As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
30 October 2019: An ace pitched on guts and guile, a cagey veteran launched a home run off the foul pole, an unheralded mid-season acquisition closed out the game and Max Scherzer, Howie Kendrick, Daniel Hudson and the Washington Nationals won the World Series. It seems like yesterday in some respects, years ago in others. Either way, it is an heirloom from a different reality.
Every New Year’s Eve, my family does a year in review (much to my children’s chagrin). We talk about our trips, accomplishments, experiences and obstacles overcome. The tone and topics will be quite different this year. The list will include many things that didn’t happen – vacations, school plays, band concerts and sporting events; those that did – wildfires, George Floyd’s murder, nationwide protests and the local Isaias floods – will be difficult to revisit.
Certainly nothing has been normal in the world of sports. The year has been marked by long pauses in play, bubble cities, abbreviated regular seasons, rescheduled games and weekly COVID outbreaks. Our World Champion Nats didn’t get to take a final bow in front of a packed house at Nationals Park. With all the fits and starts, empty stadiums, cardboard cut-outs, injuries and opt-outs, the Nats’ 2020 season, which was supposed to be their victory lap, doesn’t feel like it happened at all.
Then COVID took another shot at D.C. sports. It was easy to miss amidst the chaos of life, election madness and a historically packed sports calendar – former Capitals goalie Braden Holtby signed a two-year, $8.6M free agent deal with the Vancouver Canucks.
“Former Capitals goalie” - that was hard to type.
There are two sports photos gracing the walls in my man-loft. Together they capture the biggest single plays in D.C. pro sports history (or at least in my lifetime). The first is a painting of John Riggins’s famous 4th down run in Super Bowl XVII. The second is Holtby’s improbable…impossible before he did it…late third period save against Alex Tuch of the Vegas Golden Knights to preserve a one-goal lead and ultimately secure a Game 2 win in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Caps, on the verge of being down 0-2 before Holtby’s save, went on to win four consecutive games and hoist the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
I attended a Caps game several years ago and the give-away was a “Holtbeast” figurine, a Teen Wolf-ish version of Holtby. It was a goofy promo, but Holtby deserved the overdue plug. On a team where Alexander Ovechkin understandably dominates the headlines, Holtby, who quietly manned the pipes for the Caps for a decade, and did tireless charity work for the LGBTQ community, was an underappreciated star.
Now just over two years after winning the Stanley Cup, salary cap constraints and a talented understudy – G Ilya Samsonov – have ended Holtby’s incredible run in Washington. Unfortunately, the curtain fell on Holtby’s decorated Capitals career in a Toronto bubble, in front of no fans and with a team that had lost its way under now former head coach Todd Reirden. Holtby deserved so much more.
The last few months have been a humbling journey. There is so much that I assumed would remain static or predictable components of life’s tempo – flawed pre-COVID thinking…suspect I’m in good company. I did not give Holtby’s decade of steadiness, reliability, decency and character its due. Now he’s Vancouver’s prize.
One day, post-COVID (that world exists, right?), the Holtbeast will return to a standing ovation at Capital One Arena. The adulations won’t come when or how they should have. But what else has happened on-plan with the naïve, no-globetrotting-pathogen schedule spun in our minds these days?
When we emerge from this fog, I suspect that the present will be appreciated for its fragility and that the future will be assumed wrought with variables. If that means players like Holtby, and once routine events like attending hockey games with 20,000 “friends” are celebrated with a bit more enthusiasm, then something good will have been salvaged from this sordid chapter in history.
What will remain a sour memory is Holtby’s departure - and the Holtbeast figurine offers little consolation.