ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby was on his way to the practice facility Wednesday morning when he heard the news that Gord Downie, frontman and lyricist for The Tragically Hip, died Tuesday of brain cancer at age 53.
Like many Canadians, Holtby, a Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native, grew up listening to Downie's music. The 28-year-old experienced what he called, "one of the highlights of my life so far," when he met Downie at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
"When you look back at it, it's pretty amazing what he was able to do after he got diagnosed and the amount of courage he showed to go through that was amazing," Holtby said Thursday. "He was a great human and [Wednesday] was just a reminder. I went back and watched a couple of interviews of his and listened to some songs and I really appreciate what he brought to the world."
Inspired by Downie's music and his brave battle with cancer, Holtby's Team Canada mask for the World Cup featured a collage of images of Downie and The Tragically Hip. As Team Canada's No. 3 goalie, Holtby didn't get to play in the tournament, but his mask was auctioned off afterward and raised $21,650 (U.S) for the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research and the Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation, which is dedicated to preservation and education about the mistreatment of Indigenous children and families by the country's abolished First Nations Residential School program.
"It was trying to make a good thing out of a bad thing," Holtby said of the mask auction. "He was doing amazing work. His foundation will continue to do that moving forward. His work touched home with me as well, especially the First Nation stuff. That's right where I grew up [in Saskatchewan], dealing with those same issues, and he put an understanding on it with the words he used to describe everything."
Holtby said he texted with Downie a couple times after he met him in Toronto, but didn't want to intrude beyond that.
"It was amazing just to be able to talk to him for a couple periods of a hockey game," the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner said. "I didn't want to ruin that."
That Downie touched the lives of many Canadians was evident with tributes across the country Wednesday. The Toronto Maple Leafs honored him before their game against the Detroit Red Wings and lowered Bill Bariko's banner from the Air Canada Centre rafters. Barilko, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime in 1951 for the Maple Leafs, was the subject of The Hip's 1992 song "Fifty-Mission Cap."
"[Downie] was the exact example of what we think Canadians should be," Holtby said. "He fought for the right things. He was very gentle, very kind, treated everyone the same. You could just tell that. You look at him from the start of his career to the end and he cared a lot about people and he cared a lot about them in his music and he wanted to get messages across and create a better good."
Holtby's love of music was nourished from a young age by his mother, Tami, the lead singer in a Saskatchewan-based country band. He learned to play guitar during his junior career with Saskatoon in the Western Hockey League.
His appreciation for The Tragically Hip and Downie's music also grew during that time. He said, "New Orleans is Sinking," is his favorite Tragically Hip song.
One of Holtby's regrets is that he never got to see the band or Downie as a solo artist perform live. He'd hoped to see The Hip during its final tour in the summer of 2016, but the timing didn't work out because of his preparation for the World Cup.
"That's one of the downfalls of playing hockey," Holtby said. "You're always on the road when they're in town."
Holtby keeps a guitar at the Capitals practice facility that he sometimes plays to relax. His repertoire includes a few of Downie's songs, but he admitted many are above his proficiency.
"His voice is so hard to sing," Holtby said. "A lot of the notes he hits and a lot of keys he plays in you've got to be real talented to play that music. Another thing with his music is the band has a lot to do with it. The feel of the song, the emotion of the song comes a lot through the band and the way they connect with each other, with Gord, and the music being played. So it's a little hard to play on an acoustic guitar.
"There's a couple songs like 'Fiddler's Green' and 'Wheat Kings' that you can play acoustically, but other than that you kind of need the band to get the full feel."