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Hockey Diaries: Alone in Front

September 13, 2016
In Episode One, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby explains how he got his start in hockey, and reflects on some of his rookie milestones. His diary takes us back to all the emotion of his first-ever NHL start.  Goaltending coach Mitch Korn remembers the first time he met Holtby, and tells us his approach to building strong coaching relationships with his goalies.  We follow Korn and Holtby onto the ice as they work through training camp at the start of the 2015-16 season.  Download Episode 1:




In Episode Two, as the 2015-16 season gets underway, we go deep into the goaltending crease with Braden Holtby and Mitch Korn to understand practice drills and warm-ups.  Korn talks us through all the ways in which he prepares his goaltenders before each game.  Holtby takes us through his special pre-game preparations.  And we hear first-hand what it's like for head coach Barry Trotz, goaltending coach Mitch Korn and goalie Braden Holtby when a goaltending change is made mid-game.  Download Episode 2:




In Episode Three, as the team leads the league standings and builds towards the playoffs, we go behind the scenes with Mitch Korn and Braden Holtby to hear first-hand how they stay focused under pressure.  We bring you the story of the Washington Capitals' journey through the Stanley Cup playoffs, from the ice to the locker room to the coaches office.  And when the season is over, Korn and Holtby reflect back then look ahead to what comes next for them both.  Download Episode 3:



Producers Chris Nelson and Gemma Hooley discuss the time they spent with Braden Holtby and goalie coach Mitch Korn, which culminated in the latest installment of their "Hockey Diaries" audio documentary series.

For our fans who might not be sure what the Hockey Diaries are, how did you start this series? Who were some of the most memorable subjects?


  Gemma:  We both have backgrounds in long-form audio production, and we’re both big fans of the sport.  Back in 2008 when we started Hockey Diaries, it just struck us that in addition to all the great coverage already out there, there might be some room for a sound-rich, first-person narrative approach to telling the stories behind the sport of hockey.  Our idea was to ask two players to keep audio diaries for the entire season, while we recorded all the practices and games and events around them.  At the end of the season, we’d pull it all together into an audio documentary that would give fans a unique glimpse into this world, while also giving non-fans a new understanding of what it takes to make it in the NHL.  (Remember, this was before social media really “blew up,” when the lines between professional athletes and fans were much less blurred than they are today.)

  Chris:  So we just approached the PR staff of the Washington Capitals – our hometown team -- with this idea, and asked them to trust us to try it.  And we were so lucky that they immediately “got” what we wanted to try and do, and said yes.  They helped us identify our first two diary keepers – Karl Alzner and Brooks Laich.  We knew we wanted one rookie and one veteran, to give listeners both ends of the scale of experience.  Once we’d explained to Karl and Brooks what we were trying to do, they were game to help us try and make it work.  We told them that we were looking for “in between” moments rather than big headlines, that this would be completely unscripted, and that we’d just gather as much tape as possible and then sit down at the end of the season to see how we could piece it together into a story.  We spent a lot of time driving back and forth from DC to Hershey on weekends that year, following Karl’s rookie year trajectory.  We enjoyed every minute of it.

  Gemma: All our diary keepers and main characters since 2008 have been memorable in different ways.  For example, Matt Hendricks for his character, and his physical commitment. Karl Alzner for his patience, quiet confidence, and sense of humor.  Mike Knuble for his coolness and wisdom. Tyler Sloan for his frankness and his honesty. The list goes on.  

What inspired you to turn the focus to Braden Holtby? How much time did you spend with him?

  Chris:  We were extremely fortunate that Braden agreed, in his rookie year, to keep a diary for us.  We were intrigued with what we could learn from a goaltender, for a different view of the sport.  So we spent quite a bit of time in Hershey with him too, as we’d done with Alzner the prior season.  We have lots of memories of nights outside Giant arena in Hershey where, sometimes an hour after the game had ended, in the middle of the night, Braden would emerge from the players entrance to a parking-lot full of Hershey fans still patiently waiting in the dark for his autograph.  He was gracious to us with his time and thoughts for our project, and he has been ever since.  Over the past five seasons, I think maybe he’s just gotten used to us being around in the locker room after practices and games. 

Holts is notoriously disciplined in his routines and workouts. Were there any challenges to gaining access and working through logistics?

  Gemma:   We try to be as u nobtrusive as possible in our approach.  It’s just a reality of pro sports that there are going to be many situations that reporters and producers might not have access to.  We get that.  We’re always hungry for good tape, because that’s what makes a story come alive.  But our philosophy is to make the most of what we’re able to get, to be bold in what we ask for, to focus on in-between moments to help tell the story, to talk to people who can bring different angles to a situation, and then to use sound and writing to pull it all together.  

What makes Holtby a compelling subject? 

Chris: For us as producers, I’d say it’s his intensity, his commitment, his determination, his quiet self-confidence, his sense of humor, his consistency, and the depth of his ideas and perspectives when you find the right moment to ask him a question about something like solitude, or self-talk, for example.  His composure under pressure. The first time we ever spoke to him, he was reading a book at training camp called “Mind Gym.”  As Mitch Korn says in Episode 1, Braden is cerebral and knows himself as well as anyone he’s ever worked with.  We also anticipated that Braden would have a big season last year, but little did we know just how big it was going to be.

What was your favorite story line throughout the project? 

  Gemma:  Looking back, I think overall that the thing this year’s project benefited from the most was Mitch Korn’s embracing of the idea, and his commitment to trying to tell as full and as thoughtful a story as possible.  The time he spent with us after every home game, reviewing the goaltender’s performance, was for us like going to Goaltending School.  Those conversations also contained a lot of emotion – usually laughter, but sometimes also frustration or exhaustion – that helped build a spine that ran throughout the documentary.   There are so many Mitch Korn stories that didn’t even make it in – we’ll share some of those during the upcoming season. 

  Chris:  I think our favorite moment with Mitch was the night we spent with him in his office at Kettler, watching him juggle a Caps game on TV, a Hershey game via stream, a steady torrent of incoming texts, some of the marketing work for his upcoming goalie camps, and his expense reports.  All while eating (as we say in the documentary) a tuna hoagie for dinner.  There was just so much going on, and he was 100% on top of it all.  We learned so much from Mitch over the course of this project.  He shared a tremendous amount about his preparation and his use of video to prepare the team each day, and I think listeners will really appreciate that insight.

What was the most unexpected thing you learned about some of the Caps throughout the project?

Gemma:  I think overall, looking back over the years, I just am so struck by their internal drive to win, and everything that plays into that.  I just really didn’t understand, until we started this project, what it takes physically and mentally to compete at this level.

Chris:  I think Mitch did a tremendous job in helping us appreciate just how difficult it is to be a goalie in the NHL. He shed light on the emotional drain and mental fortitude required to be successful.  He also gave us some great analogies, many of which are in the piece, that really help articulate just how hard it is to stop a 100 mph slap shot, with traffic in front of the net. My favorite is:  “It would be like a baseball player trying to hit a pitch with guys running in front across the pitch, and then getting bumped while you are swinging the bat.”

He stands out for his amazing combination of hockey knowledge, recall, humor, discipline and passion. All these elements were on display in every interaction we had with him, however tired he was.  And however sick of us he was!  We really wanted to capture what it was like to know Mitch Korn, and I think the end result shows the balance of wisdom, intensity, and humor that the players see every day.

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