Mitch Korn is entering his second season as the Washington Capitals’ goaltending coach. Well-known for his unique training methods, Korn guided Braden Holtby to a number of career bests last season, including 41 wins, nine shutouts, 73 games played, a 2.22 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. Korn recently spoke to The Washington Times about Holtby, how he comes up with his drills and his start in hockey.
Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in Braden Holtby coming into this year after everything he accomplished last year?
A: I don’t think there’s any real change. We asked him not to change so much in the way he played. The fear — if there’s fear — is when you come off a season like that, the fear is, first, you take your foot off the gas. You feel, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got it now, it’s easy,’ yada yada. When you are fortunate enough to get a lucrative contract — a lengthy, lucrative contract — human nature is to take your foot off the gas. I don’t think either of those things seem to be in Braden’s DNA, which is good, and my job is to try the best I can that, if I see it, to try to arrest it. So, we’re just preparing for the season in a way better place, I think, than we prepared for the season last year.
Q: Did you know that he had last year in him?
A: I knew he was extremely talented. I knew he was very cerebral. I knew that he understood himself exceptionally well. I often say that playing goal is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and Braden had a lot of those 1,000 pieces, but I’m not sure he had all those pieces together making the puzzle. I think the pieces were separated. They were spread out on the table, and part of my job was to help him put those pieces together and his job is to put them together and for them to fit and to make sense so your game has order. I think his game developed a lot of order last season. We hope — and I’m pretty confident — that it should continue.
Q: I know your initial impressions of him weren’t too positive. What, exactly, were they?
A: I don’t remember exactly what I said [to him], but it took some time. This is a game of results, and there are some unbelievably talented players that don’t produce results. It doesn’t matter how much skill, how mentally tough, how wonderful of a person you are, yada yada — it’s a game of results. You know, in the early part, we may not have gotten the kind of results. The early practices, we may not have gotten the kind of results that ultimately we’re seeing [now]. There weren’t very many goals that went in on him [in practice], and that’s with [Alex Ovechkin] hammering the puck and guys doing what they do.
Q: At one point over the summer, in a radio appearance, you said something along the lines of, originally, “He’d rather catch a puck than stop it.” That seems like that’s an insult to a goalie.
A: No, no. What I said was that he would rather actually handle the puck than stop it.
Q: That still seems pretty insulting.
A: Well, I went to him. I said that to him at one point. I said to him, “To me, it seems like you love handling the puck way more than getting hit by it.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, unfortunately, we’re paying you to get hit by it.” [Laughs] But, I get it. When I got here, practices were such that goalies got hammered, and Ovi shoots as hard as anybody, and you have to face him every day, and so, I think, some habits were developed, some defense mechanisms, to protect yourself. But, I think, that began to evolve and change. The guys started to gain respect. The coaching staff did a good job with practices themselves, just in flow or just in scrimmage. They wouldn’t do what they did before. There was order and purpose, and practice is what it should be for a goalie right now.
Q: When Jaroslav Halak was here that half a year, he always said, “Shoot it as hard as possible. I want game conditions.” Some of the guys thought, “That’s kind of weird. Why would a goalie want that in practice?”
A: Well, when we’re warming up, and we’re doing that first drill, I agree with that. But, I will put an addendum to it — I want you to shoot hard from far. I don’t want you to shoot hard from 10 feet away, but I don’t want you to get within 10 feet and throw a creampuff, because a creampuff is not game conditions and shooting hard from 10 feet out is not a good warm-up. I want to see the puck. I want to feel the puck. I want it realistic. I want you to shoot hard. Try not to hit me in the head. But, from farther away, so I can practice and warm up my eyes and track the puck and do it at normal speed and not — I don’t want any creampuffs. I think that’s what [Halak] meant. That’s what I tell the guys.
Q: Your methods have been well-documented. Where do you come up with your ideas?
A: Well, first off, so many of these things, I’ve been doing them for 20 years or more, OK? But, in Buffalo when I did some of these things — I mean, I’ve been doing them in goalie camps for 30 years, OK? But, in Buffalo, when I started, there’s no social media, and Nashville is a small market. There were a couple articles, but nobody really picked up on it. Here, it’s been a big market and it got legs. Some of these things got legs.
Q: Is it maybe, too, because you’re the first dedicated goalie coach for the Capitals in a few years?
A: Well, Dave Prior, I think did a magnificent job. Dave’s different from me, but we believe in a lot of the same things. Dave was Braden’s first goalie coach here, and he did a great job laying the groundwork, and certainly, Olie [Kolzig] contributed. But, my ways are maybe a little different from those guys in terms of some of the things that we do. It is pretty cool.
Three years ago, I started this medicine ball thing. It’s pretty cool — like, you write for a living. Could you imagine if you wrote something that changed your entire industry, and now, the entire industry does what you just did? That’s pretty cool. Now, guys are training with med balls and doing this all over all summer in goalie camps, and pro guys — so, that part of it is pretty cool.
But, I’m kind of creative by nature. I think outside the box maybe because having not played in the league gives me a different perspective, I think. I do camps all summer long, and all those camps, I work with lots of young guys that we have great conversations about what-ifs — “What about this and what about that?” You get these fresh perspectives that are outside this environment and, you know, it’s easy to get smothered in the NHL and get so locked into that. You’ve got to get out in order to see what might be happening, other than in our little ivory tower up here.
So, there’s a lot of cool things that come from that, and I’m always trying to come up with new cool things to do for camp, and that’s just the marketing, innovative part of me. The guys I work with, they’re all doing the same things, so I think that’s where some of these things came from. In camp, though, I haven’t used it with these guys — we have an on-ice mirror. We have these lighted cones which, we now have an upgraded version that we use with the Caps. There’s a lot of cool stuff we do.
Q: Where did you get the medicine ball idea?
A: [It’s designed for] core strength, arm control. It started in Nashville. I signed — or we signed — a guy named Carter Hutton, who’s still the backup goalie. Carter had one NHL game under his belt, and Pekka Rinne was coming off hip surgery. There weren’t a lot of options that year. We chose not to go after the 38-year-old veteran goalie to back up, so guys come in early like they always do, and I’m watching Huts, and I’m going, “Oh, my goodness.” Then, Shea Weber grabs me one day and goes, “Are you kidding me?” Nobody knew Huts. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good. I said to myself, “Uh-oh.”
I stuck my neck out, and I stuck my neck out for a lot of guys — Scott Darling, Huts, there are others — and, “I’ve got to fix this. How can I fix this?” And, in my head, I’m saying, “OK, here are the things I need to get under control. I need to tighten him up.” His arms — he loads to go to his right, and his arms go to his left, and his stick’s all over and he’s just sloppy.
At first, I thought he was just out of shape, because he took shots off and he couldn’t sustain what guys are doing. So, I got him on the bike extra with our strength coach and whatever. Didn’t fix it. So, I remember reading that when [Antti] Niemi was rehabbing from hip surgery, he used to take one of the weight plates that you put on the bench bar — he’d take the weight plate out and hold it and do some core work on the ice. So, I remember reading that. It’s in the back of my mind, and so that’s the first lightbulb that went off. But, I didn’t like the weight plate. I didn’t like that idea. If you don’t have the rubber weight plates, you’re going to chip the ice and it’s not going to be good. So, honest to goodness, I wake up in the middle of the night in Nashville and was like, “Med ball!” The lightbulb just went off.
The next day, I went in and [said] something to the effect of, “We’re going on early,” or whatever, and I said, “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” but I experimented. We started with just movement, and the thing started to take off and just grow. Then, as the year went on, we started to actually shoot pucks and make saves. That’s what we did [in practice] here, to tighten up the five-hole and work on balance and body control and not using your arms. That’s how it started.
It’s, for me, evolved so much in the three years that I’ve done it. If you ask Braden, he may not like it — nobody likes it — but he knows that it helps and it works. When we’re done with it, he feels great because he learned, “Wow, I can control my body, and I don’t need my arms like an airplane needs wings to control myself.”
Q: You were born in The Bronx. Were you raised in The Bronx?
A: Until I was 7 years old. Right near Yankee Stadium, on Jessup Avenue. At 7, we moved Jersey, a little town called Dumont, New Jersey. I grew up, I shared a room with my sister and grandmother. We didn’t have much. My dad was a bagel-maker. Made bagels.
Q: So you’re probably really picky then when it comes to bagels.
A: Well, when you grew up in New York, the New York metropolitan area, you can’t get bagels like that anywhere on the planet. It’s the water. They say it’s the water. But, you know, these were all hand-rolled. Most of the bagels you get now are machine-rolled, and I don’t know a lot about it, but I know that they were good.
Q: What was your dad’s name?
A: Eli. Eli’s gone now, but in the latter years, like, on the weekends, he’d work at the bagel place, and he had another job in the food industry, and in the latter years, in Jersey, before they moved to Florida to retire … friends of his, this guy he used to work for, Artie, who’s no longer around, but his son owns all these bagel stores — my dad did the sweat equity, and Artie’s son did the capital, and they built one in our town, in Dumont, and my dad ran it, owned it, and then when they retired, they were so good to my mom and dad that they paid them for like 15 years for his sweat equity in getting that shop going.
Q: How’d you get into hockey?
A: Well, my first vivid memory is every Sunday afternoon, we’d have an early dinner because my dad and his buddies would go down to the old Madison Square Garden. The New York Rovers, in the EHL, played in the afternoon, and the Rangers played at night, and every Sunday — back then, Sunday was the home date. Sunday, Wednesday, Rangers home dates. So, I was into hockey, and then we played street hockey when I moved to Jersey. The street we lived on, Marion Avenue, never got plowed, and then the cars would pack it down. We didn’t skate on it, but we would slide, and so I don’t know why I wanted to be a goalie, but I wanted to be a goalie.
Q: Last year, Dominik Hasek thanked two people at his Hall of Fame speech. You were one of them. What does that mean?
A: It wasn’t actually at the [induction]. He mentioned me and others in the Hall of Fame speech, but in the press conference after being [inducted], he mentioned two — myself and John Muckler. It’s cool. Of course it is. Yeah. I’ve said this a lot to people — having never played in the league, the guys that played in the league who go on to coach can never appreciate what it’s like to do what I do having never played in the league and never even playing in a level that came close to the league. It was really cool. It was cool to go to the Hall of Fame ceremony, to be part of that. There was a Sabres reunion at that party on Sunday night. It was awesome.
Q: Do you ever think about your role in all of that, and what that means for the Hall of Fame?
A: At the end of the day, I’m just happy that if I made a positive contribution that helped Dominik Hasek — this is a game of people. It’s not a game of shots. It’s not a game of pucks. It’s not a game of sticks. This is a game of people, and my job is to ensure that everybody I work with is better when they leave than when they got there and to make a positive influence. As a goalie, when you’re playing the game, you want to have a great influence on the game. You hope it’s positive, right? You don’t want to have a negative influence on the game. [Laughs] But, you want to be the guy. Goalies like winning, 4-1, and giving up, having 14 shots, but you like way more winning, 2-1, and stopping 38. Just because you’re a goalie coach doesn’t mean you don’t have the same desire to have a positive impact on the game or on those who are playing, and it’s the same burning desire you have when you’re a player.