ColoradoAvalanche.com profiles the players named to the Avalanche's 20th Anniversary Team.
Known as one of the best Latvian hockey players in the NHL’s history, Sandis Ozolinsh had a long, successful 15-season career in the league.
It’s been six years since the elite-level defenseman has been in a burgundy and blue sweater, but Ozolinsh will don the Colorado Avalanche crest again on Feb. 26 as the member of the Avalanche’s 20th Anniversary Team—a roster honoring the top 20 players from the past 20 years as voted on by the fans—takes the ice for the Stadium Series Alumni Game at Coors Field.
The Riga, Latvia, native skated in 875 regular-season games, collecting 564 points (167 goals and 397 assists) through 15 campaigns. He made 137 playoff appearances, picking up 90 more points (23 goals and 67 assists) in Stanley Cup runs with the Avalanche, San Jose Sharks, Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers.
Ozolinsh’s list of accomplishments is quite long, as he suited up in seven All-Star Games (1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003) and was named to the First All-Star Team in his second season with the Avs (1997) after setting a single-season record for goals by a blueliner (23).
Much of his success came in his playing days with the Avalanche. Ozolinsh’s name can be found at the 18th spot on the franchise all-time scoring list and he only spent five seasons (333 games) with the organization. As a defender, he still holds the franchise record for the most regular-season markers (72) and is ranked third in both helpers (181) and points (253).
Ozolinsh has also recorded the most 50-point seasons with the Avalanche, achieving this milestone four times. Rob Blake only reached this elite status with Colorado twice, and Ray Bourque and—most recently—Tyson Barrie have hit the mark just once with the Avs.
At a press conference in March, head coach Patrick Roy compared Barrie’s play to that of Ozolinsh, specifically mentioning their ability to jump in the rush and play with an offensive mind, taking chances with the puck to create scoring opportunities.
Selected in the second round (30th overall) in the 1991 Entry Draft, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound legend was acquired from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for forward Owen Nolan. The trade was orchestrated by former Avalanche president and general manager—and fellow 20th Anniversary Team honoree—Pierre Lacroix on Oct. 26, 1995.
“After those trades, when we got (Ozolinsh), Patrick, Claude [Lemieux] and Mike Keane, I think they taught us a lot about winning,” Peter Forsberg, another 20th Team member, said of Colorado’s first championship season. “When we started winning in the middle of the year, I think everyone felt we had a chance of going a long way.”
That first season in the Mile High City was a magical one for Colorado, which captured its first Stanley Cup in 1996. Ozolinsh was responsible for 19 points (five goals and 14 assists) in 22 playoff games during that run.
Following his days in Denver, the rear guard found himself on the rosters of four more NHL teams before heading to play in the KHL for Dynamo Riga and Atlant Moscow Oblast from 2009-2014.
Named captain of the Latvian team for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the 41-year-old proudly represented his country and even carried its flag into the stadium for the Opening Ceremony.
"He's a leader. He's a great player. He's a great teammate off the ice,” Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons told Shawn Roarke of NHL.com. “He looks pretty mean on the ice, but he is a funny guy off the ice. It's amazing that I could play on that team with him because I grew up watching him. Just to get to play those couple of games with him was a big honor."
Ozolinsh also played for Latvia at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics.
“I love the game,” he said to the New York Times in 2014, discussing his return to hockey to help the Latvian team qualify for the games. “I enjoy every minute, even the bad days. It’s not just being on the ice for the game, it’s being off the ice, in the locker room, in practice. I’m really enjoying the whole process.”
Although Ozolinsh officially retired on May 27, 2014, he along with the franchise’s best—as voted by the fans—forwards (12), defenseman (6) and goaltenders (2) took the ice together at Pepsi Center to be honored during a special pregame ceremony honoring the 20th Anniversary Team on Dec. 7.
That won’t be the last time he’s on the ice with some of them, either.
Just two years removed from the game, Ozolinsh will take his spot on the blue line again in the Stadium Series Alumni Game when the Avalanche’s alumni faces the squad representing the Detroit Red Wings.