Hendricks, Jeff Halpern and Keith Aucoin.
For Hendricks, the biggest challenge was spending the night in the hospital and jumping on a train to join his teammates for a game at the New Jersey Devils.
“It’s obviously a very important time for him and a great time,” Hendricks said. “You just got to put it behind you now and focus on the game, on hockey. It’s hard to do.”
The consensus was that going to New York on Friday night helps, allowing Holtby to get a full night’s sleep and prepare mentally for Game 7. The 22-year-old admitted he was more nervous about Brandi giving birth than he was about a winner-take-all, season-on-the-line hockey game.
“It’s a busy time in his life, but Braden’s done a great job handling it, keeping his composure,” forward Brooks Laich said, “and he’s played very, very well for us.”
Karl Alzner said players flooded Holtby’s phone with congratulatory text messages, and Laich shook his hand to wish him the best Friday morning. No one was surprised that Holtby handled these few days with such poise.
“The guy’s got enough pressure on him already that he has something like this to deal with this too. He seems to be great. Everything went fine, and we’re all so pumped up for him,” Alzner said. “It is an exciting time for him, and we hope to make it exciting for a little while longer.”
The excitement of having a child just started for Holtby, and that could be a positive on the ice as well as in his life at home.
“You know it’s a big moment for him, but I think it’s going to give him more motivation,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I think right now he’s probably the happiest guy in the world. The way he’s playing, what happens in his personal life it’s great and we’re going to help him and we’re going to support him.”
Aucoin, who became a dad at age 33 on Feb. 29 when his wife, Maureen, gave birth to Brayden Michael remarked that he wouldn’t have been prepared for this at 22.
“He’s a mature kid, and for his age he’s really mature and he’ll be a great father,” Aucoin said.
The intangible benefits of being a father might help Holtby’s maturity, which is already beyond his years. Handling a quick rise to fame is hard, but raising a child is on a different level.
“It’s fun. I had a kid. I played my best hockey after I had my kid. I think it maybe relaxes him even more,” forward Jason Chimera said. “I think it’s one of those things that just puts a whole lot of things into perspective and hockey’s not the be-all, end-all. I think it’s a good thing. When I had my kids I think I started playing better as a person and better as a hockey player. So I think it goes hand-in-hand.”
Then again Holtby on Friday didn’t want to get too introspective about the whole situation. Singularly focused, his mind is already on Madison Square Garden, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and the Rangers.
“It’s still the same game. It’s still hockey,” he said. “The main thing you learn when you turn professional is to separate personal life from hockey, and that’s what we’re going to do here.”
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at email@example.com.
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